By Jim Boyce | Over the past month, Jordan Porter of Chengdu Food Tours has organized several baijiu tastings as warm-ups for the official launch of a club this Wednesday. I asked him about why he’s starting the club, what activities are planned and how how he deals with people who might know little about China’s national spirit.
People who’ve had rough times with China’s national spirit would hear news of a baijiu club and ask: Why!?
That’s exactly why we want to start the club, to help change people’s experiences around baijiu. Baijiu is a complicated drink, and radically different than Western spirits both in production and consumption. I think a lot of people drink it without context, and this leads to negative associations.
A lot of people also drink a bottle of four-kuai erguotou when they show up in China and then write off the whole category. Drinking erguotou and saying all bajiu is bad is like having an 18-kuai bottle of Great Wall and saying all red wine is terrible.
I got to thinking that if baijiu is the world’s most consumed spirit, by more than double, maybe the problem is the approach and not the baijiu itself. It started with a personal journey, very much inspired by Derek Sandhaus, to overcome my own biases, to understand and like baijiu. And now I want to help others take their own journeys.
What will be the main focus of the club?
We believe the best way to learn about anything is through doing. In this case, that means drinking, but drinking with purpose.
We will hold a monthly event that includes a tasting of the four main types—strong aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma and rice aroma—and discuss how baijiu is made and how it is fascinatingly different than Western spirits. This will include discussion about our own experiences, and what we like and don’t like about each type.
One exciting aspect is the language to describe bajiu doesn’t really exist in any formal way, so there are no pretenses. We create the vernacular as we go.
We will also hold intermediate events for club members and hope this will include more concentrated tastings, high-end baijius, and learning through factory visits and guest appearances. Ultimately we just want to create a positive space where people have a variety of ways to interact with and learn about baijiu.
How do you deal with people who were turned off baijiu due to one too many heavy-duty ganbei sessions?
The only requirement to join the club is an open mind and a curiosity to learn more. We can’t necessarily change everyone’s opinion, that’s for sure. But I would encourage people to examine their own experiences with baijiu, and see what it is they didn’t like about them. Maybe it’s more about the situation than the baijiu itself.
I think an important thing is to not overdo it. The high proof of baijiu makes it easy to get wasted, so try to learn about it and taste it in a context that you can control. Learn which baijius you like and don’t like and arm yourself with power and knowledge so you can have more control over your next heavy duty ganbei session.
You’ve obviously been around baijiu a bit given your job and have written about how to do infusions. If someone is a newcomer to baijiu, what would you say to them?
Just keep an open mind. It is not a familiar taste, it is not a familiar fermentation process and it is not made from familiar ingredients— in most cases, people haven’t consumed sorghum before. Start in moderation, drink it with friends, and pair with food, preferably from the region where the baijiu was made. And don’t just drink the cheapest stuff. You don’t need to drink fancy baijius by any means, but if you’re drinking something because it’s cheap don’t let it represent the whole category.
I also love paojiu, or infused baijiu. It allows you to sort of wade into the sea of baijius in a mediated way. It can serve as an easier entry point for some.
If someone wants to join you guys on World Baijiu Day, where should they go?
We are holding a guided tasting and baiju learning session at Yi Jie Cafe from 7 PM to 9 PM with very limited spaces [book a seat via jordan (at) chengdufoodtours.com.] This is the first official event of its kind in Chengdu, though we held a few pre-launch events, and are super excited for this finally to be coming to light.
Specially for World Baijiu Day, we will also hold a pop-up Baijiu Bar out front of Beer Nest 1 from 10 PM. This will feature local, seasonal and hand-picked ingredients such as peaches, cherries and Hanyuan Sichuan peppercorns, as well as local honey, licorice, mint, osmanthus flower and home-made infusions, including some by me.
We are inspired by local ingredients and the great agricultural capacity of Sichuan, and while we’re not exactly mixologists we’re excited to bring our food passion together with that of baijiu, have some fun get people to enjoy baijiu!
A few photos, courtesy of Jordan Porter, from a recent baijiu tasting in Chengdu: