Baijiu Bigotry

I recently saw a link to this article on Facebook: One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong (China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it). So it’s a post laegely about how baijiu (白酒) cannot success outside of China because it’s a terrible, terrible liquor. (Some of the comments I read on Facebook went much further, and I’ll address that sentiment below.)

Red Bull + Baijiu

Now I’m no fan of baijiu; I’ve made this clear in the past. And when I say it’s terrible, I know it’s because I personally will never develop a taste for it, and I’m not interested in “giving it a chance.” I’ve done that. Plenty of times. (Same goes for chicken feet.) I think part of it is that I resent a certain idea that sometimes gets tossed around: if you’ve been in China this long, you should have learned to like baijiu by now. Nope, sorry. Don’t like it. Now leave me alone.

But I’ve also learned–thanks to my friend Derek Sandhaus–that it is possible for westerners to develop a taste for baijiu. I seriously doubt it’s ever going to go mainstream, but the Chinese will ensure that there’s always a market for the stuff.

The article linked to below, though, goes way beyond the idea that the Chinese like it and westerners typically don’t. It reminds me of Seinfeld’s “chopsticks bigotry” (which is actually funny, because it’s a bit more self-aware):

> I’ll tell you what I like about Chinese people … They’re hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren’t they? You know they’ve seen the fork. They’re staying with the sticks. I’m impressed by that. I don’t know how they missed it. A Chinese farmer gets up, works in the field with the shovel all day… Shovel… Spoon… Come on… There it is. You’re not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues….

What’s interesting about this type of opinion of baijiu is that this is a truly dividing issue. Some westerners will actually hold the opinion that “this is a vile alcohol and no one should drink it, Chinese or not.” You might hear some cross-cultural statements of the some ilk about peeing in public, or disregard for safety, but attacking another culture’s favorite alcohol? It’s just a bit bizarre.

What do you think?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Heaven knows I love a drop of the strong stuff, but I’ve never been able to enjoy the liquor I call despise-jiu.

    It has a sickly, slightly tangy sweetness. I’d say of all spirits, it’s the closest in taste to its vomit form.

    I’ve drunk it at lavish private dinners and little hole-in-the-wall street stalls, and never noticed a difference. The people you’re with ultimately determine how fun the meal is.

    Anyway that’s my six bits. I’d rather drink the cheapest whiskey than the dearest baijiu.

  2. It’s a bit like stinky tofu or pig blood cake here in Taiwan, in addition to all sorts of foods people say the same kind of thing about, i.e. “You’ve been here so long, surely you dare eat _____?” The problem is people confusing “not like to eat…” with “don’t dare eat…” Sure, I “dare” eat a lot of things, I just don’t particularly like them . But there’s nothing you can do about public opinion, so I usually ignore it and let people think whatever they like, however misguided. As with other things, the kind of people who insist on such generalizations usually aren’t worth giving the time of day.

  3. Eh, any Westerner who fetishizes some aspect of foreign culture can force himself to like it, given enough time. In Japan I had convinced myself that sumo was interesting.

    Is this actually about bigotry? We shouldn’t use words like that without purpose because it decreases the meaning. Just look at what happened to the word ‘racism’.

  4. I’m Canadian and I love Baijiu. It’s my favourite drink to sip, and the only type of alcohol I like to have with a meal.

    Chinese people tend to be impressed by my Baijiu drinking ability. I kindly remind them that I am Canadian and have the genetically-inherent ability to drink people of all other nationalities (except Irish) under the table…

    Nah, just kidding! 🙂

    Anyways, Baijiu is just a drink. Some like it, others don’t. I suppose if one gets used to a certain alcohol, they are more likely to like it, but it’s not a cultural issue.

    And, I do think there’s a market for it with Westerners…somebody just has yet to crack it. It would need to be marketed as high-end, but it’s tough to market anything “Made in China” as high-end. I’d love to try to market it in North America myself…

  5. Baijiu is great for what it is, but what it is is something most westerners don’t like. Now Snow beer is something I don’t ever think I could develop a taste for. It’s like drinking dirty water…just enough flavor to be noticeably bad.

  6. Baiju is an acquired taste without doubt. It is also very strong, and Chinese liquors in general are not as refined as Western ones. But there is a genetic reason for this. The majority of Asians lack the gene that helps break down alcohol in the body. That is why many get red and start to sweat when drinking even a tiny amount (although repeated exposure will build up tolerance levels). Most Caucasians do have this gene. Consequently, alcoholic drinks have developed differently in each region. Westerners can drink a lot over time, so Western alcohols tend to be more refined. Asians generally cannot, so know need to refine alcohol so much.
    That said, and I’ve had many Baiju’s in my time, there are some palatable ones, even to the point of being smooth. There are also some good cocktails out there, notably on this excellent link:
    In the meantime, Baiju is a Beijing and Northern China Winter essential. For where would we be without those taxi drivers around town stinking of Baiju and Garlic and still driving passengers about? That alone is a Chinese cultural experience…

  7. Baijiu is vile alcohol and no one should drink it.

    The same goes for Jägermeister.

  8. Thank you, Ron and Chaon, for providing two perfect examples of baijiu bigotry.

    Chaon, yours is the explicit version – all baijiu is vile. Why? Just because it’s baijiu. Never mind actually sampling a wider variety of baijius with an open mind. If you’ve tasted a sip of the cheap and nasty Hongxing Erguotou little green bottle of evil then you know everything there can be to know about baijiu.

    Ron, yours is the implicit version, which requires the reader/listener to examine the underlying assumptions buried in the first two sentences of your comment. Of course, any and every Westerner* who claims to like baijiu must be fetishising baijiu. After all, we all know that everything Western is vastly superior to anything not Western, so what other reason would there be for a Westerner to like baijiu? Or sumo, for that matter.

    *for a whole other discussion, but: Can somebody give me a clear, coherent definition of “Westerner”? Thought not.

  9. I don’t drink baijiu often, but I do enjoy it on occasion. The problem with a lot of baijiu is that much of it is of poor quality, so that people can afford it. That stuff is indeed atrocious, just like cheap booze in the west. But the high quality baijiu is excellent. In particular, I’m thinking of 五粮液 from Sichuan. It pairs absolutely wonderfully with hot pot. The secret is to take small sips, don’t slam it back like tequila. It is the perfect accompaniment, honestly.

    • Yes. And another secret is that there isn’t that strong a connection between price and quality. Some really good baijiu can be got amazingly cheap, and some really expensive stuff tastes awful and does far worse to you than you want to imagine. That doesn’t actually contradict the “poor quality so people can afford it” thing, but it does help muddy the waters when trying to persuade people that baijiu is not all so universally foul that the Devil himself won’t even touch it. In addition to 五粮液, which is good, I would also recommend 蒙古王.

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