Drinking the clear Chinese liquor baijiu (白酒 [bái jiǔ]) is a rite of passage for any expat in China. That fruity smell, the burn in your throat and the look of admiration from the Chinese people you are drinking with are all a part of the baijiu experience for most expats in China.
Literally, baijiu means ‘white spirit’. It is the Chinese word for all traditional liquors and refers to a category of drinks rather than one specific drink. ‘In general, bajiu is characterized by a slightly sweet, citrusy taste that can sometimes be at odds with the fiery sear of its high-alcohol content.’ However, the taste can vary quite dramatically from one type of baijiu to another and tends to be a bit smoother at the mid-to-high range.
Those who have been less kindly opinionated have described baijiu as tasting like hydraulic fluid and a number of other unsavoury things. This is probably due to the high levels of fusel oil and esters, which give it a taste unfamiliar to most foreign people.
From what I have been told, though many expats have reached a point where they do enjoy the taste of certain brands of baijiu (e.g. 贵州茅台 [máo tái] and 二锅头[èr guō tóu]), they prefer the experience of drinking baijiu in its traditional context more than just the drink itself. Baijiu is always consumed over dinner with friends, family and colleagues. In last few years, it is especially consumed over business contracts. Furthermore, baijiu is always consumed in a ritualized fashion. Learning the rules,the historical origins and symbolic meaning of the drink has allowed for people to better appreciate it’s greater context.
Moreover, most fall in love with baijiu because it tends to break down the culture barrier that exists between Chinese and foreigners. It allows people to bond and exchange stories. While Chinese culture doesn’t encourage people to let their guard down easily, when you are downing shots of baijiu things change! It helps to relax, open up to others and have fun. Ganbei to this!
Both lunch and dinner are appropriate times to drink baijiu. Chinese food is so varied that there isn’t one particular dish or ingredient that is considered more appropriate for pairing. Personally, I prefer to drink baijiu with spicy Sichuan food (e.g. spicy peanuts), braised food or when watching movies with friends.
Eastern Sichuan is the region where the baijiu production is highest than anywhere else in the country. Western Guizhou and Chengdu are well-known cities for this. Together they produce almost seventy percent of all the baijiu consumed in China. Astonishing!
Want to explore Chinese white spirit culture? Apply now for an internship in Chengdu, Qingdao and Zhuhai!