A Salute to Baijiu, Part Two: A Second Reason for Baijiu Being the Draught of Satan

The second reason for baijiu being the draught of Satan is its flavor. Most other alcohols are made from one major ingredient. Vodka typically comes from potatoes, tequila from agave, etc. What’s added after that is typically just flavoring: gin is flavored with bergamom and sometimes anise, and Scotch is aged in oak casks which give it its distinctive dark-brown or golden coloring. As a result, the taste of the alcohol is usually fairly simple, and in the best Scotches, gentle. There’s a dominant flavor on the nose which fades quickly to be replaced by another one or two flavors in succession. It’s a bit like having guests over for a dinner party. At the best parties, there’s usually one person who dominates most of the conversation, but in an entertaining way, with a regular flow of great stories or pithy comments, but as the evening wears on you become aware of the other personalities in the room, each of which has something different, though still worthwhile, to offer. A single meaningful glance from a person can add rich coloring to an evening. An expensive Scotch, or tequila (yes, tequila; if you don’t believe me, drink a glass of Don Julio), or vodka, is like a perfectly balanced dinner party: one or two personalities are dominant, and the others are represented tastefully but completely.

Baijiu is more like a knife fight. Between five inebriated circus clowns. In your living room.

The majority of the baijiu in China is made from several different kinds of grain: wheat, sorghum, barley, etc. One of the most famous brands, Wu Liang Ye, is made from five. You can’t mix that many primary ingredients. You just can’t. None of the flavors agree. And here we have something of a miracle, too, because although I have no idea what sorghum tastes like, I can tell you for sure that it doesn’t agree with anything else in the baijiu bouquet. Ditto for the other ingredients. It’s a little like the sub-atomic particles scientists keep finding. You can’t see them, and you’d be hard-pressed to describe what they are, but you can definitely see their effects. Not that the multiple-grain flavoring is nearly that subtle, of course. It’s more like a car crash. A child of three could tell you the elements involved don’t go together.

Which brings me to my next point, and it’s a rule: there’s no such thing as a good bottle of baijiu. That’s it. End of discussion. I’ve had everything from cheap convenience-store baijiu to home-brew to a bottle my boss bought once in Shandong Province that was probably more than 1000 RMB ($150-175), and if someone at the time had offered me, as an alternative, a bottle of Mexican tap water, I’d have cheerfully gone with that. Every time I’ve had baijiu I’ve taken a sip and gagged. In fact, the only real way to delineate the various levels of baijiu “quality” is to measure how hard my gag reflex kicks in. With the best baijiu, I was able to recover quickly and shovel some food into my mouth to get rid of the taste. With the worst, it was actually difficult not to throw up, and that’s no exaggeration. All that to say, there’s a difference between the different kinds of baijiu, but it’s not a difference between good and bad baijiu, but rather between the different shades of horrible-ness. In the science fiction classic The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, one of the main characters, a poet, is transported to a kind of alternate dimension where he is impaled on a giant spike alongside countless other people who are impaled on their own spikes and who are, like him, unable to die and so suffer unimaginable torment for, presumably, eternity. The poet notes that although he once thought there was only one vast, general thing called “pain,” in reality there are numerous kinds of pain, each unique, and there are numerous ways of feeling such pain. Shifting on the spike doesn’t relieve the pain, it merely produces pain of a different kind from a different part of the body. The variations are endless, as only someone who suffers excruciating physical pain for a long period of time can know

Baijiu is like that.



3 Responses to A Salute to Baijiu, Part Two: A Second Reason for Baijiu Being the Draught of Satan

  1. Cat says:

    “Baijiu is more like a knife fight. Between five inebriated circus clowns. In your living room.” – Best description of Baijiu ever.

  2. Lee says:

    I thought gin got its flavor from juniper berries. Bergamot is the flavoring for Earl Grey tea.

    • Rob says:

      Ah yes, I think you’re right. Although I seem to remember seeing a bottle once that contained Bergamom. Not sure, though.

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