“Lighter fluid” and “paint thinner” are terms often used by foreigners in China to describe the distinct flavor of Chinese spirit baijiu, but author Derek Sandhaus hopes his new book will foster more appreciation for drink that he says is just “misunderstood” by those not accustomed to it. Since 2011, Sandhaus has been meticulously tasting every brand of baijiu he could get ahold of while and recording his experience on his blog 300 Shots at Greatness. After imbibing an eye-watering number of shots over the years while living in China, his expertise is now catalogued in his new book Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.
The book presents a curated selection of more than 90 different brands of baijiu as well a useful guide to the history, production process, categories, and etiquette of the fiery liquor. He hopes that the book will help English-language readers approach the beverage with an open mind and maybe even learn to enjoy it—or at least learn what kinds to give as gifts.
In order to learn more about what inspired Sandhaus to take up connoisseurship of the Chinese hard liquor, we caught up with him for an interview. Below, he discusses issues such as what he thinks it will take for baijiu to catch on with foreigners, how the industry can recover from China’s anti-corruption campaign, and his personal favorite brands.
What inspired you to produce a book in English on baijiu?
I think the main thing that made me want to write about baijiu in English was just the fact that is such an important part of Chinese culture, and it’s almost universally misunderstood by the foreigners who are living and working in China. I think one of the first important steps in making baijiu more than just a topic of Chinese importance is explaining to people what it is and how they can enjoy it themselves. I thought what was really lacking was instructions for this in English. Basically, I wanted to fill a significant knowledge gap.
How did you become a baijiu connoisseur?
Well, you’re being very generous in referring to me as a baijiu connoisseur. The way that I learned about baijiu was about as straightforward as it comes: I decided that I wanted to learn about baijiu, I started looking in both Chinese and English for anything I could find about Chinese alcohol and its history, and then I began experimenting—trying different types of baijiu by different producers, trying baijiu with different ingredients and different production techniques—and just trying to systematically self-educate.
How can the book be useful to people hoping to make business connections in China?
There’s a few ways that this book can be useful to someone that is interested in doing business in China. One of them is that in the book I briefly try to go over the way in which baijiu is used in the business setting, and to give people brief instructions for what you are supposed to do at a baijiu banquet—what the proper etiquette is. There are also some quick general guidelines for which types of bottles you want to give as gifts when you want to give someone a bottle of baijiu, which is one of the best ways to cement business connections.
But also, because the process of drinking baijiu is so important in Chinese business meetings and official banquets, one thing that I think this book can allow people to do is try a lot of different types of baijiu and determine which types they enjoy drinking, and by doing that I think it puts them in a better position.
If they don’t currently like baijiu—which is a common complaint among foreigners—they can actually find some bottles that they do enjoy, and can start bringing those bottles to their business meetings.
Even beyond that, the book does talk a lot about the baijiu industry in China as it exists right now, so people are able by reading about the different brands to get kind of a sense for who the bigger players are in the baijiu industry and a little bit about their history and their story, and why particular brands have been successful in China.
You have three ways in which the book is useful to businesspeople: it tells them how they’re supposed to drink, it introduces them to lots of new brands that they might enjoy drinking while they’re doing business in China, and it teaches them about a very important domestic industry.
What are the flavor characteristics of a high-quality baijiu?
It’s actually a bit more complicated of a question than “what is a good quality baijiu?” From a flavor perspective, it’s very complicated to answer what makes a good baijiu because there are so many different types of baijiu.
If you’re talking about a strong-aroma baijiu you’re looking for a baijiu that has a lot of fruity sweetness and a lot of peppery fire to it. If you’re going for a sauce-aroma baijiu like Kweichou Maotai, you’re looking for something that’s a bit more astringent on the palate, and something with more of a powerful and lingering aroma. With light aroma, like Fenjiu or erguotou, you’re looking for a baijiu that has delicate floral aromas, and if you’re looking for rice aroma, you’re looking for something that’s kind of smooth with more of a honey-like sweetness to it.
