Derek Sandhaus‘ newest book is riddled with an assortment of anecdotes of how he came to be the leading non-Chinese expert on China’s national spirit, baijiu (though he himself semi-humbly refutes that title). I could cut this review short and summarize his experiences: get stinking drunk for several years while traveling the countryside and meeting shady people. Others have to spend their time in dusty libraries with even more dusty people if they want to become expert in their field, so he obviously found the funnier way of education. Let me copy his approach and start this review of Drunk in China – Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture by telling you an anecdote, like how I got to know him – and baijiu.
I was really amused by the anecdote about Spirits Selection by Concours Mondial de Bruxelles mentioned in the introduction of Drunk in China, as I was for three years also part of this exclusive yet down-to-earth group of people traveling the world in search for new spirits, and we were both judges in the 2019 edition that took place in China. Interestingly, that was not my first contact with Derek. A review on Goodreads, where I wrote about one of his first endeavors as a writer, Tales of Old Peking, got me interested in his work. I was in love with an imaginary China at that time and read anything on that country’s history and culture I could lay my hands on. From there it was still a long way to my appreciation of baijiu – and after half the way it was again Derek who jumped in, with his Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, which, by the way, is still the benchmark for any work on baijiu written in a readable language. It was really great finally meeting him in the Shanxi countryside, sitting down for a drink with him (and dozens of other long-nosed foreigners). Well, if you know Chinese customs, or have read his book, you’ll know that „a drink“ is a relatively flexible term there.
Of course, you’ll learn everything you need to know about baijiu in this book. It is even more valuable since the author is not simply caroling away, but also shows us the problems that baijiu faced in the past and today. Health issues, a rampaging drinking culture and severe food safety lapses make baijiu a cultural and societal affair that the government itself now handles. Ludicrous price inflation, loss of interest of the younger generation and indifference towards the future of the own product are home-made concerns as well. Chattily Derek leads us through a broad spectrum of topics that make this book much more than a simple introduction to China’s national spirit: be prepared to get immersed into China’s liquid secrets.
In contrast to his earlier works, Drunk in China is much less relying on pictures, something I miss a bit, but I’m sure the only reason for that lack of images is that it’s difficult to steadily hold a camera while ganbei-ing. Derek’s vivid descriptions actually do their own of planting imagery into your brain, and some of it is not all that pleasant. I’ll supply one image myself now to explain a rather exotic ingredient of baijiu. There is a lot of talk about „qu“ in this book, and if you’ve wondered what it actually looks like, well, here’s Derek handling a block of qu in a distillery museum in Fenyang in his best traveling-salesman manner.
Baijiu might not be the easiest spirit to get into, yet don’t feel bad about it, as even Derek confesses in his book that he „hated“ baijiu at first. One of the many insightful early quotes he unearthed about baijiu is related to its somewhat steep learning curve: „It [baijiu] is not agreeable to the taste of Caucasians“, and what Charles E. Munsell deplored in 1885 is still one of the problems of baijiu today. On the other hand, personally I once hated olives, oysters and licorice, and look at me now, I could live off them alone. But it’s not only the taste buds that might need some training when trying to get acquainted with the Chinese national spirit, it’s also its background which is harder to understand than that of the many Western spirits we’re accustomed to. We need education on baijiu. Two quotes, one from the beginning of the book, the other one from the end, show the Herculean task Derek Sandhaus has set for himself.
„To my surprise and dismay I soon discovered there was precious little information about Chinese spirits available for the casual English reader.
If baijiu is to find a Western audience, if it is to go mainstream in North America, Europe, and elsewhere, someone has to take on the thankless task of clearing a path.“
Luckily, we now obviously have someone actually doing the pioneering and the educating; and in a very entertaining and eloquent way to boot. I don’t need rose-tinted spectacles coming from my knowing the author to recommend this book to anyone of the following groups – people interested in more-or-less contemporary China, of course spirits aficionados of all kinds, but definitely also those who simply like to read a rip-roaring story about a „short Jewish kid from Kansas“ finding his unexpected vocation in a very foreign land. In parts it reminds me of American Shaolin, and that means I can’t give much higher praise.
Buy it. Read it. Then, most importantly, go out and try to find a decent bottle of baijiu (which nowadays is still not the easiest thing outside of China, but Derek’s own Ming River brand is quite acceptable and should be readily available), get some friends together, order lots of piping hot Sichuan food and kill that bottle with it. Rinse your mouth, repeat several times. After that, you’ll know what the baijiu magic is.