Baijiu Battle | Foreign Policy vs The Diplomat and the issue of ‘Consumer Ethnocentrism’

baijiu press the diplomat

Two articles by competing sites Foreign Policy and The Diplomat display a world of difference in terms of baijiu views.

Based on the titles, it might sound like they are on the same page: “One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong” by Foreign Policy and “Why Does Chinese Alcohol Taste So Awful?” by The Diplomat.

The subtitles reveal the contrasting arguments: “China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it” versus “China’s baijiu gets a bad rap for its powerful flavor, but it’s a wonderfully complex drink” respectively.

Writing for Foreign Policy last year, Isaac Stone Fish basically argues that baijiu sucks because he had bad experiences with it:

Throughout my time in China — both during my college summers in the early 2000s and while living there from 2006 to 2011 — baijiu was a constant reminder that the enjoyable part of drinking was not the taste.  In Red Sorghum, an early novel by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mo Yan, workers at a distillery season baijiu with their urine. I don’t see that as a metaphor, or as social criticism, or as a plot-building device. I see that as an accurate evocation of the flavor.

You can read the rest here but don’t expect his argument to gain any complexity. It’s like reading someone slam the U.S. beer industry, including its wide range of so-called craft products, because he got wasted on Bud Light every weekend during college. Notably, Fish admits he hasn’t tried what are considered to be better baijius.

David Volodzko recently provided a much different view in The Diplomat. While recognizing many people have an aversion to baijiu–no surprise, as few consumers like gin, whisky or other spirits straight–he says a consideration of expectations is key to understanding this reaction:

In my experience, the problem tends to be a kind of consumer ethnocentrism whereby people imagine baijiu ought to resemble vodka, with a good one being clean and crisp and a bad one being razor hot. Judged by that standard, baijiu tastes like an intolerably bad alcohol….

Similarly, the rich flow of esters characterizing baijiu are considered desirable. Western palates expecting something analogous to vodka will surely find the solvent kerosene aspect off-putting. Like a peaty whiskey, these flavors are densely layered and require patience. It’s an acquired taste, but to the initiated, deeply rewarding.”

I think the whisky analogy is apt. People who describe baijiu as smelling like “nail polish remover” might well rave about Islay single malts characterized as having an “iodine” element. And the “consumer ethnocentrism” can cut both ways: I have friends raised on baijiu who have a negative reaction to the aroma of many “Western” spirits.

Anyway, as the range of baijius is wide, so too is media coverage of them. In these cases, I much prefer the viewpoint of Volodzko, with its nuances, to that of Fish, which seem like the equivalent of the base erguotou he so detests. But to each his or her own. I suggest reading both, and this rebuttal by Derek Sandhaus to Fish, while enjoying the tipple of your choice.

baijiu press foreign policy

World Baijiu Day is held each August 9. See our 2018 event list here. The 2019 list is coming soon. Follow World Baijiu Day on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Get in touch with Jim Boyce via spirit (at) worldbaijiuday.com.

Leave a Reply