Ask any Westerner what they think is the world’s most popular spirit and they’re unlikely to name — or even to have heard of — the lethally strong Chinese grain alcohol, baijiu. But more baijiu is sold worldwide by volume than vodka, whisky or rum, say international drinks firms such as British brewer Diageo, and such is their enthusiasm for the national drink of 1.3 billion Chinese that several firms are trying to market baijiu overseas.There is only one problem: with alcohol content at up to 60 percent and a distinctive smell, baijiu is simply too much for many Western palate. Those who have tasted it tend to react like Hong Kong-based teacher Stewart Brown, 30, from Britain, says, "It’s horrid. It’s just paint stripper." Shanghai-based British strategy consultant James Sinclair, 37, is married to a Chinese woman but says he has spent his 13 years in China"trying to avoid the stuff". The baijiu market leader, Chinesegovernment-owned Wuliangye, has hired one of the screens in New York’s Times Square to promote its brand, at a reported cost of $400,000.
The brand is already on sale in 22 airports and in Singapore stores. Packaged in small glass bottles and often labelled in lucky red, baijiu is drunk with a meal, never with mixers, and is used in toasts with the exclamation "Ganbei!" ("Bottoms up!"). It is distilled from sorghum, maize or other grains. The "white spirit" is served at formal dinners, where to fail to keep up with the pace of drinking can traditionally cause your host to lose face. Foreigners are often advised to just pretend to be teetotal from the start.
High-end baijius are often based on yeast cultures passed down through the centuries, and range in fragrance from light to heavy, with aromas including “rice fragrance” and “sauce fragrance,” says Beijing-based drinks expert Paul Mathew. “A lot of other baijiu cocktails have attempted to mask the flavour. I wanted to bring out the flavours that make baijiu more interesting,” said Mathew, who is hoping to launch a baijiu cocktail competition in Beijing. “A lot of what westerners don’t seem to like about baijiu is the pungent aroma, in the same way that Chinese people find French cheeses and so on
unbelievable,” he said.