Learning to love baijiu

How to go from baijiu hater to loving the traditional Chinese spirit

Derek Sandhaus used to hate baijiu, but hundreds of sips later he’s learned to love it and has now written a book, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. He explains his obsession.

My decision to develop an appreciation for baijiu baffled the people close to me. For those back home in America, theirs was a straightforward confusion: they didn’t know what the hell it was. But for those in the know, who had served time in China and personally grappled with the drink known as ‘white lady’, their response was mainly disbelief verging on revulsion.

They looked at me with the same wary expression one might give a friend who had announced that they were joining a cult or directing a snuff film. There were times – somewhere around the 100th glass – when I began to question the wisdom of the endeavour myself.

I knew I was on to something, though. Alcohol has always been at the heart of Chinese civilisation. It has influenced and been influenced by the nation’s religions, art and politics. Today baijiu is the most widely consumed spirit globally. We’re talking about one of the most important aspects of the world’s most populous nation. The only trouble was finding a way to like it.

"Derek Sandhaus"I began my experiment by attempting to pass the fabled ‘300 shot threshold’. Most people who drink beer or whisky, the theory posits, do not enjoy their first tastes. There must be a temporal point, a taste threshold, at which the needle flips from hate to love. For coffee, the threshold is as low as five to ten attempts. With baijiu, the magic number is 300. I don’t know where the number came from or who first suggested it, but I went with it. 

300 shots was the launching point. The going was rough at first. I drank my way through the Wuliangye, Quanxing and Lang Jiu brands and what I suspect was counterfeit Moutai. I began to notice different gradations of quality but I failed to find anything truly captivating, or even remotely appealing. Next I tried alchemy, mixing erguotou, sometimes known as Chinese vodka, in cocktails (an abject failure) then readjusting my taste buds with miracle fruit (it still tasted like rotten banana, sadly). 

Then one day it just happened. I was in the midst of a Sichuan government-led re-education-through-hospitality battery of events, drinking Guojiao 1573, when I noticed that against all reason I was enjoying myself. The baijiu was crisp and smooth, and I daresay even tasted pleasant. Later that day, when I was forced to perform a drum routine in traditional Chinese costume in front of tens of thousands of people, it even made things borderline tolerable.

From this small beginning, three months and 70 shots in, I began to find something to like in other baijius. Two years, several hundred shots and countless distillery visits later, I’ve developed a full-blown appreciation for the sweet sorghum sauce. 

So why should you like it? There are too many reasons to get into in one short article, but most of them boil down to leading a richer, more fulfilling life in China, and accepting the country on its own terms.

Remember first and foremost that baijiu is a catch-all term for all Chinese spirits. It covers an eclectic range of drinks. It’s all a matter of finding the right one for you. Appreciating baijiu is more about understanding the category and its many iterations than forcing yourself to repeatedly drink one that’s wrong for your tastes. If you find the right baijiu, it will be love at first sip.

Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits is available from Garden Books, priced around 100RMB. 

Three bottled baijiu to try

"Baijiu-3-0"Tou Qu
Distillery Luzhou Laojiao in Luzhou, Sichuan
Category Strong aroma
Sandhaus says A sweet, gentle sorghum-based baijiu intended for casual drinking. It offers exceptional value for the mid-range bracket.

"Baijiu-2-0"Lao Guilin
Distillery Guilin Sanhua in Guilin, Guangxi
Category Rice aroma
Sandhaus says One of the most interesting modern rice baijius on the market, it has a yeasty aroma, a muted spiciness, and a slightly vanilla taste. Its finish evokes rose essence.

"Baijiu-4-0"Zishaci Fenjiu
Distillery Xinghuacun in Xinghuacun, Shanxi
Category Light aroma
Sandhaus says Bottled in China’s prized purple clay, this is a richly layered sorghum baijiu with a savoury mixture of roasted herbs and pine