Chinese booze

by Rob Horning

12 August 2007


For somewhat apocryphal reasons, we decided to order yak meat and have a Tibetan-themed Yakfest, with yak burgers, yak steaks, and yak kabobs. And it seemed appropriate to try to procure some Tibetan liquor, which was no easy task. They are not particularly known for their drinking, nor for their export industry. Chinese liquor of some sort seemed the next best thing, so Carolyn and I stopped at a liquor store in Elmhurst, Queens, to buy a few bottles of booze. The selection was fairly extensive, which made it difficult to choose. The labels, almost entirely in Chinese, don’t give you much to go by. What English there is tends to be cryptic. One bottle, which came in sickly salmon-colored cardboard box, had a label that read “Flavor: Strong.” We ended up choosing at random—well, not exactly random: price was a factor, and bottles from Taiwan were ruled out. Carolyn was drawn to the illustration on this bottle,

whereas the font on it appealed to me.

Whenever you see this particular font on a Chinese product (and you see it nowhere else, though some hipster would be wise to work out a way to get it onto T-shirts), you know you have chosen quality, melamine be damned. My initial research into Tibetan liquors led me to believe that they are typically made from sorghum and barley, so the two bottles we procured were distilled from these ingredients in varying proportions, along with wheat and pea. We went to pay for the bottles and the old Chinese woman behind the counter seemed surprised at what we were buying. “Ah,” she said. “You like Chinese?” I told her we were sort of experimenting, and asked how the beverage was typically consumed. The woman, who may or may not have understood what I was trying to ask, made some unscrewing gestures with her hands and said, “Just open and drink.”

At home, I tried to find out more information on the liquor we bought, but typing in the English transliterations on the bottles yielded nothing. But the details on this Wikipedia page about Baijiu, the liquor that seemed most similar to what we bought, were not auspicious: “To the Western palate, sauce fragrance baijiu can be quite challenging. It has solvent and barnyard aromas, with the former, in combination with the ethanol in the liquor, imparting a sharp ammonia-like note. It has been described as stinky tofu crossed with grappa.” Perhaps I’m less adventurous than most, but “barnyard aromas” are generally not something I seek in beverages, nor did the promise of solvent- and ammonia-like notes have me eager to drink.

Nevertheless, after some yak burgers, we tried some. In the glass the liquid seemed to emanate a haze like you see coming off gasoline pumps on a hot day, the air seemed thick and wavy around it. It smelled less of the barnyard then of a janitorial closet. We all agreed that it smelled like a Jolly Rancher crossed with some kind of nail-polish remover. Nonetheless, these savory aromas did not deter us from trying it, and I’ll admit that it certainly was “challenging” to my Western palate. None of us could take more than a sip or two of this stuff, but despite how little we had, it lingered with us all day long. It had the sweetness that I presume draws dogs to lick antifreeze puddles, but it burned going down, with an aftertaste redolent of turpentine. As it scorched its way down to our stomachs, we concluded that there was no way it couldn’t be toxic. It seemed to activate taste buds on the back of my tongue that had rarely been used before, and these atrophied nerves were unhappy about being awakened from their dormancy. It seemed unfathomable that anyone could drink this fluid for pleasure, that the reaction would not be a physiologically conditioned grimace of revulsion, an instinctual rejection of insurmountable vehemence that would prevent having anymore—as when you have food poisoning and your digestive system goes into lockdown.

To a certain degree, we want liquor to taste bad (“Flavor: Strong”) because this allows it to fulfill the function of allowing us to prove our courage. There’s a masochistic Fight Club quality to drinking sot like this, and a camaraderie that comes from surviving it. It seems a tonic for dulled senses, jaded sensibilities. Plus, the utter unconsumability made it seem as though we were imbibing something that would fundamentally readjust our perceptions, take us beyond the ordinary. The burning awfulness of Jiang xiang seems like a ritual of purification, or a kind of blood oath being sworn that is irreversible. You’d drink this on the day you decided to cut off all your hair and run away to Alaska or Kamchatka or Guangdong. So like any consumer product, Chinese booze evokes fantasies about the kind of person you become by using it, and that trait is even more pronounced the more exotic the product seems. The imagination is engaged more deeply; there are no preconceptions, really, to draw from the way the product is advertised or regarded by the mainstream. It allows consumers to becomes explorers in virgin territory. To westerners, the taste of Baijiu is the taste of tourism cleverly disguised as the taste of adventure.

But clearly, if you drink this rotgut regularly, you’ll become one of those lost souls you see on Hester Street, with ragged clothes and makeshift sandals made out of cardboard, sleeping under unfolded newspapers in a greasy alleyway among empty tins of salad oil and reeking dumpsters that teem with the smell of rotting vegetables, sitting out in the pouring rain on a fire escape in gray fluorescent light, swilling.

This is not the destiny I choose. Still, I haven’t thrown out the bottles; I’ll keep them around for dares and in case a time comes when I’ll feel a perverse need for punishment.

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