20 February 2019
Baijiu was one of the recommended spirits for guests at the Golden Globes Awards function in the US this year.
Baijiu was one of the recommended spirits for guests at the Golden Globes Awards function in the US this year.

Hollywood discovers baijiu

Exporters of Chinese baijiu got an unexpected shot in the arm on Sunday, when the most powerful players in the entertainment industry gathered in Beverly Hills to recognize excellence in film and television at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards—a very relaxed awards show because booze is served and social drinking is encouraged.

Curiously, aside from free-flowing magnums of Moet & Chandon champagne, one of the recommended spirits for both guests and viewers at home was baijiu, China’s national liquor and the world’s most consumed spirit by volume.

How this came to be I have no clue, but while Hollywood glitterati of the likes of George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Ethan Hawke might have the worldly taste buds (and iron stomachs) for this potent Chinese clear alcohol, first-time baijiu drinkers often liken it to drinking lighter fluid, paint thinner, rocket fuel or worse. The stuff at 120 proof, after all, is extremely flammable.

There’s no telling how many people may have had a miserable experience, but you can be sure that cleaning up all the vomit at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where the show has been held annually since 1961, could not have been pleasant.

I’m also certain that more than a few celebrities woke up feeling like they had full frontal lobotomies.

(To the uninitiated, a lusty whiff of the stuff brings an uppercut to the septum, Evan Osnos, an American journalist best known for his coverage of China, once wrote. Baijiu ranges from 40 percent to 65 percent alcohol. The cheapest sells for pennies, while the costliest varieties can reach thousands of dollars for each ornate bottle. Distilled from sorghum, barley or rice, some kinds of baijiu also contain a preserved snake or scorpion inside the bottle.)

To be sure, baijiu is an acquired taste.

And China’s distillers hope western palates acquire that taste fast.

Kweichow Moutai Co. and Wuliangye Yongfu Jiangjiu, two of China’s high-end baijiu makers, have seen domestic sales nosedive since 2012, largely due to a crackdown on Chinese officials’ lavish spending.

To try and keep its edge, Moutai over the past year cut prices for its premium line by half to US$161, the Wall Street Journal noted. The firm has also launched more mid-priced products to make up for the lack of thirst for top-notch liquor and is expanding into e-commerce as a way to stoke demand.

While that may work for Moutai, many of China’s other 100-plus baijiu brands are hoping overseas business can lift industry sales that have leveled off at about US$23 billion.

Derek Sandhaus, a connoisseur of the eye-watering Chinese firewater and author of “Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits”, says baijiu has a very unusual taste to the foreign palate.

That said, “there are certain categories that are much easier for foreigners to drink than others,” he told Jing Daily. “What is causing people to say that they don’t like baijiu is that they’re only trying one or two types of baijiu that they don’t like. There are other baijius out there that would be more appropriate for those drinkers.”

The Hollywood Reporter, an entertainment trade magazine, recommended a brand called Jian Nan Chun Chiew for the Golden Globes, which Sandhaus told me is one of his favorites.

Just by coincidence, I found several cases of this exact brand in my dad’s basement the other day, so it’s now my favorite by default.

Annual worldwide sales of baijiu are 1.3 billion gallons, greater than those of vodka, at 925 million and whisky in third place at 766 million, according to the journal Drinks International.

In case you missed it, Kevin Spacey won Best Actor in a TV Series for his role in House of Cards, a hugely popular show in China.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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