I interviewed Derek Sandhaus about his new release, Drunk in China. The book explains baijiu, the fiery white spirits of China, and the culture surrounding baijiu through the lenses of history, society, cuisine, and Sandhaus’s experiences drinking baijiu.
Sandhaus has been living in China on and off since 2006 where he worked as a writer. After returning to the U.S., he ended up back in China in 2011 as the boyfriend, then husband, of an Foreign Service officer. That is when he started to become interested in learning about and writing about baijiu, chronicling his experience at the blogs 300 Shots at Greatness and Drink Baijiu.com, and launching the brand Ming River Sichuan Baijiu. He is the author of four books, including Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and, now, Drunk in China.
I interviewed him at one of Washington, DC’s most authentic Chinese restaurants, Sichuan Pavilion, where we talked about a wide range of topics while drinking baijiu and eating twice fried pork, dry fried green beans, and fish-fragrant eggplant.
In Drunk in China, you say you need 300 drinks of baijiu to hit the “taste threshold,” the level at which you are accustomed to the taste of baijiu.
There’s an idea of a taste threshold, that if you don’t like the taste of something, if you keep drinking it, you will become used to it, which isn’t true in all cases, but is often true. Common examples are coffee and beer. You begin to like it, and then you start seeking it out and savoring it.
So my friend said that they’ve done the study on different drinks. He asked me, ‘Do you know how many drinks it takes to become accustomed to baijiu?’ I asked, ‘How many?’ and he said 300.
So, one of the ways I began to organize my early writing about baijiu is I started a blog called Three Hundred Shots at Greatness. I went out and bought different kinds of baijiu and thought I would chronicle my experience going from not liking baijiu to loving it by the time I got to 300.
I think, in retrospect, that’s kind of a misguided notion. It rests on a fundamental misunderstanding that baijiu is one drink.
Baijiu is any kind of Chinese liquor, like the equivalent of ‘Chinese food.’
What’s this misunderstanding about baijiu?
I thought baijiu was one drink, like tequila or bourbon. In reality, baijiu is any kind of Chinese liquor, like the equivalent of ‘Chinese food.’ Different parts of China make different kinds of baijiu, which are very different drinks that taste very different from each other.
What I noticed when I went out and bought five bottles of baijiu is that those five bottles don’t taste anything like each other. So, for me, the process was exploring different styles of baijiu and finding out what style I liked best.
By the time I had about 50 or 60 shots, I found a kind of baijiu that I thought was great. I really liked it. It was made by the Luzhou Laojiao distillery in Sichuan, from the same distillery as the baijiu we are drinking now. In China, you could buy this for 7 or 8 US dollars. The one I tried that I really liked was about 200 USD. It was at a diplomatic function I’d been invited to.
That’s when I was able to really appreciate baijiu for what it was. Then I could see, even when I am drinking a lower-end baijiu, I could still see what they were trying to do.
What exactly is baijiu in a technical sense? What is the difference between baijiu and huangjiu?
Huangjiu, “yellow wine,” is a Chinese grain-based drink, that is fermented but not distilled. Baijiu is fermented then distilled. But it’s not as simple as saying that baijiu is distilled huangjiu. It is true that you wouldn’t have baijiu without huangjiu coming first. However, they differ production-wise in a number of other important ways.
In China, when the food went bad and decomposed, it smelled sweet, people they thought it smelled delicious.
Basically, the origin of East Asian alcohol is something called qu, which is the result of East Asians were working with soft grains, as opposed to in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, where they were using barley and grain, which are hard-shelled grains, that you had to mash and turn into flour. In China and Asia, the grains that they were using in the ancient world were rice and soft-shelled grains, which had an exterior that allows you to eat it without much intervention. The oldest way to consume them was to boil them into porridges. Starting about 6000 BC, they started steaming grains. When you steam a grain, you do some interesting things that break it down so that it is easier for it to interact with its surroundings. If you have a bowl of rice that has been steamed, when it is decomposing, it will start to absorb the things that are in the air—mold, yeast, and bacteria. As those things interact, it starts to ferment naturally, and it develops a sweet smell.
