A good Chinese supermarket will generally offer an intimidating wall of bottles fill with booze.
If they're organized, at one side will be the rice wines, another edge will contain grape wines, and somewhere in there will be the stuff called “white liquor” - that last one is what we’re going to look at today. Other grocery stores like to make things as difficult as possible, as can be seen in these photos, where rice wines are jumbled in with the white liquors, perhaps just to make things interesting.
Hard alcohol is very different in China from the rest of the world. It is referred to in English as white liquor, which is a direct translation of the Chinese name: báijǐu 白酒, although some refer to these spirits as báigār 白乾兒 after an old variety traditionally made in Hebei. Except for a few varieties seasoned with herbs or other additives, these are almost always clear, hence their name.
|Shaoxing wine (L) & white liquors|
White liquor is beloved as a cooking ingredient for the elusive flavors it lends to certain dishes, like smoked chicken, although the better ones are of course meant to be reserved for appreciative sipping. These are best served neat at room temperature in wide small porcelain bowls similar to the cups used for rice wine, as this allows their aromas to be fully enjoyed. But then again, this is hard liquor — most of these spirits are 80 to 120 proof — and so they are in many ways more akin to vodka than the much milder rice wines of China.
These strong distilled spirits are mainly fermented out of cooked sorghum, wheat, barley, Job’s tears, sticky rice, or even millet, with other ingredients like dried peas, therapeutic herbs, or even flowers occasionally lending unique aromas and flavors to the brew. As with rice wines’ classifications, the names suggest the best pairings for these white liquors, for alcohol is meant — as always in China — to be enjoyed with complementary bar snacks.
|Two sorghum liquors|
Do note that the English on the labels will be of varying levels of helpfulness, as sometimes old names are used, while other wing it, as can be seen in the photo to the right, which gives Gaoliang as "Kao Liang Chiew" and Fenjiu as "Fen Chiew." When in doubt, show a clerk the Chinese characters for the liquor you'd like to try.
A good white liquor to try first is Guizhou’s Maotai, whose heavy “sauce aroma” (jiàngxiāng 醬香) is formed by its pronounced ester compounds; this is what allows it to stand up to heavily seasoned foods. It's powerful stuff, but really worth getting to know on a personal basis. Pair it with any of the Central Highlands' spicy and numbing foods.
Sweeter dishes would pair better with something like Wuliangye of Sichuan and its “strong aroma” (nóngxiāng 濃香), while more delicate ones would be complemented by the “light aroma” (qīngxiāng 清香) of something like Shanxi’s ancient Fenjiu.
There is also the “rice aroma” (mǐxiāng 米香) of white spirits brewed from rice, as well as white liquors with a sugary “honey aroma” (fēngxiāng 蜂香) and even the more complex brews boasting of a “layered aroma” (jiānxiāng 兼香).
|Meant for sipping|
Because these are clear spirits, the main difference among the seemingly endless varieties is whether they are seasoned in some way. Unflavored ones rely on the aroma of the grains and pulses used in their distillation to create their unique flavors. Others, though, go in the opposite direction and tickle the senses in different ways. For example, Meiguilu (“rose dew”) is a floral variety that works well as a seasoning in a number of dishes, particularly such rich sweets as moon cakes, where it adds an almost indefinable whiff of roses.
One of the most famous of China’s heady alcoholic brews is made in Gansu: Ng Ka Py. A type of sorghum white lightning flavored with a member of the ivy family, this is the drink that John Steinbeck in East of Eden described as having the taste of “good rotten apples.”
Of course, not everyone wants to have hard liquor with a meal. In that case, I'd always suggest a good, chilled beer - it is a perfect match for most of China's savory dishes.