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Take a Hike
| Sunday, Dec 13, 2015
Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel

DianneErskineHellrigelBaijiu is the best-selling liquor in the world. And probably only two of you out there have even heard of it or tasted it. Baijiu has commanded 31 percent of the global market.

The translation of the word “Baijiu” (pronounced “bye-joe”) is “white wine.” But it is not a wine; it is a hard liquor, and it is very high in alcohol, between 45 and 60 percent. There are many brands and variations of Baijiu that range in price from a few dollars to a top sales price of $400,000 in an auction of a rare bottle of Wuliangye. Baijiu is so popular that there is even a global Baijiu Day.

The spirit has been described as having a mild rice aroma, sometimes piney, light and fruity, plum, lemon, chamomile and even hibiscus. The first time I tried Baijiu (Moutai brand) was at a banquet in Beijing. I was the guest of some major dignitaries, and it was expected that I drink Baijiu with them.

bottles04Baijiu is traditionally served in small shot glasses. You toss it back, bang it on the table and say “Ganbei,” which roughly translates as “bottoms up.” My first shot of Baijiu almost knocked me out of my chair. There was no hint of anything piney, fruity or chamomile. My interpretation was the suffocating odor of dirty socks, a rotten aftertaste, and then a sense of a very stinky cheese followed by a severe burning sensation all the way down to my stomach which I likened to drinking gasoline. Then I broke out in a heavy sweat, and my sinuses wanted to explode.

My hosts told me it was common to feel mild warmth in the chest after drinking Baijiu. If I could have spoken, I would have told them I was on fire. I was told it takes 300 shots to develop a taste for the stuff. I barely made it through the mandatory five that evening. Although I will admit that after shot No. 3, I didn’t feel the burn any more. I think all of the nerves just died.

Needless to say, in my opinion, Baijiu is nothing like a fine cognac. But it is the most popular spirit in the world, so it does have its aficionados.

bottles09You can find Baijiu in many liquor stores in America now, and there are even bars that specialize in Baijiu cocktails. I am sure it would be better disguised by various mixes that one might use to whip up some new-wave cocktails. There are several high-class places in New York, London and Melbourne that specialize in Baijiu cocktails. If you are more adventurous that I am, you might look for them the next time you’re in one of those cities. Or you might head over to Chinatown and pick up a bottle of the blazing firewater and concoct your own delicious mixes for your New Year’s party. I guarantee that after four or five of these, you’ll have a house filled with overnight guests.

bottles06The Chinese drink it straight up – “neat,” as you might call it in the States – and they would never, ever consider adding a mixer to it. They suggest pairing Baijiu with soy sauce-based dishes like sautéed steak and mushrooms. You will need a strong-tasting meal to stand up to the Baijiu. And Americans might appreciate it first with a fruity type of mix to get them started. Only the hardiest should try it neat.

Baijiu is made by steaming sorghum and mixing it with water, and something called Qu (pronounced “chu”). Qu can be found in either balls or bricks which are composed of wet grain that is left in a warm place for up to a month so it can grow yeast, fungi and multiple other microorganisms that are probably best left out of the conversation.

Qu is the starter for fermentation in Baijiu. After the introduction of the Qu, the result is left in mud pits underground, in caves or in jars that are buried in the ground. After an indeterminate time period, it is unearthed, strained and then distilled. Then it is aged in huge earthenware vessels, supposedly to remove impurities.

bottles07If you go searching for Baijiu to entertain your guests this New Year’s eve, look for Moutai. It is the most famous of all the Baijius. It is made in Guizhou Province and is the brand that Nixon drank when he toasted the Chinese premier. President Clinton also drank Moutai. It is the brand the Chinese diplomats drink, and hence, the one I tried. In fact, it was Chairman Mao’s favorite, as well. So you will be in good company.

If you’d rather save a little money, Erguotou is a much cheaper Baijiu, and believe me, you will get a definite kick from this one. Although I have never personally tasted Erguotou, it is favored by people in Beijing and is believed to contain extracts from red dates, ginseng and walnuts.

If you ever visit China, you might check out the Qianding Liquor Museum where they document the history of Baijiu and the hobby of getting head-over-heels drunk in China.

bottles05If you’re thinking of getting married in China, you might like to know of the Baijiu custom expected of the bridegroom. He is to visit every person attending the wedding and toast them Ganbei-style. That means that if there are 300 people there, he must drink 300 shots of Baijiu. To avoid passing out or getting alcohol poisoning, it is common for the best man to follow the groom around the room with a bottle of Baijiu and refill his glass each time he toasts his guests. The trick here is that the best man has taken an empty bottle of Baijiu and filled it with water, which he pours for the groom to keep him safe and sober. It works well until the guests suspect he is drinking water and insist on pouring a glass for him from their very own Baijiu bottle which has not been tampered with.

If you decide to give Baijiu a try, keep in mind that you will not be able safely to drink the same amount you are accustomed to drinking due to the high alcohol content. Be wise, be safe, and have a great new year.



Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.


bottles01bottles02bottles11 bottles10 bottles08 bottles03


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1 Comment

  1. Right….never heard if it before

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