When the flour they were eating in the Middle East went bad, it got moldy and smelled bad. But in China, when the food went bad and decomposed, the fermentation made it smell sweet, so people kept it around, because they thought it was delicious. So those grains were fermenting naturally. Then they found that if they dried out the grains, you could take the grains that had naturally decomposed, mix it with some water, and that’s qu, the principal agent of fermentation for East Asian liquor. It’s usually shaped into a ball or a brick. For most rice wines, it’s made of rice. For most other liquors, including baijiu, it’s made of wheat, or barley.
Now they use that technique for all kinds of fermented foods—soy sauce, vinegar, tofu, all the pickled meats and vegetables, too.
With huangjiu, they press the liquid out of the mash, and that’s the alcohol.
With baijiu, it’s different. They never press the liquid out of the mash. The way they get it out is they distill it. They put it in a pot still and run steam through it. As the steam heats up the mash, the ethanol within the grains will reach a boiling temperature and begin steaming off the top of the mash.
What kinds of regional differences are there when it comes to the taste of baijiu?
What people who make baijiu are trying to do is come up with the perfect flavor combination to go with the food of that region. So in Sichuan, you have very spicy, bold flavors. You’ve got lots of fermented condiments with a lot of funkiness to it. You’ve got a lot of ginger and chili and garlic. Then the baijiu in Sichuan has some sweetness to it. Like the one we’re drinking now, it has a bit of pineapple, licorice, even a little funky cheesiness. Something this sweet can really bring down the spiciness. And the spiciness can bring out a lot of the complexity of this drink as well.
So I think an important thing to do when you want to experience baijiu at it’s best is to figure out where the baijiu that you’re drinking comes from, and pair it with the food to get the best flavors of each.
What would you say to foreigners who think baijiu is undrinkable, some foreigners who reject it after a few sips or those who might not even want to try it?
One thing that’s very important is that at the moment you encounter something that really blows your mind is to not immediately discard that experience. When you taste something where you think, ‘That’s not how things are supposed to taste,’ or when you experience something where you think, ‘That’s not something that’s supposed to happen,’ don’t immediately think there’s something wrong with it. I hadn’t gotten to that reflective state either, when I first arrived in China. Most of the world hasn’t gotten to that state when it comes to baijiu, but had I not gotten there, I would have missed out on so many amazing experiences in China.
If we were drinking in China, the night would reach the state at a certain point that they call re-nao, it gets “loud and hot.”
Talk about the social function of baijiu.
If this were a restaurant in China and we were drinking baijiu together, the night would reach the state at a certain point that they call re-nao [roughly translated as “exciting”/“lively”], “loud and hot,” where you’ve been eating for a while, you’ve been drinking for a while, you’re kind of drunk on the spice, you’re drunk on the liquor, and you’re in this mood of pure joy. You can bounce around a little bit; you can go sit at a stranger’s table and make a toast to them, invite them to join in your revelry.
If you look at alcohol in China, that is how it’s always been. It’s always been a communal experience. Going back 7000-9000 years, people have always been using alcohol to create this sense of shared connection.
It’s the way most people in China socialize with each other. If you only drink at the local Irish pub in China, you’re not going to experience this part of Chinese culture. You’re basically saying, ‘My drinking, the way I experience China, has to happen on Western terms.’
You include a lot of your own experiences in your book, your experiences in China, trying baijiu. It seems to me kind of like a “baijiu memoir.”
About half of the book is my story and half of the book is the alcohol’s story in China. I do go in and out of those threads throughout the book.
It was important for me to put the book in the first person, to be upfront about who I am, what my experiences are. If I am a white American going to write this book about a Chinese liquor most Americans are unfamiliar with, I want to let readers know how I relate to it and where my knowledge comes from.
At the same time, a lot of the attitudes I am critical of from foreigners who dismiss baijiu or who dismiss elements of Chinese culture are not attitudes from which I have been completely immune. I had some of those attitudes in the past. So what I am saying is I am not a remarkably tolerant or intolerant person. If I can get past some of the prejudices I bring to my subject, then so can some of my readers.
There are not many English-language books on the market about baijiu, and I would love for more people to write about it. I would also love to see Chinese, or Chinese-American authors write about it, because they would bring a much different perspective.
Bonus content: Derek Sandhaus talks about how Korean soju has changed since the 1960’s
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