February 9, 2017 Jordan Porter

Beating the Baijiu Blues

A conversation about Baijiu with Derek Sandhaus

We love baijiu, but there can be a big barrier to entry to get others into drinking the world’s most consumed spirit. We chatted with Derek Sandhaus, Chengdu veteran, and the man who literally wrote the book on baijiu, to get his insight into getting over that hump as well as what he loves and misses about Chengdu.

Derek lived in Chengdu for 2 years from 2011-2013 and undertook a personal project and blog to drink 300 shots of the sorghum based spirit (not in one night….) to learn to appreciate it. He chronicled his journey which eventually turned into the book.

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We chatted with Derek, who is now back in States, about drinking baijiu and what he misses about Chengdu.

Baijiu can be an intimidating drink for the beginner. What’s the best way to get into it and start to demystify the ‘fire water’?

Get yourself a bottle of each of the four different types of baijiu: strong aroma, light aroma, rice aroma and sauce aroma. Taste each one and see which you like the most. First of all, this will help you realize baijiu is not just a single drink, but that there is great diversity within the category. You will notice different flavors in each style, learn what is the same and what is different. This is the first step in getting a more nuanced appreciation for the drink as a whole.

Use this as a starting point to find the styles and brands of baijiu that appeal to you. If you get invited out to a hot pot or somewhere you know there will be baijiu, bring a bottle you like with you, so you can drink that. Plus, it’s a thoughtful gesture that your host will appreciate.

A shop full of baijiu aging in clay urns

uh…. where do I start?

Good point, you have to know what you’re getting into before you dive right in. Once we start drinking it, what are your hot tips for how to get the most out of it, or what not to do?

The first rule with baijiu is make sure you are drinking baijiu from the same region as the cuisine you’re eating. In Sichuan, drink Sichuan baijiu. There are lots of great Sichuan baijius, most of which are strong-aroma baijius.

Also just drink baijiu with food in general. Baijiu pairs well with spice and it’s good to eat while drinking. Take it slow, and if you feel like you are getting ahead of yourself slow down, drink water, back off if you need to. There’s no need to get blasted. If you’re trying to get drunk on baijiu you will.

Haha, right. And yet we all do sometimes. I agree that it pairs best with food. You see lots of people drinking red wine here now with Sichuan food and the flavors just clash. Others drink baijiu in shots, or sip on it as a drink, but it’s meant to be drank with food.

Right. It is best in its proper context, and that’s with food. Baijiu can cut through the strong flavors of a hot pot in a way other spirits can’t, and even complement those flavors. It’s meant to be consumed as part of the meal—it’s an indispensible part of the dining experience.

Any good ‘starter’ baijius from Sichuan you can recommend?

For Sichuan baijiu, I like Luzhou Laojiao. It starts around 120RMB per bottle for a mid-range product (Touqu or Tequ) that is very smooth. It’s a great starting point. There are also  cheaper options from Tuopai Shede distillery. A great option that’s slightly more expensive is Jiannanchun. There is no need to get too fancy with Wuliang Ye or Shui Jing Fang. These cheaper options will get you off on the right foot, and if you enjoy them, then try the more expensive stuff.

A bottle of Luzhou Lao Jiao as part of a Sichuan feast

A bottle of Luzhou Lao Jiao as part of a Sichuan feast

Do you still drink Baijiu now that you are back in the USA?
Not as much as I’d like to. Where I am, it’s just not as readily available as it is in places like New York or LA. But I still get into it once a month or so. I move around a lot for work, so I don’t have access to my baijiu collection at the moment, which is a shame.

I still come back to China every year. I drink most of my baijiu there, much more than I do in the US these days.

How do you feel about the sort of emerging popularity of baijiu across the world?

You see it starting to happen more and more. It’s good. There are a few specialty baijiu bars here in the US, but more often you see regular bars incorporating one or two baijiu cocktails into their menu. The number of brands available across the US is also expanding and the drink is building its presence here in general.

What do you miss most about Chengdu?

Just the feeling. It has a very laid back comfortable vibe, which is nice. The people, the food—it’s a big city with a small city feel. You always run into the same people, and there is a sense of community that makes it feel special.

When you come back to Chengdu what is your first meal? What do you miss food-wise?

Last time I went to Chengdu I went to Zhuan Zhuan Mo for the fried rabbit right away. I love that. Also had sweet water noodles and dan dan noodles. Hot pot was never my favorite meal. I tend to just miss the simple classic dishes: dry fried green beans or fish flavored pork. It’s just good, hearty food.

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The tasty rabbit at Zhuan Zhuan Mo

It was different than my time Shanghai, where there are some of the best restaurants in China. Shanghai might have a higher ceiling, but Chengdu has a much higher floor. There’s great food to be found all over the place. It’s very hard to have a bad meal in Sichuan.

Yeah I agree, there’s a great standard for food all over the city. Thanks a lot Derek! Look forward to sharing some baijiu with you next time you are in Chengdu.

*excerpts from a phone call with Derek in January 2017, transcribed by Jordan porter

For more info about Derek and his books:

Check out his website here – http://derek.sandha.us/

Read his original blog here – https://300shots.wordpress.com/

Or follow him on twitter here – https://twitter.com/dsandhaus

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