by Ernie Diaz
“Only wine can soothe my sorrow. “-From the poem Duan’gexing by Cao Cao
OK, we Chinese have been good sports. We’ve indulged your fanatical delusion that fermented grape juice is the pinnacle of gracious living. We’ve nodded along to god-knows-how-many impromptu dinner lectures about the delicacy of your Pinot, the playful seductiveness of your Zinfandel. Please. Your food comes in two flavors – sweet and salty – but once the vino is uncorked, suddenly you’re detecting notes of leather and hints of fresh fig.
There are two kinds of wine, red and white. Both usually taste sour, first and foremost. You ask us to pick, we’ll take red, for luck. Oh, sorry, that Bordeaux is garnet-colored? Talk to the lemon chiffon-colored hand, because the bisque-colored face isn’t listening. There are over five thousand varieties of wine, you say? Yeah, well there are over twelve million varieties of beetle, but only those insane Guangdongren make a fuss about how different ones taste.
As the sun sets on the West, you’re going to have a lot more reasons to drink soon, and a lot less income to do it with. By all means don’t give up beer. It will remain your fizzy friend long after your business associates and Lady Luck have abandoned you. But nothing says déclassé like showing up at a party with a rattling plastic crate of Yanjing. So as your tolerance to malted hops grows and the value of your scrip dwindles, it behooves you to delve into the fiery world of Chinese liquor. Gan bei!
Plum & Lychee Wine
Who knew other fruit besides the grape could taste nice after it turns rotten, eh? Many credit the Japanese with inventing plum wine, not realizing Tang Dynasty scholars discovered the Japanese back when they ate raw fish and took baths together. Sweet and smooth, plum wine makes a great dessert drink. So does lychee wine, which is both lighter and more fragrant than plum wine; just make sure to serve it cold. Both plum and lychee wine can get cloying, but easily lend themselves to cocktails.
The trouble is in China, these wines barely count as liquor. Ordering them in the company of men at business or serious play is akin to showing up at a poker game with a six-pack of Bartles & Jaymes. They max out at about 26 proof, much more potent than Tsingtao. However, their intrinsically sweet nature means showing a preference for them indicates you’d buy an automatic Ferrari, or put training wheels on a Harley. The favored use for these beverages is getting one’s more delicate lady friends on the train to Drunkville.
And you certainly won’t break the bank on the ticket; the aptly-branded Fairy Lychee wine goes for 35 RMB for a 750 ml bottle.
This gets tricky, since we also use the term ‘huang jiu’ (yellow alcohol) to refer to your scotch and whiskey. Clever, by the way; we only use our barley for pig feed. Who would have thought of roasting it over a fire of marsh scum, I mean peat?
Our huangjiu means we have fermented rice or wheat, rather than distilled it. This results in products less than forty proof, weak enough to roll around on the tongue and act pretentious about. So we classify it by dryness, which is in inverse proportion to its sugar content. The driest (gan) is less than one percent sugar, the sweetest (nong tian) about twenty. None has remotely the sugar content of your favorite sports drink, and most are priced similarly, from twenty to sixty RMB.
For your purposes, there are more important classifications. Mijiu is rice wine, a generic term of which the most famous is Shaoxing wine, the highest grade. It’s usually served warm, like saki, another ‘invention’ the Japanese take credit for. Ask them where they learned to write. And don’t pay more than fifty RMB for it, even if it has been aged ten years. This is a perfect family dinner wine. It will get you just drunk enough not to turn over the table at the mid-autumn feast, as your in-laws inform your wife of how rich all her old suitors have become.
Then there’s choujiu, which is fermented glutinous rice, thus meriting its own category in the eyes of some. It was certainly special to Li Bai, a top-three Chinese poet who fueled his mad improv skills with the stuff. Today, even the brokest urban poet can warm up for a rap battle with choujiu, big two-liter bottles typically going for ten to twenty RMB.
Baijiu: when you absolutely, positively have to obliterate every last reveler in the room; accept no substitute. Most baijiu is distilled from sorghum, the bastard relation of sugar cane. No matter which variety or price you opt for, more than one or two shots at the banquet guarantees a quick trip to cloud cuckoo land, a magical place where shame and judgment are useless relics of a sadder time. Waking up back in reality, however, has been compared unfavorably to crashing a car in a barbed wire factory.
Moutai is the most refined of baijius, as well as the only thing of note to come out of Guizhou, other than dancing minorities. As the easiest baijiu to drink, you must pay a premium for your lack of courage, from over one hundred to over five for a decent bottle. Yes, many bottles go for more than five or ten thousand kuai, but it’s the same complicit scam by which swells lay out a few thousand bucks for a Chateau d’Voleurs which was at its best thirty years ago.
Wuliangye, distilled without the wicked influence of sorghum, clocks in at about one hundred proof compared to moutai’s one twenty, and thus is easier to indulge in without having to slip off for a ‘bathroom break’. At 450-550 for a nice bottle, it’s perfect for a celebratory dinner. You’ll be convincingly vigorous in the shoving match for the check (“Bububububu! BU! BU!”), but too uncoordinated to actually grab a hold of it.
Dare we risk mentioning erguotou? Heck, you’re big boys and girls, and only the most hairy-chested, destitute English teachers amongst you will have the requisite combo of pluck and poverty to make a habit of drinking it. An open bottle can make a lumberjack wince at twenty yards, since its distillation process chiefly involves rusty mining equipment and cast-off sweat socks. Even huffing it as you would one of your better model airplane adhesives will produce a spell of Gump-like euphoria. Anyway, a reputable make of erguotou such as Red Star shouldn’t set you back more than seven kuai for half a liter. The perfect beverage for those moments that test your will to live. Say you’ve just discovered your only child, who you’ve thrown all your disposable income at for eighteen years, has not only failed the college entrance exams but joined the Shanghai Sharks cheerleading squad. That’s an erguotou moment.
If we’re talking about erguotou, it’s only fair to mention the vicious-looking brown stuff in the big plastic vats at the counters of mid-level restaurants across China. That’s paojiu, baijiu with various odds and ends floating in it: goji berries, antlers, snakes, worms, whatever the proprietors believe is most likely to be perceived as conferring man-power. It’s sold by the liang, or 50 grams, at a few kuai per. Its effects are unpredictable, depending on what’s been soaking in it, so drinking paojiu is like telling the dispensary nurse at your psych ward “Don’t tell me. I want it to be a surprise.” Proceed with caution.