As author of the book Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and the blog 300 Shots at Greatness, it’s fair to say Derek Sandhaus has drunk his fair share of baijiu. I asked him for a few tips on how newcomers can tackle this fiery spirit.
A lot of people will try baijiu for the first time during World Baijiu Day on August 8. What can they expect of that first smell and taste?
The smell and taste of baijiu is largely dependent on which category of baijiu one consumes. Baijius can be sweet and fruity, mild and mineral, and in some cases very herbaceous.
There are some commonalities that cut across category, such as a general earthiness and a powerful, somewhat pungent aroma that is more appreciated in the Chinese culinary tradition than its Western counterparts. Most baijius are also bottled at around 52 percent alcohol by volume (104 proof) and accordingly have a spicy bite.
I generally advise new drinkers to go in with an open mind and seek out the baijiu that is right for them.
For those who have been through the ganbei ritual, and cringe at the sight of baijiu, what would you say to encourage them to give it another try?
The key is to remember that while the ganbei ritual—the process of consuming one or more bottles of baijiu in a series of toasts over dinner—may feel like the alcoholic equivalent of running of marathon, the object is to show respect and give face rather than savor one’s drink. Ganbei-ing is about appreciating people, not alcohol.
But for those of us not raised in the tradition—and quite a few who have been, I suspect—it can be a rather off-putting introduction to Chinese spirits. You would be well served trying baijiu in a more relaxed environment, where you can sip at your own pace and try several different bottles without the pressure to finish them in one sitting.
One thing that the ganbei ritual has right, though, is that baijiu is best when paired with Chinese food and specifically, in my view, spicy Chinese food from the southwestern provinces.
What three baijius priced under rmb200 would you recommend
There are several key “aroma” categories of baijiu. What is the logical order for a beginner who wants to try them?
I would suggest that the best way to approach baijiu for the first time is to move from the milder varieties to the more complex and aromatic types. Of the four major categories, I would start with rice aroma, followed by light aroma and strong aroma, then finish with sauce aroma.
for someone who plans to organize a tasting at home?
Good rice baijiu can be tough to track down outside of Guangxi and Guangdong provinces, so let’s ignore that category for the moment and focus on the other three.
Start with Laobai Fenjiu (老白汾酒) by Xinghuacun (杏花村), as fine an introduction to light-aroma baijiu as anything on the market. For strong-aroma, get yourself a bottle of Touqu (头曲) or Tequ (特曲) by Luzhou Laojiao (泸州老窖). Sauce-aroma is a bit trickier to do well under RMB200, but Lang Jiu (郎酒) and Kweichow Moutai (贵州茅台) both make products at that price point that will at least convey the general idea.
Want to read Sandhaus’ book about baijiu? Get a copy at this link.