Nick Van Leeuwen is co-founder of organic wine importer Australian Natural, which lists brands like Paxton, The Hedonist, Temple Bruer and J&J in its portfolio. Given his time in China, he’s had a bit of experience with baijiu, a slightly more potent tipple than those he sells. I asked him a few questions as part of the World Baijiu Day ‘confessions’ series.
What is your first memory of drinking baijiu?
My first memory of baijiu is a hazy one to say the least. It was a typical smoggy summer day in Beijing, and I was on my way to meet a man from Dongbei, who I had met in a bank earlier in the week. Arriving late, I was ceremoniously welcomed into the room, introduced to each of the middle-aged men, led to my seat next to the man from the bank, who later became a mentor of mine, and informed that I would be punished for my tardiness with three baijiu shots.
The Maotai was free flowing that night–this was in pre-Xi Jinping days. I have no memory of the evening past the fifth bottle–there were seven of us–but judging from the photos, I had a great time, made some new friends, and started my journey to appreciating and enjoying this great spirit.
How did you acquire that appreciation?
My appreciation first began in 2011 when I started regularly attending banquets and dinners. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to try a wide range of different baijiu brands and flavours.
What are your favorite baijius?
I am a big fan of strong-flavored baijiu. My three favorite baijius are Mengzhilan, Wuliangye and Shuijingfang. As a foreigner calling Beijing home, I also can’t go past a bottle of light-flavoured erguotou with some local friends.
Do you have a baijiu drinking story to share?
A few years back on an alcohol-fueled trip in Henan, we were introduced to a local baijiu craftsman, Mr Ma. Upon sitting down at the table under a tarp tent, a grinning Mr Ma proudly pulled out a four-litre Nongfu plastic spring water container.
Mr Ma proceeded to pour us all a glass while explaining that he had made this baijiu himself. After a clink of glasses, down the hatch went Mr Ma’s baijiu. We all withered in pain as our mouths, throats and stomachs were scorched by his 75-proof baijiu. The most alcoholic baijiu I have ever had and an experience I don’t wish to ever have again. To this day, I still shiver at the sight of a Nongfu four-litre bottle!