In Defense of Baijiu

What Foreign Policy got wrong about China's most popular drink.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

As anyone who has tasted sea cucumbers or smelled stinky tofu (the dish’s real name) can attest, Chinese cuisine at times promotes flavors that can be lost in translation. So too with baijiu, the rice and sorghum-based spirit which recently received a less-than-glowing review in Foreign Policy.


  • Isaac Stone Fish:China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it.

Baijiu is reminiscent of urine tinged vomit and "banging your head against a lamppost," wrote FP‘s Isaac Stone Fish. For him, the smell of baijiu is like Proust’s madeleine, except one that recalls uncomfortable bus rides next to giggling fat men and open bathroom doors. I’m thankful I never tried that particular brand.

"I’ve never had very expensive baijiu," Stone Fish writes, "but I imagine it’s drinkable." It is indeed, and I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible for not giving him his first taste. So much unnecessary heartbreak could have been avoided.

While price is one indication of a baijiu’s quality, it has almost no relation to approachability. The super-expensive Moutai brand is the most celebrated Chinese spirit, but it is also one of the most challenging. Its taste, which evokes fermented soy and bitter herbs, can be off-putting. Before graduating to more complex categories, I recommend starting with mild and smooth baijius that showcase flavors like chrysanthemum, honey and pine. These are typically inexpensive, less than twenty dollars a bottle. Drinkers don’t need deep pockets to appreciate baijiu, just a deeper understanding.

Baijiu is not a single type of liquor. This is a common misconception. In actuality, the word baijiu represents a diverse category of distinct spirits. Most baijius are distilled from sorghum, but they can also be made with rice, wheat, corn, millet and other starches. Likewise, production techniques are similarly varied and generally regional. Unless you have lived all over China, you are unlikely to have tried more than one or two types, and there are over a dozen. This makes it easy to fall prey to overgeneralization. 

Baijiu is not for everyone. It will not soon supplant whiskey or vodka’s place in Western hearts and cocktail glasses. It is the world’s most popular spirit, but Stone Fish’s antipathy places him squarely in the majority non-Chinese opinion. I also disliked baijiu at first, but I could say the same for beer, scotch, and coffee. It takes patience and experimentation to develop a taste, but that patience is often rewarded.

For drinkers who prefer complex and robust natural flavors, something to sip and savor, the baijiu category offers a dazzling array of delights. It is uncharted territory, a new Wild West (or East) for tipplers who enjoy spirits. It’s not like rye or gin, neither is it like pisco or arrak. And that’s a good thing.

At its best, America is a pluralistic society that embraces diversity and our bar shelves increasingly reflect these values. A century ago, Americans would seldom put anything more exotic than Dutch gin or Jamaican rum in their cocktail shakers. Now we drink vodka, tequila, and other spirits once deemed hopelessly alien. I see no reason why we cannot make room for baijiu.

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