By Jim Boyce | During a mind-numbing 18-hour delay at Hongqiao airport last week, I suddenly realized I had last visited Shanghai exactly three years to try dozens of baijius, a trip that left me smelling like a liquor shop and stuck on the tarmac in a packed plane for four hours. Darn you, Shanghai airspace! In any case, that justifies a flashback post.
I headed to Shanghai three years ago this week for a tasting of 80-plus baijius organized by Derek Sandhaus, who was working on a now-finished book about this spirit for the publisher Penguin.
“Our goal will be to create a new vocabulary for describing Chinese alcohols,” Sandhaus emailed. “Your tasting notes will be incorporated with acknowledgement into my forthcoming book on Chinese alcohol.”
(To steal a line, my notes look like the output of a three-year-old with a satisfied craving for Brandy, but if you want ’em, you got ’em.)
I first tried baijiu 17 years ago during a trip to Inner Mongolia, right after our guide grinned like a maniac and threw some on our bonfire where it burst into flame, and I have sporadically posted about this spirit since starting my blog in 2006. But this would be the first time I tried so many in one sitting.
Since Beijing-Shanghai flight delays tend to be rule rather than exception, I took the overnight train, arrived early in the morning and was at Yuan Bar about an hour before start time. Sandhaus had copied me into an email with 31 other invitees, and I figured others might be coming, too, so I wanted to be there early to try as many baijius as possible, especially the rare and pricey ones, before they ran out.
My worries were unfounded. Only two people showed that morning: Jeannie Cho-Lee, a Master of Wine based in Hong Kong, and me. On one hand, it was liberating to have all those baijisu to ourselves. On the other, it was disappointing because of how much work Sandhaus put into sourcing those bottles and what a rare opportunity that represented.
Anyway, we settled down and started tasting. Sandhaus had arranged the bottles by styles, such as “rice aroma”, “strong aroma” and “sauce aroma”. That allowed us to compare and contrast not only categories but also individual baijius within each one. (I was happy to start anywhere except the table loaded with what I’ll call Bottles That Look Like the Ones Used for Ganbei Sessions at Chinese Wineries.)
I know many foreigners hate baijiu due to crazy ganbei sessions, and the ensuing hangovers, or due to aromas and flavors far from what is in other liquors—I’ve found Chinese friends have a similar reaction to the peaty nature of Islay single malts. But a tasting like the Shanghai one is enlightening if only for showing the vast universe of aromas, flavors, bodies and alcohol levels in this spirits category.
I tried two baijius that use pork fat during production. I tried baijius made with a single grain or with up to five grains, whether sorghum or rice or wheat. I tried American brand byejoe, Taiwan brand Kaoliang and a bunch of different baijius from legendary brand Moutai. I found that while one baijiu might taste like a cross of blue cheese and dirty socks, another was sweet and floral, and yet another seemed designed to dissolve taste buds.
It was all good fun—except the taste bud-dissolving ones—but there were those notes to consider. The wine trade often cites the use of “Western“ descriptions of flavors and aromas as a problem for consumers in China, that the latter read “gooseberry” on a label and have no reference point, that we need to find local alternatives. In other words, one person’s blue cheese / toasted bread / cranberry can be another’s stinky tofu / toasted rice / yangmei.
While I think the issue is overblown, I did find myself using words commonly associated with foods in China than in Canada. Yes, I used lots of typical descriptions of booze, like dry, sweet, viscous and tart —”solvent” made appearances, too—as well as items like pineapple, chamomile, walnuts and licorice.
But I also found myself regularly jotting those I associate with China, such as soy sauce, sesame oil, fermented bean paste, tofu and jasmine as well as rice in many forms–steamed, toasted and burned. Spicy didn’t necessarily mean white or black pepper, as it usually does when I taste wine, but could refer to Sichuan peppercorn or a whiff of Lao Gan Ma (老干妈). Herbs referred less to what I might add to spaghetti sauce and more to what I might find in one of those chicken soups doubling as health tonics.
These could also trigger memories. The toasty smell of one reminded me of my time in Korea and the dish bibimbap, the one served in a hot stone bowl that allows the rice on the bottom to continue cooking until it is crisp and brown. It’s called nurungji (누룽지) and it’s delicious and even used to make candies.
Anyway, those aromas and flavors and reactions tend to get muddy as you taste baijiu after baijiu, hour after hour. My sniffing and tasting facilities eventually approached exhaustion, my hand started to cramp from writing. At least that’s my excuse for my increasingly sloppy notes. “Hmm, does that say ‘bean curd’ or ‘mean turd’,” I asked myself when reviewing them later. Quite a big difference between the two.
Our tiny party was broken up at noon when reinforcements arrived. We had a light lunch, Sandhaus gave us a Baijiu 101 briefing, and—our group now about a dozen people strong—headed for those bottles. We sniffed and sipped and spit and discovered the richness of a spirit category often seen as one dimensional, as a route to a quick drunk and, in turn, a lasting hangover. But even after trying 65 baijius on this day, I felt only a slight buzz. And when I left in the late afternoon to return to Beijing, I didn’t stumble out of Yuan, I walked away with a greater appreciation of baiju.