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Comrade's Guide to Baijiu

Pungent, pernicious and poignant sorghum balanced with a whiff of wheat... Is it Maotai or perhaps Wuliangye? This week the Comrade, who happens to be a Chinese white spirit connoisseur (as opposed to dilettante imbiber Ayi), is playing the game which non-baijiu drinkers might consider both precarious and preposterous, but which those with a pro's nose (and a bad case of the DT shakes) consider a daily recreational activity.

Imagine my surprise and shame when I discovered that the wonderfully noxious concoction I assumed was a RMB300-a-bottle brew was in fact no more than a RMB5 bottle of Shuanggou daqu (fermented peas can often sharpen the spirit, making the alcohol content seem up to 10 percent higher than it actually is). Cab drivers, police officers, and other baijiu drinking experts throughout China are raising their eyebrows and shotglasses to what used to be considered didang and zhongdang (low and middle grade respectively) baijius.Obscure baijiu producers throughout China are scurrying to jumble up ingredients to produce baijiu blends that are as abominable and putrid as the famous brands.

In the past, low- and middle-grade baijiu producers were reluctant to commit themselves to a rigid formula with fixed ingredients. Price fluctuations could affect production costs and detract from profits. Since a veritable potpourri of ingredients such as maize, barley, oak, millet and dung can all be used to make baijiu, producers would simply purchase whichever raw material was cheapest, or compensate with imaginative substitute ingredients and that old standby formaldehyde. Chinese laws regulating baijiu ingredients, and labeling of bottles has forced producers to commit to a fixed recipe and stick with it. If the price of a key ingredient goes up, producers must bite the bullet and buy it. Other strictly enforced laws regulating the parts per volume of rodents and migrant workers in the baijiu also help to control quality.

China's more expensive baijiu, such as Maotai and Wuliangye are priced out of the reach of most common workers. Wang Dong, a Beijing taxi driver and avid and excessive baijiu drinker comments, "Chinese people are poor. We can't afford high-class wines and spirits. So I just drink Erguotou. It's less than RMB10 a bottle." The challenge for low- and middle-grade baijiu producers has been to emphasize affordability without sacrificing putrescence and even alcohol poisoning. Some innovative producers are whipping up barrels of baneful alternatives to high-end baijiu. Shanxi's Xifeng brand baijiu has managed to achieve a flavor that is evocative of the RMB330-a-bottle Guizhongguijiu - subtly poisonous with an acidic bouquet and a smarting afterbite without being overly trenchant or obnoxiously poignant. And in a proper price/punch ratio, its 48 percent alcohol content enhances its irresistible street price of RMB24.

Many low-end producers recognize the importance of investing heavily in production technology. Some producers boast real mercury thermometers for efficient temperature control, and genuine digital clocks for accurate timing. Obviously, such technological innovations give producers an edge over the competition.

It is important that the proper baijiu accompany each meal. When eating fangbianmian (instant noodles), dry biscuits, or fried rice, Fenjiu is revoltingly appropriate. Kongfu Jiajiu goes disgustingly well with niurou gan (beef jerky) and dried octopus tentacles. For a hearty meal of fishhead soup, nothing is as foul and loathsome as Site Jiu. When dining on gizzards, intestines, lungs, hearts and other neizang (viscera), Yanghe is a must. For a lethal companion to dishes of animal feet, claws and paws, try Jianzhuang.

Baijiu Etiquette

If it is your habit to drink baijiu from 8 oz. glasses, paper or plastic cups or directly from the bottle, then there is no baijiu etiquette for you. But remember that when drinking baijiu out of small shotglasses, there are certain rules you must abide by. Always make a small toast or gesture to the other comrades at the table and drink with them, not alone (wait till you get home to drink alone). When your comrades' glasses are empty, it's polite to fill them, starting with whoever has the most money and on down the line, always pouring for yourself last. When someone else pours for you, hold your glass up with two hands, one on the bottom of the glass. Originally this was meant to help the imbiber keep from dropping his glass in his drunkenness. If you think you're too drunk to hold up your glass even with both hands, just tap your fingers on the table. To signal that you've had enough just vomit all over yourself and you won't have to drink anymore, otherwise you'll have to wait until you get to the taxi before vomiting out the window.

Contrary to popular belief, if you peng (clink) glasses with someone, you don't have to drink everything in your glass. Usually you can drink suiyi (as much as you want), unless someone specifies banbei (half glass) or ganbei (dry glass). Rather than clinking glasses with everyone at the table, you can simply tap your glass on the table before you drink.

A FUN GAME: No, it's not setting baijiu on fire (your comrade once burned half his beard off with that trick)... when entertaining guests, be sure to pour glass after glass of baijiu for them and insist that they drink it all or you'll be insulted. When they ask you to drink, say wo buhui (I can't drink), and pour yourself a glass of tea. Don't let them leave until they are falling-down drunk. This game is called ba mouren guan zuile (getting someone drunk), and is a 5,000 year-old tradition in China.

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