Wine, Baijiu and the East-West Flavor Divide

Sauce aroma? Light aroma? Phoenix aroma? As China becomes a bigger player in the worlds of wine and spirits, the differences between Eastern and Western flavors—not only in familiarity and preference, but also in the language used to describe them—has become more obvious. Derek Sandhaus on the East-West flavor divide, and whether or not we can bridge the gap.

baijiu east west flavor divide

“Number eight?” ventured a Frenchman from across the table; the Italian and the Spaniard looked on expectantly.

I conferred for a moment with Ai Jinzhong, director of production for Red Star Erguotou, before responding: “We both like it.”

The Frenchman shot me a thumbs-up, and the rest of the table issued a palpable sigh of relief. It was the final day of tasting at the 2015 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Spirits Selection, and we were tasting strong-aroma baijiu. My European cohorts were at a loss. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Chinese spirits; it’s that they didn’t know which ones they were supposed to like and, I suspect, didn’t have right words to describe them.

But all that Ai and I had said to one another was, “Hen xiang”—how fragrant. It’s the most common descriptor among drinkers in China, where there is little talk of black fruit or floral notes, meadow grass or herbaceousness—and even less of a drink’s elegance, minerality or viscosity.

“When evaluating alcohol, Chinese primarily look for scents of grain, maturation, qu [a grain-based culture of yeasts and other microorganisms], fruit, flowers, soy sauce and caramelization,” says baijiu expert Zhong Jie, director of alcohol criticism at China’s National Center for Alcohol Inspection. “In terms of flavor, we look for alcoholic sweetness and refined sweetness, sauciness, harshness, crispness, purity and a lingering aftertaste.”

What the Chinese prize most is fragrance: its intensity, complexity and duration. Ditto for strength—the stronger the better. Incidentally these are also the two qualities that outsiders find most objectionable in baijiu.

The most celebrated baijiu is a stone pit-fermented style from Guizhou. It has a pungent umami bouquet reminiscent of several Chinese delicacies, like soy-marinated mushrooms and fish-flavored eggplant, yet to a Western nose they have an unmistakable barnyard quality. (At an early, more naïve stage of my forays into baijiu, I once noted this style tasted like a rotten banana crapped in my mouth. Now I love it.) The taste of the mud pit-fermented baijiu of Sichuan, another popular style, is dominated by tropical fruit notes that perfectly accentuate the region’s numbingly spicy cuisine, but also has raised unflattering comparisons to turpentine among Westerners. Both styles are typically bottled at over 50 percent alcohol by volume, roughly a quarter stronger than most popular Western spirits. The added sweetness from the ethanol is welcomed by Chinese consumers, but leaves their foreign counterparts grumbling about paint thinner.

Instances like these illustrate how, when East and West talk about drinks, we are worlds apart. It’s not simply that we can’t agree on the language we use to describe flavors, it’s that we don’t even agree which flavors are desirable.

Kweichow Moutai Flying Fairy

Kweichow Moutai (Chinese): “…a prominent sauce aroma, elegant and exquisite, with a smooth body, lingering aftertaste and an odor that remains in the glass long after drinking.”

CNS Imports (Moutai’s U.S. distributor): “Nose: Floral, dried dates with a hint of nuts and toasted rice; Palate: Silky, spicy, dry but smooth.”

Baijiu is a diverse category that contains about a dozen distinct spirits. The Chinese government first promulgated an aroma-based classification system in 1952, replaced it in 1979 and amended it substantially in the time since. This evolving system has led to clunky designators that often fail to agree. “Rice aroma” and “(soy) sauce aroma” are straightforward categories, but “strong aroma” or “light aroma” are vaguer. There are also positively esoteric examples, like “phoenix aroma.” One can hardly fathom the smell of a mythological bird.

“China created the system to demonstrate the differences between the styles,” says Zhong, “but even today, Chinese consumers don’t fully understand all of the different aromas.”

