By HUO SHUI
Food and Drink Correspondent
BEIJING (China Daily Show) – As its annual exports reach a dizzying one hundred liters, it seems that China’s favorite drink is fast becoming the world’s number-one tipple of last resort.
Baijiu, a ‘white spirit’ made from sorghum, is beginning to appear on dinner tables across the globe, leaving perplexed hosts wondering what to with the lavishly packaged bottle that their Chinese guest has just presented them.
One solution might be stick it next to the carton of luxury cigarettes and forget about it – but that’s something baijiu expert Chen Baishi urges newcomers not to do.
Chen, who hopes one day to see his favourite drink sitting alongside the likes of cognac and aged single-malt scotch in the homes of the moneyed elite, has been drinking baijiu since he was six years old.
Speaking from the overnight holding cell of his township police station in Liangdan, Gansu province, Chen offers his theory about why baijiu is still largely misunderstood in the West.
“Foreigners continue to have problems with baijiu. But really, it’s like China itself: once you’ve gotten past the initially grim first impressions and bizarre taste, after a few years you start to get used to it – and even enjoy it. Plus, it’s as cheap as life here.”
Chen has a number of tips to enhance the taste and appreciation of baijiu that foreigners might wish to pay attention to.
“First, get properly shitfaced. To best enjoy this unique liquor, one really needs to be absolutely knee-walking drunk,” Chen says.
“Also – use a glass,” Chen advises. “I’ve drunk it from a sea shell, the palm of my hands and even a discarded shoe before – but a glass is probably the most convenient method. That said, you could just drink it straight from the bottle, which is arguably even more convenient. But, if there is one available, most people do seem to prefer a glass.”
While temperature can affect the molecularity, consistency and taste of drinks such as red wine and whisky, Chen is dismissive of such concerns when it comes to baijiu.
“However hot or cold the room is – that’s the temperature you should drink it at. A good baijiu is like a martini: anytime, anyplace, anyhow. I’m even drinking it right now,” Chen admits with a flush of pride.
But baijiu has already managed to creep its way into some Westerners’ lives, with the drink recently topping a poll compiled by foreigners living in China of their most unwanted gifts – narrowly beating off a calligraphy set and a jar of preserved duck necks.
But Chen would like to see its influence extend outside of China’s borders. For this, he admits quality is a concern.
“But the great thing about baijiu is, it doesn’t matter if it costs 3,000 kuai or 3 kuai, it always tastes exactly the same,” Chen chuckles, adding that his personal favorite is Red Star baijiu, which retails at around four yuan for a small bottle.
“It’s got a kick like an un-neutered mule and a diesel-like aftertaste that lingers in the mouth, nose and throat long after you’ve finished throwing up.”
And as more people look to China with renewed interest in its culture and history, baijiu is finding its way into the most unlikely of places.
British painter-decorator Paul Hammond says that he and his workmates started using baijiu after being introduced to it by an illiterate cockle-picker at his local pub in Southampton.
“You need to wear the right protective equipment because of the fumes,” Hammond recommends. “But it gets rid of even the most stubborn stains like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
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