Beyond China, baijiu is an acquired taste. At home, however, the 5,000-year old white liquor is the favourite toast for family celebrations and business banquets at bars in Shanghai. It’s also used to wet the whistle of KTV contenders before they do battle. Given China’s size and baijiu’s ubiquity, the drink is the world’s best-selling spirit despite its limited availability outside of China.
Nonetheless, it is fair to say most visitors encounter baijiu by accident. A favourite among local businessmen, it is powerful proof of one’s manhood. Like its alcoholic brethren worldwide, imbibing large quantities of the fiery stuff is not only polite but an effective way of ingratiating oneself. Women are spared this social pressure but given that baijiu is sold almost everywhere in China — convenience stores, supermarkets and restaurants – you’re unlikely to leave without a skirmish.
Distilled from sorghum grain, baijiu is notorious for its intense flavour. While most whiskies and vodkas are around 40 per cent alcohol proof, baijiu is 50-60 per cent. Different brands vary greatly in fragrance and flavour but generally fall into four main categories – light aroma, rice aroma, sauce aroma and strong aroma – that are produced in different regions of the country. The most famous and traditional sauce-aroma baijius – such as Moutai, the most popular brand – come from Guizhou province.
Like Japanese sake, you can drink baijiu warm or at room temperature from small cups. The preferred method is to drink it in a shot, which you down at the sound of the words: “gan bei!” (“dry glass!” in Chinese).
Despite the long tradition, baijiu has had a renaissance in recent years. No longer the booze of fusty businessmen, it’s making an appearance on cocktail menus in some of the trendiest bars in Shanghai. Its distinctive taste – much like industrial solvent or nail polish remover – has become a key ingredient among a new wave of mixologists who are trying to infuse Shanghai’s Western bar scene with some Chinese flavour.
One of the best places to try baijiu is at Yuan (17 Xiangyang South Road), an unabashedly chic bar with a very Chinese take on art deco. The local accents flow into the drinks including the “Zombie”. El Coctel (47 Yongfu Road) is another bar to successfully reinvent the drink, this time in the form of the “Shanghai”, mixed with orange and lime juice, grenadine syrup, sugar and Sambuca.
If drinking is not of interest, you can take a tour of where it’s made. Established in 1958, the Shenxian Wine distillery produces thousands of gallons of baijiu each year using age-old techniques. For further reading on the legendary tipple, check out American journalist Derek Sandhaus’s book Baijiu: the essential guide to Chinese spirits. As he puts it: “It’s all a matter of finding the right one for you.”
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Header image © Capital Spirits, Beijing
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Written by Charlotte Middlehurst