This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s recent answers originally posted to Quora on January 29, 2019.
Why don’t Western people drink Chinese baijiu? In general, Chinese baijiu has more than a thousand years of history, and it has the taste of what good alcohol should taste and smell like.
Full disclosure: I actually detest the stuff, and really only drank it in those instances where I have because of social obligation: to avoid insulting a host, or to keep up some ridiculous and misguided notion of masculinity as a younger man. To me, various baijiu brands all taste roughly the same, with a cloying, exaggeratedly floral scent and a nasty bite. I can tolerate them more the less intensely-scented they are, actually: Hongxin Erguotou, for example, is cheap and ubiquitous and doesn’t have quite so much of that floral intensity, and so to me, it’s actually preferable to some of the expensive and supposedly much more refined baijiu that I’ve drunk.
But I can imagine the same reaction of a Chinese person trying a liquor that has an extremely distinct, overpoweringly strong flavor: think Laphroaig, or another heavily peated Islay Scotch whisky. It’s only when you’ve been exposed to things with related flavor profiles that you develop a taste for it. Someone accustomed to drinking really light lagers or pilsners might not love the very hop-heavy taste of the India Pale Ales that I find absolutely delicious. Someone who doesn’t like the taste of drip coffee isn’t likely to love espresso or ristretto on first tasting it. Someone who’s put off by, say, the smell of a mild brie’s rind is unlikely to be able to get past that of a ripe Limburger. Someone whose only experience with huajiao — Sichuan peppercorn — is the miserly hint of it in the kung pao chicken in an Americanized Szechwan joint might freak out after biting into one in a proper Chengdu eatery.
Baijiu is an extreme taste. Your assertion that it “has the taste of what good alcohol should taste and smell like” is, whether you know it or not, highly culturally conditioned. To me, a nice 15-year-old Dalwhinnie, or an Oban, or an unpeated Bruichladdich (all of these are Scotches) are what “good alcohol” should taste and smell like, but I certainly have seen many a Chinese friend react with something close to disgust after tasting something that sends me into rapture. And I don’t blame them or find it at all odd.
Kuora is a weekly column.