Ask anyone 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 palates.
Those who have tasted it tend to react like Hong Kong-based teacher Stewart Brown, 30, from Britain, who says simply: “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”. And then, that phrase again: “To me it tastes like paint stripper.”
The baijiu market leader, Chinese government-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.
And Diageo has committed to boosting international sales of the premium baijiu maker Shiu Jing Fang after completing its acquisition of a majority stake in the firm this year.
The brand is already on sale in 22 airports and in Singapore stores; Diageo plans to launch it in domestic markets including the United Kingdom and Japan, Lee Harle, general manager for Chinese white spirits at Diageo, told AFP.
But are they doomed to fail, with baijiu on the other side of an impenetrable cultural boundary? Baijiu enthusiasts maintain the problem is simply that non-Chinese have little education about the drink.
Packaged in small glass bottles and often labelled in lucky red, bajiu 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.
Job advertisements in China sometimes specify that applicants must have a good tolerance for baijiu, since treating clients to a baijiu-soaked feast can be a crucial aspect of doing business.
“The market for baijiu is quite limited — some consumers (outside China) will drink it as a novelty drink but in the long run, it will be quite difficult for baijiu to penetrate local markets… The alcohol content is just too high.”
Baijiu companies hope the drink’s profile abroad will gain from a growing international fascination with China, spurred on by its economic boom.