There is an elaborate ritual surrounding the consumption of baijiu, the world's most consumed spirit. Two drinkers, each clasping tiny ceramic cups, perform a kind of handheld limbo, frantically lowering their abutting cups to establish which drinker is humbler. The toasting dance ends when one of the participants places a palm-up hand beneath the opposing cup, dictating it's time to drink.
Without that authoritative cue, it's likely many Americans would never progress to taking a shot. Although producers are making a tremendous effort to popularize baijiu (pronounced "bye, Joe") beyond China, the spirit is a tough sell, even among drinks professionals who pride themselves on their appreciation of unknown and untrendy liquors. At a promotional baijiu dinner held in conjunction with Tales of the Cocktail, guests quickly mastered the trick of barely filling their cups and feigning accidental spills.
"It may not be fair, but when people say they don't like baijiu, what they're really saying is 'I don't like alcohol,' " blustered Derek Sandhaus, a likeable baijiu expert who stumbled onto the topic after moving to Shanghai. As Sandhaus explained, high-proof baijiu is packed with the esters that Westerners associate with nail polish remover and paint solvent.
Earlier this year, Sandhaus published "Baijiu: An Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits." The book is an outgrowth of a blog devoted to his mission to "drink 300 shots of baijiu or die trying." (According to folklore, that's how many drinks it takes to acquire a taste for the stuff.) "I have heard its taste described as a mix between blue cheese and gym shorts," Sandhaus wrote in his first blog post. "Make no mistake, this is a singularly repellent spirit."
Still, baijiu is adored by Chinese drinkers, who annually snap up more than 1 billion cases of the sorghum-based liquor. In China, where drinking is so essential to business dealings that help-wanted ads specify alcohol tolerance, more than 99 percent of the booze consumed is baijiu.
Baijiu isn't a precise term: It's an umbrella term for all of the clear grain spirits made according to methods dating back thousands of years. What distinguishes baijiu from other liquors is it's fermented (underground, in terra cotta jars) and distilled in a solid state. To make baijiu, producers heat the fermented grain in a confined space and collect the steam.
The resulting beverage is typically at least 50 percent alcohol by volume. Japanese shochu and Korean soju, which evolved from baijiu, aren't nearly as strong. The category is grouped into 12 classifications, determined by aroma: Connoisseurs hold up the differences between, say, sauce aroma and strong aroma as evidence of the diversity that makes baijiu so compelling.
There is now at least one U.S. distillery experimenting with baijiu, as well as a Houston-based company (backed by Yao Ming) that's importing Chinese baijiu and further distilling it in South Carolina: Byejoe Spirits, which poured its 40 percent ABV product in a Tales tasting room, wouldn't confirm or deny if North Charleston's Terressentia is involved in the finishing process.
But the spirit seems unlikely to transcend its novelty value anytime soon. The meal dedicated to baijiu was surely the only spirits dinner at the annual New Orleans conference at which the starring liquor was served in full-sized, help-yourself bottles, and probably the only one at which diners spent time scheming how to get out of another toast.
Sandhaus is resigned to the situation changing slowly. But he believes baijiu could be mainstreamed by the time any son he may have is old enough to drink it.
"When my son turns 21, he'll have to make a choice between Jagermeister, tequila or baijiu," Sandhaus predicts. "And I'll say we've made a difference."