Friday, September 10, 2010

International Spirits: Baijiu

Under the dull fluorescent lighting of a Wal-mart like no other I had ever encountered was where I met Baijiu. I spotted the small clear bottle containing an equally clear liquid adorned with a red and blue label and hastily moved toward it. The label contained little text I could read other than 56% which was adjacent to image of an older Chinese man smiling and giving a 'thumbs up' as if to say "Go on! Drink It!" I looked up at the price sign which featured the familiar Wal-mart smiley face next to a price that read ¥9 ($1.30). Hell yes I bought it!

baijiu, Travel

The clear liquid was baijiu, the national drink of China. Baijiu is a Chinese distilled alcoholic beverage that's name literally means "white liquor," or "white spirits". Generally about 40-60% alcohol by volume (ABV) baijiu varieties can be produced from sorghum(a grass-like cereal grain), glutinous rice, wheat, barley or millet. Baijiu can be purchased flavored or unflavored. Some common flavourings include tealeaves, Chinese herbal medicines, preserved snakes and scorpions. Traditionally baijiu is drunk with food rather than on its own, though the latter is not uncommon.

Baijiu comes in a variety of grades, indicating quality. Higher grades, which are often aged for many years, can retail for thousands of dollars a bottle, while low grades can be found for well under one dollar.

Baijiu that is out of my league.

So, after all the hype how does it taste? I took my first swig of must have been quite low-grade baijiu in the middle of a crowded square in Nanning china and found myself resisting the urge to immediately spit it out. The taste was akin to the smell (and presumably taste) of nail polish remover and although I reluctantly finished the bottle I wont be seeking out any baijiu now that I'm back home. Although my experience was undoubtedly with low quality baijiu it is said that most westerners liken the flavour of Baijiu to paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, or diesel fuel.

Baijiu is certainly the best option for a budget traveller (with a strong stomach) looking to get drunk but if nail polish remover isn't your thing, maybe stick with Chinese beer. The low cost of trying Baijiu makes it a worthwhile experiment and opportunity to taste the local delights.
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