China’s national drink, baijiu, is a clear, potent spirit that can range anywhere between 40-70 per cent in alcohol content.
Last year more than 5 billion litres were sold, making it the most consumed spirit in the world by far.
But outside of China little is known about baijiu, and foreigners who have dared to taste it liken it to drinking cleaning agent or cheap perfume.
Now efforts are underway to market and export the fiery drink to the world — but many say that it is a challenge too great.
On the warm balmy evenings in Beijing, people flock to the outdoor eating areas to enjoy barbequed meats and their drink of choice baijiu.
After a hard day’s work Meng Bao Chun and his mates come to unwind with a drink or two.
“Baijiu is good, it’s pure, it’s strong, it’s exciting and it improves friendships,” he said.
He and his friends toast each other in round after round while eating grilled lamb skewers.
But he said they have to be careful not to drink too much.
“It can send you crazy and turn you into a beggar,” he laughs.
National drink under threat
China’s drinking culture dates back 7,000 years BC, and baijiu came onto the scene about 1,000 years ago in the Song Dynasty.
Traditionally it has been used to mark key rituals and life events, to build relationships and show respect.
But China’s national drink is now under threat.
Sales have been falling since Chinese President Xi Jinping started his campaign against lavish government spending and cut budgets for state banqueting.
As well as that, the younger Chinese generation have begun to turn away from baijiu, developing Western tastes for wine and whiskey.
But a Beijing based company called Capital Spirits wants to turn this around by selling baijiu to the world.
Baijiu ‘just as varied as any other spirit’
David Putney, one of the company’s owners, said the first misconception they have to break down to Western customers is that baijiu is a single type of spirit.
“There are over 10,000 baijiu distilleries in China, so baijiu is as varied and has as many flavours as there are regions in China,” he said.
“So the difference between one baijiu style and the next is just as different between vodka, Scotch and tequila.”
Mr Putney said foreigners’ experience of drinking baijiu was often at business or government functions and banquets.
“They have to drink round after round quickly, so they don’t have time to appreciate it what it is,” he said.
Beijing bar opens to ‘help educate people how to drink baijiu’
Capital Spirits has opened the first baijiu bar in Beijing with the aim of educating customers and giving them the time to appreciate and savour the taste.
An American tourist at the bar, Lee James from Texas, said all he knew about baijiu was that it tasted like “rocket fuel”.
But after sampling five different types he described himself as a “convert”.
The baijiu bar is also serving baijiu-based cocktails, and this is reintroducing the national drink to younger richer Chinese like 28-year-old Lei Yang.
“I don’t like drinking shots of baijiu like my Father did, it’s too strong — but the cocktails here are great,” he said.
Mr Putney said the bar was succeeding far beyond their expectations.
“We have converted well over 90 per cent of our patrons that come to our bar,” he said.
“I’ve served baijiu to thousands of people and the number of people that come here and say ‘I hate baijiu’, and leave saying ‘I never thought baijiu could be so varied and good’ is outstanding.”
He acknowledges there is a long way to go to make non-Chinese fall in love with the firewater-like liquor of baijiu.
However Capital Spirits recently secured a deal with a large Chinese distillery to get a foothold in the American market.
Back at the barbeque, more rounds of baijiu are downed and Feng Ling says China’s favoured drink is not going away anytime soon.
“The thousand-year-old tradition is here to stay,” he said.
By Matthew Carney