Welcome to Confessions of a Baijiu Drinker. This series asks people to reveal their spirit-ual experiences: that first taste of baijiu, the point where appreciation began, a funny anecdote or two, perhaps even a deep and dark secret!
Up this time, Ludvig Sääf of Jiu Xian (酒仙), a society to promote Chinese drinking culture in Scandinavia. (Last year, they paired Moutai with a 16-course Chinese dinner near Stockholm for World Baijiu Day!) Here is Ludvig’s confession.
When did you first try baijiu?
My first experience with baijiu was on my first visit to China at the age of 19. At the time I was working as a sailor on a replica of an 18th-century East India Trading Company tall ship that had just arrived in Shanghai after a hazardous journey from Sweden.
One evening as the China experience had become a bit overwhelming I stumbled across a pool competition in Pudong. I ordered ”something local” from the bar and was presented with a small glass of Wuliangye. It was an almost divine experience. That late summer evening where the scent of sweet osmanthus in the wind mixed with the lingering fragrance of the baijiu will forever be etched in my mind.
When did you first begin to appreciate baijiu?
It took me a long time to start appreciating other forms of baijiu after my first encounter with Wuliangye. However, after my Shanghai adventure I ended up in Yunnan and was instantly amazed by all local forms of paojiu (泡酒) and yaojiu (药酒). Infusions with quince, ginseng and bayberry, tasting fruity, bitter, tart and sour, made the long hours in a Chinese student dorm pass a lot more quickly.
At the time I had a friend doing a PhD on the Yi ethnic group’s languages. Night upon night we sat kicking back bottle after bottle of pine nut baijiu singing drinking songs with our Yi friends.
Later as I started working I got the chance to explore the array of different top-notch brands. The spectra of different aroma categories and variations depending on the use of different grains was intriguing.
What really did it for me though was when I started to understand the connection between local food and local spirits. When in Beijing you want to accompany the slightly sweet and mild flavors of the local cuisine with a mild aroma baijiu. When in Sichuan nothing pairs better with the complex layers of flavors in the local cuisine than the fruity and intense flavors of a strong aroma baijiu. And when in Guizhou and you savor the fermented and deep flavors there you do want, in fact you need, a sauce aroma baijiu. This is partly because the culinary sensory experience will become so much better but also the understanding of the local food culture will increase tenfold if you pair local food with the drink it was intended to be paired with.
How do your friends and acquaintances respond to baijiu the first time?
After letting numerous friends and family members try the various drinks of China I have understood there are two key ways to make people begin to get accustomed to the flavors. If you can pair the drinks with appropriate food it will allow the drink to be experienced in its proper context. As baijiu is a part of dining culture drinking it with some food really helps.
Secondly, having people try the spectra of the different aroma categories while holding them by the hand and explaining the differences between them always gives people a “wow’ experience. If you can pair these two tips with a little cultural context and prepare the people before they taste that the flavors may fall outside of their aroma and palate frame you will allow them to gain understanding and perhaps even some appreciation.
Do you have a fun baijiu drinking story to share?
Early after arriving at the Yunnan Normal University for my BA studies I caught a nasty stomach illness, probably incurred by one of my daily morning trips to the local veggie market to sample whatever I could get my hands on. A previous sailor friend who also was a doctor put me in contact with a TCM doctor in Kunming who agreed to meet me at a local pharmacy. Upon meeting me the first question he asked was, ”Do you drink alcohol?”
”Yes,” I answered, a bit annoyed and confused ”But the problem is my stomach which has prevented me from leaving my room for a week!”
He nodded and and squatted down by one of the shelves, then he picked up a small box and handed it over to me. It contained 12 small glass bottles with a herbal extract in 70 percent alcohol!
”Drink three a day!” he prescribed and smiled. I don’t know if it actually worked but a couple of days later my stomach was back to normal and either way it made those few days of studying a lot more fun.
Another story: on my 25th birthday a friend from the Bai ethnic group came bearing two bottles with bronze-colored spirits and something black at the bottom as a birthday gift.
”It is made with black ants. But be careful it will help you with, well, you know…”
At the time my 24-year-old wife-to-be was pushing the rural definition for becoming a leftover woman so I suspected this was a trick to bind me down. Of course I didn’t believe the ant baijiu would have any aphrodisiac properties but who would know that less than a year later my son was born and my wife and I have been happily married ever since.
What are your favorite baijius?
Nothing beats a good plum-based paojiu (泡酒). Its baijiu base should be made from corn or sticky rice which is then infused with green plums that have been allowed to steep for at least two years. It is the perfect harmony of sweetness, tartness and acidity. You have to make sure the one you get is above 40 percent alcohol: too many places have begun to water it down which really affects the flavor.
Amongst the famous brands, I hold Luzhou Laojiao as the shining star, especially the National Cellar 1573. However, as I married into a Guizhou family the sauce aroma is the default drink on family gatherings where I believe Zhenjiu (珍酒) is a good option for the famous brands from Maotai town.
You’ve organized quite a few baijiu events in Sweden. Which one was your favorite?
I did a tasting a couple of weeks back where I had prepared high-end baijiu from all the aroma categories. The people attending were all completely new to baijiu but were keen on trying it so I cooked them a 10-course dinner with dishes representing the different parts of China.
It was rewarding to see these middle-aged Swedes who had zero experience with authentic Chinese flavors and even less so with baijiu suddenly light up when they experienced the sensation whereby pairing the right drink with the right food eating becomes a meal and a delight for the palate.
This is what I strive for, an understanding and appreciation for Chinese spirits in the proper context. To recognize it for what it is, a profound part of China’s culinary heritage and the ultimate pairing with Chinese food. I believe and hope experiences like this may help bridge that gap between East and West and make people more eager to explore the cultural treasure that is China’s culinary legacy. Perhaps it may even allow for more inter-cultural understanding.
World Baijiu Day is August 9. See the 2017 events here. Sign up for 2018 here. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I also run the China wine site Grape Wall and nightlife site Beijing Boyce.