Feature

One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong

One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong

Imagine discomfort. It’s 3 a.m., and you’re sitting in the back row of a long-distance bus. The man sitting next to you scratches his whale-sized belly and giggles as he sleeps. The bathroom door keeps slamming open, and the smell of urine tinged with vomit wafts into your nostrils. 

Counterpoint

  • Derek Sandhaus:What Foreign Policy got wrong about China’s most popular drink.

Bottle that experience and you have baijiu, which literally means "white alcohol" and encompasses a variety of grain-based spirits produced mostly from sorghum and rice. Because it is China’s swill of choice, representing an ungodly 99.5 percent of the spirits consumed there, it is the world’s most widely consumed strong drink. Baijiu is a staple at Chinese state banquets, in high- and low-end restaurants across the country, and in convenience stores on the sides of dusty roads in one-chopstick towns throughout China’s vast interior. Throughout my time in China — both during my college summers in the early 2000s and while living there from 2006 to 2011 — baijiu was a constant reminder that the enjoyable part of drinking was not the taste. In Red Sorghum, an early novel by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mo Yan, workers at a distillery season baijiu with their urine. I don’t see that as a metaphor, or as social criticism, or as a plot-building device. I see that as an accurate evocation of the flavor. 

Sensing a business opportunity — due to growing curiosity over Chinese culture and the increasing number of Chinese visitors to the United States — some companies are trying to bring baijiu to the United States. Diageo, the world’s biggest spirits producer, has been pushing the high-end Chinese brand of which it is a majority owner, Shui Jing Fang ("Wellwater Workshop") to U.S. consumers over the last year. Some claim baijiu tastes "delicious, fruity and full of delicate complexity," states an article on the website of the Diageo Bar Academy, a company program that provides bartender training. The same article notes, however, that others call it "aggressive firewater" that "taste[s] of burnt tyres." (In the United States, Shui Jing Fang is almost only available for sale in the duty-free/duty-paid section of airports; a spokesperson for the company said it sees the opportunity to "deliver a truly authentic Chinese luxury product to Chinese diaspora and ‘experience seekers’" in the United States.) 

But a small group of intrepid entrepreneurs has actually begun producing baijiu and selling it to American audiences. "It’s such a brand-new concept — no one knows about baijiu in America," said Michelle Ly, president of Vinn Distillery, a small family-run business based in Oregon and reportedly the only baijiu made entirely in the United States. In his March book, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, writer Derek Sandhaus describes Vinn as featuring "touches of sticky rice and lemon curd." And there is Confucius Wisdom, a baijiu available in a few Washington, D.C., bars and one that, Sandhaus writes, "hopes to put forward the best face of Chinese culture, albeit in liquid form."

Perhaps the most ambitious baijiu to try to crack the American market is byejoe, whose advertisements urge drinkers to "awaken your inner dragon." The company’s founder and CEO, Matt Trusch, who worked in corporate finance at Merrill Lynch and spent 15 years living in Asia, said he makes the "cleanest and best baijiu" in the world. 

The company sent me its box of schwag: fortune cookies, a byejoe T-shirt, marketing materials, and two bottles decorated with an attractive Asian woman.

Byejoe’s "Dragon Fire" flavor, infused with dragon fruit, lychee, and hot chili is passable. Sandhaus calls it "pretty approachable." And it follows the popularity of flavored spirits — what industry types call the "flavorization" trend — it has already started to show up in scattered restaurants across the United States. "We are looking for authentic Asian spirits, and there’s not a whole hell of a lot available, so when byejoe became available we wanted to start offering it," said Kevin O’Rourke, the beverage manager at the upscale New York City Asian fusion restaurant Buddakan. The restaurant serves a Baijiu Longevity Cocktail — "byejoe Dragon, blood orange puree, lemon juice, bit of apricot brandy, dash of lychee liqueur" — for $15; O’Rourke calls it one of the restaurant’s better-selling cocktails. 

Byejoe’s original, or "premium," flavor, however, punishes. "Every time I drink our baijiu, I’m surprised that it’s so smooth," said Trusch. I was surprised too — but in the way that you feel surprised when banging your head against a lamppost hurts less than expected. (But don’t take my word for it; watch FP’s baijiu taste test.)

Byejoe’s strategy is to Americanize the spirit — the company emphasizes that the drink is low-calorie, gluten-free, even kosher. In its marketing materials, the company compares its brand with traditional baijiu — its bottles are "tall, sleek & ultra modern," unlike the other stuff, whose bottles are "short, Chinesey." Confucius Wisdom, on the other hand, aims to entice Americans to Chinese drinking culture mostly as is: The bottle is festooned with the Chinese sage, and it’s tag-lined "A Wise Man’s Spirit." 