I think the key for a really good baijiu is something that is able to strike a good balance: It has a pleasant flavor that doesn’t get overwhelmed by the alcohol. Baijius tends to be very, very strong, and when they’re not very well-made, there’s a tendency to have the alcohol drown out the flavor of the drink itself. If you can achieve the right balance and get a smooth baijiu, then I think it’s a really successful product.
Why do you think baijiu is so misunderstood by foreigners?
There’s a couple of factors. One of them is that it’s just a very unusual taste to the foreign palate. Most baijius just aren’t the kind of flavors that we normally go for. Much as with Chinese cuisine, the flavors that are celebrated are quite a bit different than what we go for in the West. For example, the famous stinky tofu in China: You’ll often hear people say “it smells so bad; it’s terrible,” but it’s not a bad food and people in China love it. I think baijiu’s the same way; it’s a bit of an acquired taste for a lot of people.
Beyond that, however, I have found in my own research that once you start getting into the different categories and the different types of regional baijius in China, there are certain categories that are much easier for foreigners to drink than others. What is causing people to say that they don’t like baijiu as a general category is the fact that they’re only trying one or two types of baijiu that they don’t like. There are other baijius out there that would be more appropriate for those drinkers.
The overwhelming reason that most foreigners are so frightened by baijiu is the way that it is consumed within Chinese culture with these really heavy-drinking banquet scenarios where people are expected to drink a quarter of a bottle themselves over the course of an evening. That can be really, really tough for people that aren’t used to drinking a lot of hard liquor in one sitting or with food. There’s a bit of a pressure element that a lot of people find unpleasant. Your company expects you to drink and it’s not as easy to bow out of a drinking session as it is in other countries. Both the foreignness of the flavor profile and the method of consumption scare a lot of people away, but I think both of those are surmountable challenges.
Many high-end baijiu brands have taken a major sales hit from the Chinese government’s campaign against lavish official banquets and official gifting. They’re adopting various strategies in response, such as trying to sell abroad or shifting down-market. What strategies do you think would work for these companies to boost sales again?
I think it’s far too early to tell which is going to be the most successful strategy. I think all the strategies that the baijiu industry is adopting right now to make up for the lost government sales are going to be highly beneficial to the health of the baijiu industry over the long term. What is kind of lost in this conversation—people are saying right now baijiu is doomed because their sales have taken this huge hit for the first time—is the fact that the government was essentially subsidizing the baijiu industry by buying so much of their supplies outright. It’s not at all surprising that when you take away one of the distilleries’ major sources of sales that their sales are down. That does not take away from the fact that the appeal and the appetite and ability to purchase baijiu of the average Chinese consumer has been on a straight upward trajectory since the 1980s.
Basically I think that the government subsidies may have been useful to the industry in the short term, but they were preventing distillers from reaching their full maturity in terms of sales and marketing because they weren’t trying as hard as they needed to attract a more diverse customer base, which is what any brand—not just a baijiu brand—needs to thrive and expand. They’re taking a hit now, but I think it’s going to teach them how to be better at what they’re doing.
What are your personal baijiu brand favorites?
I think in the upper end of the baijiu category—there are more than 90 unique types of baijiu in my book, and I think all of them have something unique about them that makes them worth trying—I like a lot of the Sichuanese strong aromas: Luzhou Laojiao, Jian Nan Chun, Shui Jing Fang; those are all solid high-end baijiu. Luzhou Laojiao makes some pretty exciting products in the mid range as well.
At the inexpensive range, Fenjiu and Guilin Sanhua Jiu make really nice baijius—those are from the light aroma and the rice aroma category, respectively.
If you’re going to go super expensive, I think the top-shelf Maotai baiijus are quite unique and worth trying. They live up to their reputation.
But if you’re just going to go for something really, really cheap—cheaper than water—I think the classic Beijing erguotou is pretty good. Red Star and Niulanshan make excellent products for their price points.