How to choose and buy baijiu, plus basic baijiu etiquette tips for beginners.
The most important thing to remember about baijiu culture is it's not about the drink itself so much as the experience. And like any other complex wine, beer or spirit, you should know what you're in for to make the most of it. One of the things Capital Spirits—Beijing's first baijiu-centric bar—became known for is its laid-back atmosphere. Everyone who works there knows the difference between Xifengjiu and Fenjiu, but the place isn't pretentious.
As co-founder Bill Isler, now the CEO of the just-launched-stateside brand Ming River, puts it, "We gave people the background of how baijiu is consumed in China, but we said 'you can have it on your terms.'"
That's not always the case, however. Much like South Korea and Japan, the drinking etiquette of China goes back centuries, and includes many customs that can be lost on travelers.
For starters, don't act a fool like Buzzfeed did in their "Americans Try Asian Liquor For the First Time" video a few years back. In the Moutai Yingbin portion of the clip, the site's tasting panel slams entire shots and says things like "Jesus Christ, no!", "it takes like poison", and "it's like a divorce in my mouth."
As priceless and pull quote-y as their reactions were, what they should have done is try a traditional pour of about half an ounce. Max. That way you can drink baijiu throughout a meal without passing out. And believe us when we say there will be a lot of that—a lot of toasting the table, or the person next to you, as a form of affection, respect, or gratitude.
Just remember a few things.
Baijiu etiquette tips:
1. Never fill your own glass unless your table established a mini-carafe situation.
2. When pouring baijiu for your neighbor, keep it flowing. It's okay if their glass overflows a bit; that just means you're happy they're here.
3. After someone gives you a refill, calmly tap the table with one finger to say a silent thank you.
4. Don't just clink someone's glass during a toast; reach below it as a subtle way of saying they're better than you. Think of this as the "we're not worthy" portion of a marathon baijiu session.
5. If someone shouts ganbei!, be sure to drain your glass till the last drop. Otherwise, someone may call you out and request another round just for you.
How to pair baijiu with food
Author Fuchsia Dunlop (see: award-winning books as Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, Every Grain of Rice, and Land of Fish and Rice) first tried baijiu when she was studying Sichuanese cuisine in Chengdu during the mid '90s. Back then, "it was served at every formal dinner and there was intense social pressure to knock back cupfuls in a series of toasts." Needless to say, she wasn't a fan.
"I'm not a heavy drinker and found its alcoholic strength off-putting," she says. "However, I did enjoy tonic baijiu that had been steeped with other flavorings and medicinal herbs. For example, my favorite restaurant at that time, the Bamboo Bar, kept glass jars full of reddish baijiu steeped with goji berries, and yellowish baijiu steeped with lemon."
Known locally as paojiu, these house infusions can be found in restaurants throughout Chengdu and clock in at a far more palatable 10-to-20-percent ABV. "Paojiu was my first positive impression of baijiu," says Chengdu Food Tours co-founder Jordan Porter. "It's what made me curious about the drink itself. The sweet and sourness pairs well with food, and the endless variations are really fascinating."
As for the bottles of straight-up baijiu found on the tables of most banquet halls and business meetings, they're often BYOB affairs. According to Ming River co-founder Derek Sandhaus, "You can definitely purchase baijiu at most restaurants, but it is far more common to bring your own, especially when you're drinking the good stuff. In China, fine wines and spirits have long been a gift of choice, so that—along with a well-founded fear of counterfeit products—has created a culture in which BYOB is standard operating procedure."
While that may sound like a revelation to anyone who is accustomed to corkage fees and extortionary profit margins, there's no point in buying quality baijiu if you don't know what to do with it. Well, unlike wine, one brand or style can hold its own across an entire meal. Just ask chef Jenny Gao, a Chengdu native who hosts pop-up dinners and sells artisanal chili crisp jars under the name Fly By Jing. Last fall she cooked a 12-course Sichuanese dinner at Brooklyn's Space Ninety 8 that featured nothing but Ming River.
