News / Asia

Move Over Tequila, Here Comes Chinese Firewater

Bottles of Sichuan Swellfun baijiu at promotional event, Beijing, Oct. 2, 2011.
Bottles of Sichuan Swellfun baijiu at promotional event, Beijing, Oct. 2, 2011.
Reuters
Chinese baijiu, a flammable, pungent white liquor averaging a 110-proof wallop, is the world's most consumed form of liquor thanks to its popularity in China, but for the first time distillers are looking to develop export markets.
 
According to data from International Wine & Spirit Research, Chinese people drank over 11 billion liters of baijiu in 2012; the spirit, distilled from sorghum, wheat or rice, accounted for more than one-third of all spirits consumed in the world.
 
But as a new generation of Chinese drinkers discovers the imported spirits that were unavailable to their parents, baijiu risks losing that market share unless it creates new markets overseas.
 
"Baijiu hasn't been marketed to the West yet but I think it can be," said James Rice, managing director of Sichuan Swellfun Co. Ltd., a baijiu maker in Chengdu, western China, in which London-based beverage multinational Diageo has taken a sizeable stake.

"People are interested in China and here's a piece of Chinese culture that can go right to your dinner table."
 
The opportunity has also attracted small entrepreneurs like David Zhou, who founded Everest Spirits LLC in the Washington D.C. metro area to import a Chinese baijiu and rebrand it for sale locally.
 
"We really want to go for mainstream U.S. consumers and we do believe they can accept it."
 
But Rice, and other distillers, has to deal with a major challenge: baijiu tends to make a terrible first impression.
 
"I thought it tasted like paint-thinner and felt like a liquid lobotomy," said Michael Pareles, manager at the U.S. Meat Export Federation in Beijing. "However, like many other things in China, I eventually grew to like it."
 
Torsten Stocker, head of Greater China consumer practice at Monitor Group in Hong Kong, was skeptical about prospects for overseas expansion.
 
But he suggested the liquor could be better distributed to the swelling overseas Chinese community, which now depends on duty-free stores in airports to stay stocked.
 
Baijiu's punch makes it a tough sell in Western bar culture where people drink on an empty stomach. So does its fuel-like odor and its aftertaste. But the history of alcoholic beverages shows that nearly any taste can be acquired.
 
"Tequila has a very unusual flavor compared to more popular spirits," said Derek Sandhaus, industry consultant and author of a forthcoming book on baijiu appreciation.
 
"But through clever marketing, good cocktails, and good management, it's earned a place on the bar shelf. I see no reason why the world's most popular spirit can't do the same."
 
Making the adjustment

But an adjustment is still probably necessary.
 
Matt Trusch, a former China resident, founded a distillery called Byejoe USA that imports baijiu base from China, then re-filters it to make it more drinkable.
 
"We've made it much more palatable to American tastes."
 
Vinn Distilleries in Portland, Oregon, founded by a family of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, is reproducing a generation-old baijiu recipe, and Vinn president Michelle Ly has marketed it — in very small volumes — to non-Chinese consumers.
 
Curiously enough, she said a group of investors had approached her with an idea to export her U.S.-made baijiu back to China, advertising it as a product of high quality control — an issue domestic baijiu brands have struggled with.
 
Baijiu expert Sandhaus thinks the best avenue for developing drinkers overseas is to follow the model of Japanese sake and market baijiu as the alcohol to drink with Chinese food. But he added that there is no need for distillers to rush.
 
"It will still be a very long time before baijiu stops being a very lucrative business in China."

You May Like

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs