Chinese Alcohol Deserves a Second Chance

By: Sam Chalekian

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Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World's Oldest Drinking Culture

Author: Derek Sandhaus

Originally published: November 2019

Like Malört in Chicago, many foreigners view Baijiu as a kind of one time party-trick, an innocuous liquor to cripple the unsuspecting. At first sip, Baijiu comes across as brutal and wildly intense, a sadistic high proof oddity. Its flavors are almost otherworldly, and would perhaps be most appropriate on the menu at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, over say, hotpot with friends. 

However, after exhaustive "research", Derek Sandhaus believes that what is standing between Baijiu and universal palatability is context. Like strolling into a museum and seeing an artifact lifted from its distinct cultural and temporal mores, so it is with China's most infamous liquor. It demands a backdrop, an explanation, and perhaps most importantly, a patient and receptive student.

Sandhaus enlightens the reader by way of his own liquor fueled peregrinations through the Chinese countryside, providing a social commentary reminiscent of American Shaolin. He breaks down the monolith of Chinese alcohol through its mythical and culinary origins, charting how China's relationship with alcohol has evolved over time.

This book is therefore something of a drinker's miscellany, a travelogue interwoven with anecdotes, both topical and historical. It's a risky strategy, but it works. Like many would-be vices, alcohol permeates and colors all parts of our lives, and is perhaps best understood through experience, even if it's vicarious. Most importantly of all, Sandhaus gives Western readers a critical frame of reference to adopt while learning to like the liquor, a process which he freely admits takes upwards of three hundred attempts. 

After reading Drunk in China, I procured a bottle of Sichuan's Du Kang strong aroma Baiju, with notes of synthesized cantaloupe and nail polish remover. Even as one of the best, I found it to be a hard sell. Discouraged, I brought it to my restaurant's Chinese New Year's banquet. Sure enough, Master Min took my offering and filled his teacup to the brim. Others soon followed suit, chatting excitedly while they availed themselves with huge swigs. By the end of the night, the grinning Head Chef held the bottle upside down in the air. Not a drop fell from its spout.

While I work through my next hundred shots, I think a sequel would help considerably.

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