Getting things done in the People’s Republic of China requires a particular type of lubrication: gifts of alcohol. This in itself isn’t particularly novel, from India to Saudi Arabia, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black will go a long way towards making things more amenable. But China’s lube of choice is a spirit that few in the West will have had the pleasure of tasting: the spirit baijiu.
The legend goes that during the Xia Dynasty (2070 BC-1600 BC), an exile by the name of Du Kang left some rice in the trunk of a mulberry tree to preserve it. On returning, he found the rice had fermented and was oozing forth a fragrant liquid. Du Kang took a sip and, bafflingly, decided to set about making more of the same.
What is it?
One American journalist famously described it as tasting like “liquid razor blades”
Today the product of Du Kang’s alleged discovery is the world’s most-consumed liquor, the aforementioned baijiu. The modern day drink is a strong spirit distilled from a range of grains including sorghum, rice, barley and wheat. The liquor can come in at up to 120 proof.
While it looks like vodka, that’s where the comparison to other spirits ends. The most common assessment of the Chinese delicacy by Western palettes tends to include the word “paintstripper”.
The initial taste has variously been described as “the most vile thing” and “subtly sweet”. However, the verdict on what happens next is less nuanced, the spirit is said to burn with a startling ferocity. One American journalist famously described it as tasting like “liquid razor blades”.
Despite its acquired taste, baijiu has carved out an important place in Chinese culture: gatherings, birthdays, weddings and funerals all require the indispensable liquor. But there’s one type of meeting where the art of quaffing baijiu takes an even more serious role: the business meeting.
There are innumerable varieties and brands of baijiu, but one brand stands head and shoulders above the rest: Moutai which was named the national liquor of China in 1951. The brand became woven into the intricacies and absurdities of Chinese political life following an encounter with the Red Army during the Long March retreat of the 1930s. The Communists stopped by the village of Maotai, where the eponymous spirit is made, and calmed their war-time nerves with the liquor, taking plenty with them to keep them going on their arduous trek.
lakes of the stuff is funneled to the upper echelons of Chinese government by official channels
In Mandarin, the expression for “review and approval” sounds very similar to “cigarettes and liquor”, something not lost on anyone looking for government approval on a project. The acquisition of permits is greatly expedited by gifting officials cigarettes and baijiu, and if you can afford to bribe an official you can afford to buy them a bottle of Moutai.
Astonishingly, past surveys have indicated that only one in a hundred Moutai drinkers bought the drink for themselves. In effect, Moutai has become a currency, a currency used almost exclusively for bribes.
However, lakes of the stuff is funnelled to the upper echelons of Chinese government by official channels. Up until very recently, cases of Moutai were put aside in the distillery for the central headquarters of the Communist Party and the military elite. The individual thirst of some members of the military for the liquor is rumoured to be the reason that Moutai has begun selling litre bottles, the standard half litre not being sufficient for one sitting.
Moutai plays a central function at official occasions and is the only drink gifted to visiting foreign dignitaries. It was famously used by Zhou Enlai to entertain President Nixon during his 1972 visit to China. In Communist China, all are equal and what the top table drinks, those on the lower rungs want as well. Municipal Committee Secretaries and city mayors have been channeling funds to the Moutai distillery in order to get hold of the essential ingredient for their banquets.
For decades, officials have justified this spending by pointing to Moutai’s status as the national alcoholic beverage. But for a national beverage, Moutai is extremely unaffordable. Last year it was still selling for over $300 a bottle, almost two months of the average income for a family. Not bad for rice vinegar.
But times are changing, there’s a new General Secretary in town and he wants to make a name for himself by battling corruption. Since Xi Jinping assumed office last year, the price of Moutai and other premium baijius has plummeted. The crackdown hasn’t just delivered a shock to the baijiu industry, it has been a bombshell to an industry for that has greased the wheels of China for so long.
Premium baijiu makers are scrambling to pivot their businesses; flogging fermented rice juice was easy when forty per cent of it was being bought direct by the government. There’s talk of targeting the young nouveau riche or expanding into Western markets. But some are sticking to their premium brand principles, shoehorning their product into ever more elaborate packaging, including horse and panda-shaped bottles.