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Hot off the success of his last book, Baijiu: The Essentials, baijiu expert Derek Sandhaus has published Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture (University of Nebraska Press; November 2019). This new title focuses in on Chinese drinks and how they have influenced nearly all aspects of life in China throughout its history – as long as there has been a China, there has been a Chinese drinking culture.

In addition to traveling the world spreading baijiu knowledge and promoting his own baijiu line, Ming River, Sandhaus also manages the site, which contains all of the basics for understanding baijiu and also has a large and growing database of cocktails for the adventurous mixologist.

For the CB Book Club, we spoke to Sandhaus about the origins of this book, the role alcohol has played in Chinese society and his favorite baijiu cocktails (recipes included).

How did this book come about? How does it differ from your book Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits?

The idea for Drunk in China was hatched almost a decade ago in Shanghai, when I was working as an editor at a publishing house that specialized in books about Chinese history and culture. I was in a cab on the way back to my office from a boozy baijiu lunch, asking myself, “Why would anyone drink this?”

Though only a tipsy musing, that why began to weigh on me the longer I thought about it. What was it about baijiu that made it the favorite drink of hundreds of millions of people, and what were the rest of us missing? The question felt like the kernel of book, but I was too busy to pursue it at the time.

A couple years later I left Shanghai, got married, and my wife became a diplomat with the United States’ Foreign Service. We were immediately sent back to China, this time to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, which I soon learned was the center of the Chinese alcohol industry. I was in the right place in what turned out to be a pivotal moment in the baijiu business.

I started drinking different kinds of baijiu and teaching myself about Chinese drinking culture. For the next two years I traveled the country to meet and interview producers of all manner of Chinese alcohol. I visited distilleries, breweries, wine shops, KTVs [karaoke clubs], drinking from the source and acquiring more material along the way.

When I felt like I had enough material to start writing, I cranked out a first draft of Drunk in China in a few months. I showed it to the editor at Penguin China, who told me he didn’t think someone would read a book about baijiu without first knowing what baijiu was. He then asked if I would write a book that did just that, thus Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits was born.

In many ways this unplanned book was a blessing. Not only did it force me to learn the fundamentals of Chinese alcohol production, but it provided an entrée to the international spirits world. Crucially, it gave me distance from my original draft and a chance to meditate on Chinese alcohol in a global context. When I returned to the project a couple years later, I was able to approach it with a new perspective and to create something that was a significant departure from, and improvement upon, what I had originally planned.

So although Drunk in China and Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits are spiritual companion pieces, they are very different books for very different audiences. Baijiu is the book for readers who want to understand how baijiu on a factual basis: what it is, how it is made, and which bottles one should try. Drunk in China is for the reader who wants to understand drink from a more socio-historical perspective. It’s less about what the Chinese drink and more about why they drink.

Baijiu is not a specific drink, but rather a category of drinks. Which types of baijiu should a novice acquaint themselves with first?

Given its size and diversity, I think it makes sense to think about China not as a monolithic culture but as a collection of cultures. Each region of China has its own languages, customs and, crucially for my purposes, drinks and drinking culture. Each of the dozen or so styles of baijiu (strong aroma, light aroma, rice aroma, etc.) refer to a regional production method, and each is designed to complement the flavors of that region’s food.

For that reason, a good starting point for the cautious drinker – or for someone who has struggled with baijiu in the past – is the rice-aroma baijiu of southeast China. The food in that part of China focuses more on texture and seasonal ingredients than on bold flavors, so the baijiu tends to be mild and approachable. I would compare it to a sake or a vodka in its flavor and character.

If a drinker is comfortable with more complex spirits and bolder flavors, I’d recommend the strong-aroma baijiu of Sichuan. This is the most popular style of baijiu in China, and it’s the style that first captured my affection. The food of Sichuan tends to be bright and flavorful, using lots of chili, garlic, ginger, pickles and fermented bean pastes. The Chinese consider Sichuan cuisine among the most delicious, and the region’s baijiu is no less remarkable. It’s fruity, floral and funky, with notes of pineapple, anise and cheese – there’s nothing else quite like it.

What are the main differences between baijiu and Western spirits?

Ingredients and technique. Most baijiu is made with sorghum, a grain seldom used in Western food and drink, but the differences are more fundamental. Alcoholic beverages in China, and East Asia broadly, evolved along a separate trajectory from their Western counterparts.

Western grain alcohol is usually produced by a two-step process: First you convert a grain’s starches into sugars (saccharification), and then you convert the sugars into alcohol with yeast (fermentation). Chinese alcohol production simplifies this process into a single step using something called qu (pronounced “chew”). Qu is essentially a grain-based compound of whatever microorganisms live in the environment – usually molds, yeasts and bacteria. When mixed with a steamed grain, it can convert starches directly into alcohols, which allows Chinese producers to ferment and distill alcohol using a solid rather than a liquid mash, as is done in the West. And because qu reflects the environment of the production site, it means every Chinese alcohol’s taste depends on where it’s made.

You write that an oft-repeated observation about baijiu is that, as much as the drink itself, it is the context in which it is consumed that makes it hard for the outsider to stomach. Can you elaborate on that point?