"Unlike with Western wine pairings," explains Gao, "which gradually evolve in body throughout a meal, the same baijiu is consumed with everything from cold starters to hot dishes. Dishes that are particularly spicy or savory work really well as drinking food, like five-spice stewed beef slices or a fiery beef tallow-based hot pot feast."
Dunlop agrees, saying, "I would ideally drink baijiu with robustly-flavoured appetizers, like spiced and cured meats or peanuts. In China, it is almost never drunk alongside rice or wheat. People believe that pairing alcohol with grain foods can cause indigestion, so baijiu is normally served alongside meat, fish and vegetable dishes (cai). When a guest starts eating rice or noodles (fan or mian) towards the end of the meal, it's a sign that they have finished drinking alcohol. In general, it's hard to think about pairing drinks in a typical Chinese dining context because a whole range of dishes will normally be on the table at the same time."
The one rule most baijiu aficionados seem to agree on is to stick to whatever region you happen to be highlighting during a meal and the style (known as "aromas") that area produces. As Porter puts it, "In Sichuan, drink strong aroma baijiu; it just works better. Light aroma goes best with food from the northeast, and sauce aroma with the spicy/sour flavors of Guizhou and parts of Sichuan. Meizi jiu (plum-steeped baijiu) pairs pretty well with everything!
He continues, "There's not a ton to know beyond that other than personal preference. Actually, pair it with people, too. It’s a fun, excitable drink; that’s half the point."
How to buy baijiu:
When Derek Sandhaus first moved to Chengdu in 2011, he gave up a job in Beijing (for the publisher Earnshaw Books) so his wife could pursue a position at the U.S. Consulate. "And like a lot of unemployed husbands," he jokes, "I started drinking."
What he means to say is he got really into baijiu—its myriad styles, its brands, its fiery bouquets of funky, peerless flavor. In fact, he'd often buy four or five random bottles at a liquor store to sample with friends over the course of a month, so they could compare tasting notes.
These long nights helped form the foundation of his eventual book on the subject (Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits), which makes Sandhaus the sort of guy you want standing alongside you at a supermarket, keeping a baijiu run from becoming a brutal game of Russian roulette. Here are some common situations foreign consumers find themselves in, and the bottles he recommends buying.
For the first-timers: "When I lived in Chengdu and regularly went out to eat/drink with friends, my weapon of choice was Luzhou Laojiao Tequ. It's an affordable but solid strong-aroma that works with most meals."
For a souvenir: "My friends back home don't know much about baijiu, but they like to drink, so I'd go for something more approachable. The brand that jumps out is Lao Guilin, a mellow rice-aroma baijiu made by the Guilin Sanhua Distillery."
For the high rollers: "At the top end of the spectrum I would go for something that's rich and complex, but still offers some value at its price point. Zhenjiu, for example, is an excellent sauce-aroma baijiu that's far less expensive than the more famous Kweichow Moutai. By the same token, if you want a high-end mixed-grain strong-aroma you'd do well to try Jiannanchun over the better-known Wuliangye."
For the thrill seekers: "When you start getting into the peripheral categories, you can go in a lot of different directions. Most people who like baijiu enjoy Xifengjiu, which is closest to a strong-aroma baijiu but dissimilar enough to be in its own category (phoenix aroma). Jiuguijiu is a very complex, herbaceous baijiu in what's called the fuyu-aroma category. I also quite like the douchi-aroma baijius, which are aged with pork fat."
And finally, here's what you should avoid: "Most cheap baijiu isn't all that great—the value in the category is found in the mid-range—but I can offer a few tips if you're dealing with an unfamiliar baijiu brand. Is the bottle shaped like a bullet, a mortar shell, or any other novelty? If so, the bottle is probably more interesting than what's inside of it. Is the bottle not fully sealed? Avoid that too. And in general, trust yourself. If you don't like the taste of it, or it seems overly astringent, don't drink it."