From The Financial Times
Anyone who's been to a Chinese banquet knows the culture of baijiu. The Chinese are serious about this liquor.
Image from 21food.cn
Beijingers call the hot and sticky months of July and August the "sauna" season. On muggy summer evenings, sensible locals sweat it out in the capital's old lanes with sticks of fatty lamb kebab and cold bottles of Yanjing beer.
But real men roll up their T-shirts under their armpits, ditch the pansy lager, and instead glug down the local firewater known as baijiu - a potent mash of sorghum, rice, unhusked barley and other grains.
For foreign businessmen forced to drink the stuff at countless banquets, baijiu provides an infamous challenge for the unconditioned palate. But this white spirit - generally 40 to 60 per cent alcohol by volume - is a mainstay of Chinese culture, first popularised during the Xia dynasty 4,000 years ago.
Baijiu, the world's largest spirits category by volume, traditionally dominated the domestic booze market. But in recent years, sales volumes of China's national liquor declined as beer, a foreign upstart, gulped up market share.
Now baijiu-makers are fighting back with a proliferation of new, luxury varieties designed to appeal to the country's growing band of big spenders. Revenues are shooting up at major distilleries and the spirit is giving beer a run for its money.
My first experience with baijiu in China was a bad one. The people I was drinking with told me, "Have some Chinese wine!" Thinking that I'd be drinking something in the same vain as "wine," I was all for it. After my first glass was poured and the glasses around the table were raised, I didn't even bother smelling the fluid inside the small shot glass. As the "firewater" hit my mouth and throat, I nearly gagged.
"This is wine?!" I remember yelling as I was short of breath after my drink.
The Chinese around the table all laughed and immediately poured me another glass.
I don't need to get into the details of what ensued. You can easily guess. Let's just say the next day I had one of the worst hangovers of my life.
For the next couple years I was staunchly opposed to baijiu. Whenever I was at a wedding or event where people were drinking the stuff, I'd take a drink or two out of politeness but rarely ever imbibed any more than that.
My attitude changed towards baijiu changed last fall when my friend from America, Andy, came to visit me in Xi'an though. On our way out to travel out in Gansu, Andy and I bought a bottle to drink on the train. We then ended up having an absolutely excellent drunken time. A week or two later, we drank some more baijiu at the north peak of Hua Shan when we stayed at a guesthouse there. Another truly great experience.
So since those positive instances last fall, I'm totally fine with drinking baijiu. I can't say I do it that often, but when the occasion arises, whether it be a wedding or a house party, I'm happy to participate.
To America on its best holiday of the year, 干杯 and have a great day!