Is This the Best-Selling Liquor in the World?

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Photo by harryalverson/Flickr CC

I'm no fan of food shows, but I make an exception for Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, wherein the intrepid host travels the world consuming seemingly inedible parts of the animal and plant kingdoms. Who wants to watch ten kitchen brats try to make a cake when you can watch Zimmern try to eat a hen's uterus?

If Zimmern ever does a liquefied version of his show, I recommend he wrangle a bottle of Maotai, a leading brand of baijiu, or "white spirit." Baijiu is a broad category, covering virtually any high-ABV (alcohol by volume) liquor made in China--it is usually distilled from sorghum, but it can also be made from wheat, glutinous rice, millet, or Job's tears; depending on the region and ingredients, baijiu can be sweet or flowery, thick or thin.

In 1974, Henry Kissinger told Deng Xiaoping, "I think if we drink enough Maotai we can solve anything."

According to Chinese media, baijiu is the best-selling liquor in the world, and Maotai is the most famous brand of baiju--and one of the few available in the United States. Maotai is pricey: Only finer Chinese restaurants in the States carry it, and the first time I tried it the bottle--stout, ceramic, and red, like a can of Chinese Barbasol--set us back $115 (fortunately, we split it 10 ways). It is normally served at room temperature, but like soju or sake it can be warmed on a burner.

Maotai reached world fame during Nixon's 1972 trip to China, when Zhou Enlai served it to his unsuspecting guests. In 1974, Henry Kissinger told Deng Xiaoping, "I think if we drink enough Maotai we can solve anything."

Maotai is distilled from a blend of sorghum, wheat, and peas. Its taste is tough to describe. Imagine rotten cabbage, ethyl alcohol, and paint thinner, blended and strained. It smells like ammonia; the Wikipedia page for Maotai notes its "solvent and barnyard aromas." The taste lingers long after swallowing, shadowing the rest of the meal like a culinary revenant.

Actually, Maotai's taste is easy to describe; what's hard is to explain why people would drink it. As Tim Clissold noted in his memoir, Mr. China,

I've never met anybody, even at the heights of alcoholic derangement, prepared to admit that they actually liked the taste ... After drinking it, most people screw up their faces in an involuntary expression of pain and some even yell out.

To be fair, baijiu is undeniably popular, a staple of the Chinese banquet scene (though, according to the New York Times, the Beijing liquid lunch is fading fast). Maotai has been in production for over 200 years and is a regular winner at international liquor competitions, roping in 14 since the Chinese Revolution. And yet, and yet ... distilled peas. Zimmern, you have your challenge.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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