Derek Sandhaus on Being Drunk on Baijiu in China

By Cristina Ng, March 20, 2020

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Derek Sandhaus wrote the book on China’s most well-known yet mysterious spirit, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. His newest tome Drunk in China explores the world’s oldest drinking culture through entertaining tales set in distilleries, hot pot restaurants and karaoke joints around the country. We caught up with him for a crash course in baijiu appreciation.

The name of your blog is Three Hundred Shots of Greatness. Did it actually take 300 shots for you to love baijiu?
Thankfully, I consider the 300-shot theory — that one’s baijiu hate-love switch flips after 300 drinks — thoroughly discredited. The thing with baijiu is that it isn’t just one drink, it’s a family of about a dozen distinct spirits, and there’s a great range of styles and quality among each of those. The trick for me was finding one that I could appreciate on its own merits. For me that was Guojiao 1573, which I found around 60 shots into my research.  

What advice do you have for someone keen to develop a taste for baijiu?
Get yourself a bottle of each of the four major baijiu styles – rice aroma, light aroma, strong aroma, sauce aroma — and taste them in that order. Whether you fall in love right there or not, you’re going to notice two things: 1. Baijiu can be many different things. 2. You like certain styles more naturally than others. From there it’s a simple matter of narrowing down what you like and don’t like.

But that’s only part of the equation. If you really want to fall in love with baijiu, you need to experience it in its natural context, the dinner table. Try to pair the baijiu with the food of the region it comes from – strong aroma with spicy Sichuanese, light aroma with salty northern fare, sauce aroma with spicy-sour Guizhou food, and rice aroma with seafood and milder flavors.

With younger Chinese drinkers ordering picture-perfect cocktails and expensive imported wines, how does baijiu stay relevant?
Baijiu hasn’t always played the role it plays today in Chinese society. It has adapted with the times and it must continue to adapt to stay relevant. Its greatest obstacle in an increasingly cosmopolitan China is that you drink baijiu at dinners and banquets, but never at nightlife venues like bars, clubs and KTVs, where international drinks are preferred.

So, the answer in my mind is simple if not counterintuitive: For baijiu to survive in China, it has to become an international drink. If the bars of Shanghai take their cues from New York, Paris, Tokyo and Seoul, one has to find baijiu in these places for it to stay relevant.

Our cocktail columnist Logan R. Brouse says that the world just needs that one world-famous baijiu cocktail to be invented – like margaritas did for tequila – before it has a place on bar shelves globally. What do you think that cocktail should be?
In my line of work, I drink so many baijiu cocktails that it’s hard to pick just one. But I have a few favorites. Shannon Mustipher’s ‘Trader’s Treasure,’ a fruity but complex tiki drink, is one of my favorites. I also love Christian Wu’s ‘General Ming’ and David Putney’s ‘Paper Crane.’

What’s the best night out drinking baijiu that you have ever had?
That’s a very tough question, because there are so many to choose from, and my memory is fuzzy around the edges of them all. 

I have very fond memories of being invited over to a friend’s apartment in Chengdu. She had a lovely little garden in her backyard and it was a perfect night. She and her husband prepared my wife and I a home-cooked meal that we ate outside. He brought me a bottle of his favorite baijiu — a small qu light aroma from Chongqing — and we spent hours under the sky discussing philosophy, religion and literature. It was a very high-minded, classical drinking session.

I also have another fond memory of a hotpot meal that descended into pure hilarity. There was dancing, singing, drinking games (whose rules escaped me) – someone is laughing in every picture taken that night. Both experiences are favorites in their own way.

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[Cover image provided by Derek Sandhaus]

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