On a Thursday night in early May, Sandhaus and I went to dinner with David Zhou, the Beijing-born founder of Everest Spirits, the company that produces Confucius Wisdom. Zhou, an affable man in his early 40s, suggested we meet for dinner in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, at the first local restaurant to regularly serve baijiu cocktails. I’m 30 years old, but that night I felt like a freshman in college, guzzling the inane punch put in front of me solely for its alcohol content. It certainly wasn’t for the taste. The baijito, the bai tai, and the lycheetini, were all burdened by a flavor that tasted like a mis-digested mash of pineapple and apricot.

These entrepreneurs are certainly trying to warn people that baijiu is — to put it politely — an acquired taste. As Vinn Distillery’s Ly admits, when people first smell her baijiu, "They say, ‘Ooof!’" and then they say, "Oh, that’s smooth and sweet." Ly pointed me to a January write-up of Vinn in the food magazine Bon Appétit, which said that though baijiu "happens to taste pretty terrible," Vinn is "more palatable" because it’s distilled with rice instead of sorghum. "We always say, ‘Don’t smell it!’" said Ly, "because it’ll kick you in the head." 

A recent blog post by cocktail writer Kara Newman asked, "Are Americans ready for baijiu, China’s overproof firewater?" "No, they are not," wrote Newman, "But [baijiu] is coming for them anyway." Yes, baijiu is Chinese culture. But chicken feet as a bar snack, carrying around a dusty thermos of day-old tea, or the exposed-crotch pants that so many Chinese toddlers wear when they’re potty training haven’t caught on in the United States. I can’t imagine baijiu will either.

That’s not to say all baijiu is awful. High-end Maotai, which Richard Nixon famously toasted with Mao Zedong in 1972, can sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle.

I’ve never had very expensive baijiu, but I imagine it’s drinkable. When I was in Beijing as a student in the summer of 2004, and in the years that followed, we would drink erguotou — originally made in a distillery established during the Chinese civil war in the 1940s to produce antiseptics and sterilizers for the army. Literally "two pots distilled," it is now the low-end drink of choice for Beijingers and foreign hipsters alike. It comes in a green bottle that resembles the glass you’d find buried in a landfill, and mostly in two sizes, da er (big two) and xiao er (little two). ("Two" in Beijing slang means defective or retarded; after a few drinks, much unclever punning ensued.) Midrange products to me tasted pretty much the same, only they caused a more genteel hangover. I’ve never had the really low-end baijiu. Some supermarkets sell plastic bags of the stuff, so that the poor and the masochistically suicidal can stupefy themselves for under a dollar. 

Byejoe’s Trusch told me that "it’s a big mystery why a country with 5,000 years of history, and a superpower in the 21st century, doesn’t have its representation at the mini-United Nations" — by which he means a New York City bar. He’s got a point; Americans are very internationalized in their hard-liquor tastes. In 2012, 42 percent of the spirits they drank were imported, compared with 23 percent for wine and just 13 percent for beer. Vodka, which probably originates from Eastern Europe, is the most popular spirit in the United States. There is a precedent, of sorts, for Asian beverages: Japan’s sake and South Korea’s soju, if not ubiquitous, are at least pretty easy to find in big cities across the United States. But they’re much lower proof and much less alienating. "The person who encounters sake for the first time might not love it, but it’s not as off-putting as baijiu," said O’Rourke.

For baijiu to work in the United States, that off-putting pain has to be part of the charm. Baijiu could succeed if bars and drinkers embrace its grittiness and street cred. The Shanghai cocktail bar Yuan has served a rum, baijiu, ginger ale cocktail called the "Dark and Smoggy," an updated version of the classic concoction, with a play on China’s polluted skies. Maybe that type of cocktail could build a following somewhere in the United States — perhaps among American businessmen who play host to visiting Chinese. Perhaps byejoe’s defanged Dragon Fire can find a spot for itself on bar backs across America. The best-case scenario is the thousands of American hipsters moving to and from China each year adopt a brand and pimp it to bartenders in Bushwick. 

But baijiu worked for me in China, and it was a cult drink of choice for many of the young hipster expats there, because of the drinking culture surrounding it. The suffering caused by drinking erguotou was a great bonding activity. Besides, painful obliteration in a foreign country makes for great stories. Like that time we bought several bottles of licorice-flavored baijiu served in squeeze bottles, drank it on the three-hour bus ride to an all-night rave on the Great Wall, made terrible mistakes, and then laughed about it as the sun rose the next morning.

Even when the ugliness of Beijing overwhelmed — the smog, the traffic, the dismal buildings festooned with blue bathroom tiles — the camaraderie was always fun.

Drinking baijiu without that is just unpleasant.