Monday, July 11, 2016
Baijiu: The Essential Guide To Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus
In my prior Baijiu posts, I've only scratched the surface of the wonders and complexities of this Chinese spirit. Though I intend to explore it more in future posts, there are some other resources you can seek out to learn more about Baijiu. You'll find a number of online and printed articles about Baijiu, though most don't go into great depth. However, there is also a single English book about Baijiu which provides much more depth and plenty of details about this intriguing Chinese spirit.
You should check out, Baijiu: The Essential Guide To Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus (Penguin Books, Australia, November 2015 in paperback-$16.95, March 2014 in e-book-$9.99). The book has approximately 194 pages and is broken down into about 12 chapters. Sandhaus has spent many years in China as a China-based writer and editor and has previously published two books, Tales of Old Peking and Tales of Old Hong Kong. He also maintains a blog, 300 Shots at Greatness and runs a Baijiu consultancy.
Sandhaus has this to say about his book: "This book is intended as a step towards bridging this knowledge gap, but moreover it is a celebration of China's marvelous traditional spirits." He continues in a little more depth: "Within its pages is all the information one would require to understand to differentiate types of baijiu—tastes, categories, production methods, regional characteristics, etc—and an in-depth overview of major brands and distilleries. Make no mistake, this is the blueprint for putting together a bitchin’ Chinese liquor cabinet and annoying your friends with pointless baijiu trivia."
The book begins with a history lesson, extending back to ancient China and the invention of alcohol. Interestingly, the Chinese viewed alcohol as a luxury, not a necessity like Europeans who drank alcohol because their water was unsanitary. The Chinese though drank boiled water and tea, avoiding the need for alcohol like Europeans. The history lesson then deals specifically with Baijiu, from its beginnings to the present. Sandhaus paints a fascinating picture of this history.
Next, Sandhaus delves into the production process of Baijiu, from its ingredients to qu, fermentation to distillation. Though these topics could be complex, Sandhaus provides an easily understandable view into the entire production process. If you are familiar with the usual processes of fermentation and distillation, you'll be intrigued by the unique aspects of making Baijiu, from its solid state fermentation to the use of mud pits.
The book then moves onto an explanation of the four mains styles of Baijiu, identified by their aroma, and then also explains numerous other smaller styles, from Dong Aroma (medicine aroma) to Chi Aroma (which is infused with pork fat). You learn how these different styles are produced differently, helping to show the vast diversity of Baijiu. Continuing on, you'll find information on drinking etiquette in China, from toasting to gift giving.
"There's an old saying in Chinese winemaking: 'Water is an alcohol's lifeblood, qu is an alcohol's backbone, and grains are an alcohol's flesh."
The next section is the longest, a list of some Baijiu brands with tasting notes and information on the distilleries. With over 10,000 distilleries, this certainly isn't a complete list but includes many of the most popular brands, and a nice cross-section of different Baijiu types. This is an excellent reference if you want to learn more about a specific Baijiu brand, and also provides the URLs to the distillery website. You'll find some fascinating historical facts within this section too as well as photos of each Baijiu bottle.
Sandhaus even provides a shorter section on Huangjiu, basically "yellow wine," which includes traditional Chinese grain wines and beers. This is even more difficult to find locally than Baijiu but is another interesting section to read, with lots of intriguing history and trivia. After that section, you'll find a brief section on Cocktails, including four recipes for drinks including: El Presidente, The Yellow Emperor, Chinese Zombie, and Fire & Ice. At the end, there is also a Glossary of terms, useful for reference.
Throughout the book are plenty of color photos, including bottle shots of each Baijiu, and they will enhance your appreciation of Baijiu. It may be the only Baijiu book in English, but it would still be a valuable reference even if there were others. Sandhaus has written a detailed, but easily understandable, book about Baijiu which should help motivate readers to give this intriguing Chinese spirit a try. It might have been nice to see more cocktail recipes and some information on food pairing, but those are minor issues which don't detract from the usefulness of this book. Baijiu: The Essential Guide earns my hearty recommendation.