In China baijiu is traditionally served neat at room temperature alongside food. One serves it at holidays, business meetings, weddings or any other social gathering. Drinking is communal, typically done in the form of shots after shared toasts.

Though this method of consumption is intended to create a sense of camaraderie, there is a deeply felt social obligation to drink, and often this implies pressure to consume more than is wise or desirable. Baijiu is a very strong drink, usually bottled in the range of 80 to 130 proof, and at a baijiu dinner a table can go through multiple bottles.

Imagine if your first encounter with whiskey or gin was having to drink a quarter or even half of a bottle in a single sitting. You would probably have a dimmer view on those drinks, regardless of whether they were to your taste.

This is exactly the conclusion I have reached after years of introducing baijiu to new drinkers. When I present most people with samples of various types of baijiu in a casual environment, in which they can drink at their own pace, they almost always come away liking at least one or two styles. Even people who previously thought they didn’t like baijiu usually abandon their prior misgivings.

That said, the traditional consumption method of baijiu is not without its benefits. When everyone is drinking at the same pace, there is a sense of shared revelry that can be transformative when done well. It also means there isn’t the same social stigma attached to inebriation that we have in the West. Intoxication is a state with its time and place.

Where Chinese society gets into trouble with all this is that the drinking ritual developed in a much earlier time, when people were drinking weaker, non-distilled alcoholic beverages. It used to require much greater levels of consumption to achieve dangerous levels of insobriety. Today alcohol is stronger and more affordable, and since drinking is viewed as a necessary element of one’s professional responsibilities in some offices, alcohol-related diseases have become a serious public health risk.

Luckily, people are slowly waking up to the risks of repeated binge drinking. There is already evidence to suggest that consumption patterns are changing for the better, especially in China’s wealthier urban centers.

You fell in love with the spirit while taking part in a traditional Chinese celebration. Do you think other foreigners will be able to fall in love with the spirit even when it’s divorced from its natural context?

I do. Most drinkers outside of East Asia only consume distilled spirits when mixed into cocktails, so this is a logical starting point for most of them. Baijiu – which has so many varieties, with so many flavor profiles – is an ingredient with enormous untapped potential in the cocktail world. Though cocktails are not indigenous to Chinese drinking culture, using baijiu in a mixed drink is in a sense consistent with tradition, in so far as Chinese alcohol is always meant to complement other flavors rather than be consumed on its own.

That said, I don’t think we should try to divorce baijiu from its more traditional context at the dinner table. Just as one drinks tequila at Mexican restaurants, sake at Japanese restaurants, and ouzo at Greek restaurants, we ought to be able to drink baijiu at Chinese restaurants. The flavors of Chinese spirits are, after all, best suited to the flavors of Chinese cuisine.

When it comes to succeeding on the international spirits market, what obstacles does baijiu face?

I used to think it just came down to taste: Baijiu is too out there, its assortment of smells and flavors too exotic. But experience has taught me that while it’s not a drink for everyone, there is a sizable audience willing to accept it.

In my view, the biggest obstacles to baijiu’s wider acceptance are access and education. Baijiu can be very difficult for most consumers to source, particularly for those living outside of more cosmopolitan urban centers. Many parts of the world only have access to one or two baijiu brands, if even that, and they might not be the most suitable brands for new drinkers.

So first you need the right products in the market, and then you need to supplement it with education. Baijiu is a complex category of drinks, poorly understood by the international spirits industry. It requires dedication to educate oneself about an alcohol tradition that is so far outside of most Westerners’ frame of reference. Many alcohol industry professionals are eager to dismiss baijiu, because it is such a heavy educational lift. And centuries of Western prejudice have conditioned them to be dismissive of Chinese products, whether they recognize it or not.

At present there are a handful of brands working to bring greater awareness to Chinese spirits (among them my company, Ming River Sichuan Baijiu), but we’re basically starting from scratch. The journey has really just begun, but I do believe that we’ll get there.

Could share your favorite baijiu cocktail and how to make it?

How about two, one complex and one simple? Both are made with strong-aroma baijiu.

The first drink is Trader’s Treasure, created by Shannon Mustipher, whose Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails is one of the best new cocktail books out there. As you might guess, it’s a tropical drink. What I like about it is that it has hidden complexity that reveals itself gradually as you drink it.

To make a Trader’s Treasure, combine an ounce and a half of Ming River, three-quarters of an ounce of lime juice, and half an ounce each of Batavian arrack, Cynar, honey syrup and pineapple juice. Shake over ice and strain into a coupe glass.

The second drink is the General Ming by Christian Wu, an Austrian bartender who represents Ming River in the European market. It’s a simple baijiu tonic without any hard-to-find ingredients. It’s easy to drink and hard to mess up, so perfect for the home bartender.

To make a General Ming, combine an ounce each of Ming River and sweet red vermouth over ice in a highball glass. Top with tonic water and a lemon twist.

Click here to purchase your copy of Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture (University of Nebraska Press; November 2019), out now.

Editor’s note: Following on the heels of our 2019 gift guide, we are running our inaugural Book Week, which spotlights some of our recent favorite culinary books, just in time for the holiday season.

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Culinary BackstreetsDerek Sandhaus

Published on November 29, 2019

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