By Jim Boyce | Five years ago today, I found myself recovering after a big baijiu tasting. I wasn’t suffering from a hangover but a restless journey on an overnight train to Shanghai and, after a day of tasting, a four-hour delay on the Hongqiao tarmac during my return to Beijing. China’s travel system rather than its national spirit was the cause of any headaches.
In fact, the 80 baijiu-plus tasting organized by Derek Sandhaus had filled my head with with insights into this spirit.
“Our goal will be to create a new vocabulary for describing Chinese alcohols,” he wrote in an email invitation. “Your tasting notes will be incorporated with acknowledgement into my forthcoming book on Chinese alcohol.”
Trial by Fire
I first tried baijiu some 20 years ago during a vacation in Inner Mongolia. Our guide grinned like a madman as he splashed it on the bonfire and created bursts of flame. That baijiu didn’t burn quite so much when imbibed but did inspire some fire in the belly.
I have had baijiu many times since: with businesspeople during ganbei (bottoms up) sessions, with friends during Chinese holidays, with family members who try the bottles I bring home on vacation. But the Shanghai event was my first time tasting so many at once.
I took that train to Shanghai to ensure I arrived at the venue, Yuan Bar, before the 10 AM start. I imagined eager crowds jostling for the rarest brands and didn’t want to miss out. After all, Sandhaus had copied me into an email with 31 others and I figured word would get around.
Nope. Only two people showed that morning: Jeannie Cho-Lee, a Master of Wine based in Hong Kong, and me. It was nice to leisurely taste dozens of baijius but it was also disappointing given how much work Sandhaus put into sourcing those bottles and what a rare opportunity they represented.
Sandhaus arranged the bottles by style: “rice aroma”, “strong aroma”, “sauce aroma” and so on. That allowed us to compare and contrast categories and the individual baijius within them. I was happy to start anywhere but with Bottles That Look Like the Ones Used for Ganbei Sessions During My Visits to Chinese Wineries.
I know many people hate baijiu due to those ganbei sessions and the ensuing hangovers. Or to aromas and flavors far from what is found in other liquors: some of my Chinese friends have a similar reaction to peaty Islay single malts. But a tasting like the Shanghai one is enlightening for showing the universe of aromas, flavors and bodies of baijiu.
I tried two baijius that use pork fat during production. I tried baijiu made with a single grain and with up to five grains, including sorghum, rice, corn and wheat. I tried the American brand byejoe, Taiwan brand Kaoliang and labels from legendary producer Moutai. I found that while one baijiu might taste like a cross of blue cheese and dirty socks, another was sweet and floral, and yet another seemed designed to dissolve taste buds.
It was all good fun—except for the taste bud-dissolving ones—but there were those notes to consider. The wine trade often cites the use of “Western“ descriptions of flavors and aromas as a problem for consumers in China. Those consumers might not know “gooseberry” and thus we need an equivalent, they argue. In other words, one person’s blue cheese / toasted bread / cranberry can be another’s stinky tofu / toasted rice / yangmei.
While I think the issue of tasting notes is overblown, I did find myself using words more commonly associated with foods in China than in Canada. Yes, I used lots of typical descriptions of booze, like dry, sweet, viscous and tart—”solvent” made appearances, too—as well as comparison to ingredients like pineapple, chamomile, walnuts and licorice.
But I also jotted down things I associate with China: soy sauce, sesame oil, fermented bean paste, tofu, jasmine. And rice in many forms: steamed, toasted and burned. Spicy didn’t necessarily mean white or black pepper, as it tends to when I taste wine, but could refer to Sichuan peppercorns or a whiff of Lao Gan Ma (老干妈). Herbs were less about what I might find in spaghetti sauce and more about what might feature in one of those chicken soups that double as health tonics in China.
This could all also trigger memories. The toasty smell of one baijiu reminded me of my time in Korea and the dish bibimbap, the one served in a hot stone bowl that allows the rice on the bottom to continue cooking until it is crisp and brown. It’s called nurungji (누룽지), it’s delicious and it’s even used for candy.
Anyway, the aromas, flavors and reactions tend to get muddy as you taste baijiu after baijiu, hour after hour. My sniffing and tasting facilities eventually neared exhaustion, my hand started to cramp from writing. At least that’s my excuse for increasingly sloppy notes.
“Hmm, does that say ‘bean curd’ or ‘mean turd’?” I asked myself when reviewing them.
Our tiny tasting party was finally broken up at lunch when reinforcements arrived in the form of a bunch of booze trade people. This was more like it. After some food, and a Baijiu 101 briefing by Sandhaus, our group, now about a dozen strong, headed for those bottles.
We sniffed, sipped and spit, and discovered the richness of a spirit category often seen as one-dimensional, seen as a route to a quick drunk and, in turn, a nasty hangover. And even after trying 65 baijius, I felt merely buzzed when I left at 4 PM. I didn’t stumble out of Yuan, but sauntered off to my date with fate on the Hongqiao tarmac, to impressing my fellow passengers with my distillery-like aroma, and to sharing a better appreciation of baijiu.
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.
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