If the Chinese have difficulty navigating their own liquor, what chance do we have? And how do we describe the category’s diverse range of flavors when most of them lie beyond the Western frame of reference? Is it possible to explain the lingering bitterness of Chinese medicine, the mellow sweetness of a dried dates or the fermented funk of pickled beans to someone who has never experienced them?

Thankfully, there is some precedence in the matter. Wine producers and educators venturing into China have had to jump through the same linguistic hoops as baijiu, only in reverse, providing us a perfect looking-glass case study.

“I started taking regular trips to China in the early nineties. Shit, man. There was nothing with wine. There was no wine culture,” says John Isacs, an American wine and spirits writer and educator based in Shanghai. “I had people laugh at me. ‘What are you doing?’”

Isacs, it turns out, would have the last laugh. In less than three decades, China would become the top global consumer of red wine, with sales of almost two billion bottles in 2013. China is now also the world’s fifth-largest producer of grape wines. And wine’s success there owes much to the creativity and adaptability of its proponents.

“One of the first things I noticed when I went over to Asia, and later to China was that you certainly had to adapt the sorts of descriptors that you used within those markets to be able to speak to something that was relevant,” explains Lisa Perrotti-Brown, MW, editor-in-chief and reviewer for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Most Western descriptions of red wine draw upon European fruits and berries and floral flavor components, signifiers that have little resonance in Asia. “Most people just kind of stare at you blankly and say, ‘What is that?’”

What Perrotti-Brown strives to offer students is a revelatory moment in which they are able to reframe wine in a more familiar context. “It is important in each market, wherever possible, to find local fruits or vegetables that can be associated with wine descriptors there because it makes the experience that much more vivid,” she says.

Château Léoville-Las Cases 2009

Christie’s Hong Kong: “The wine produced by the Château is known for its powerful structure and full body, reminiscent of the strength of a lion. The majestic lion and the delicate, crispy kidney is a match made in heaven between Bordeaux wine and Shandong cuisine.”

Robert Parker: “…may be the most open-knit and forward Las Cases I have tasted to date…It boasts an inky/purple color, monumental concentration and lots of sweet, jammy black currant, black cherry and kirsch fruit intermixed with crushed rock and mineral notes.”

“You can’t say that you can’t use Western terms and you can’t say that you have to use Chinese terms—it’s knowing your audience,” says Isacs. “We shouldn’t pontificate or say that we’re infallible. We’re not going to change their culture. We don’t want to change their culture.”

If it follows wine’s lead in the West, baijiu must take the path of the wandering missionary: Adapt to local custom, convert the natives and arm them with the tools they need to create more converts. Proselytizers must seek common ground and embrace local substitutes. Foreign drinkers might grasp a baijiu’s pineapple notes, but perhaps grassiness is more intelligible than Chinese medicine, fruit leather better than dried dates.

Admittedly, this approach does little to bring us closer together. So long as we lack a common international language with which to describe flavors, we are left largely where we started: in a segregated barroom, enjoying the same beverage at a distance from one another. They cannot participate in our discussions, nor can we in theirs.

Yet not everyone sees it as an either-or proposition. “As far as the flavors go, I think there’s an opportunity there,” says Paul Mathew, drinks consultant and owner of The Hide in London, which features baijiu on its cocktail list. For a time Mathew tended bar in Beijing, where he used to enjoy getting Chinese customers’ feedback on foreign spirits.

“Everyone draws on their own personal experiences to identify flavors, so one person’s childhood cotton candy is another’s cherry blossom—and one person’s seaweed on a Scottish beach is another’s hospital waiting room.” For him, the Chinese descriptors only enhance the experience. “Part of the appeal of any spirit is learning the language,” he says, noting that Western alcohol terminology is similarly mystifying to the uninitiated.

The imperfect solution, then, might be a varied system that engages people at their individual level of comfort and expertise. Does this represent progress? Perhaps, though maybe the endeavor itself is misguided. Can one truly understand another’s culture? Can we even empathize with those with whom we share a culture? Are we all doomed to live alone in an atomized universe?

Such are the questions that drive us to drink, and maybe that is the answer: Stop over-analyzing, and let the booze do the talking.