--Baijiu: The Essential Guide To Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus
Many Americans know very little, if anything, about Baijiu, a Chinese spirit, despite the fact that it is the most popular spirit in the world. Baijiu remains a niche beverage in the U.S. and has been slow to make inroads into our country, beyond the Chinese community. However, it's a compelling beverage, with a diverse range of flavor profiles, a fascinating history, and a unique method of production. As World Baijiu Day nears, occurring on August 9, I wanted to get you ready for it by highlighting this intriguing spirit and presenting some historical tidbits about Baijiu.
Through my research, I've compiled a chronological listing, spanning a period from 1665 to 1995, of Baijiu references, from the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Australia and more. This isn't a comprehensive listing of every Baijiu reference that exists, but more of a representative sampling. Some of the omitted references were extremely brief and added no real value to our understanding. In addition, please consider this a work in progress, which will likely be expanded and revised in the future as I conduct further research.
For a basic background on Baijiu, you can check out my nine previous articles, including:
Baijiu: The Durian Fruit of the Spirits' World (Part 1)
Baijiu: Its Unique Production Process (Part 2)
Baijiu: Drinking Etiquette & Some Reviews (Part 3)
Baijiu: Cocktails, Boston & World Baijiu Day (Part 4)
Baijiu: Food Pairings (Part 5)
Vinn Bajiu: Made in Portland
Baijiu: The Essential Guide To Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus
World Baijiu Day: August 9
Taizi Baijiu: A New Zealand Treasure
It's difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of Baijiu, with some sources claiming its ancestors extend back two to three thousand years. Many sources seem to agree that it was most likely invented about a thousand years ago, and there are some existing Baijiu distilleries that can trace their history back 500-600 years. The spirit probably didn't become known in China as Baijiu until about 300 or so years ago. Outside of China, it appears it was better known as samshu until around the 1970s, when the term Baijiu became more commonly known.
In an interesting article, Chinese Alcohol Use and Hong Kong by Henry J. Antkiewicz (1993), he states, “Most authorities agree that the Mongol conquest introduced distilled or spirituous liquor into China. The Chinese called distilled alcohol a-la-chi (from Arabic arrack), but it more commonly became known as shao chiu (burnt wine)." However, Antkiewicz also stated, “Intriguingly, a pre-Mongol Chinese technical manual on the distillation of liquors exists which dates from 1117. Also, there are some references to shao chiu from the ninth century. All this may indicate a variety conclusions: the art of distillation arose independently in China; it was associated with crops other than sorghum; it was practiced earlier but fell into disuse or went unrecorded and was reintroduced by the Mongols; shao chiu meant something different before the Mongol period."
The manual he referred to was the three-volume Beishan Jiujing ("The Wine Classic of North Mountain) by Zhu Gong, a physician. The book provides a lengthy history of wine and wine-making, including such matters as heating wine to preserve it (long before Louis Pasteur), how to blend wines properly, as well as how to distill alcohol.
Europeans have had contact with China throughout history, from missionaries to merchants, and it's said that thousands of Europeans lived in China during the 13th and 14th centuries. Europeans may have tasted Baijiu at this time though I'm unaware of any written documentation concerning their experiences. It is possible that Baijiu during that period may have been more of an obscure beverage, one that hadn't yet become popular and more commonplace.
There's a fascinating account of a European's visit to China during the 13th century, detailing an ornate fountain that spouted various alcoholic beverages. The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-1255 (1900), edited and translated from the Latin by William Woodville Rockhill, is a travelogue by a Franciscan missionary who visited the Mongol Empire. In one passage, he describes an elaborate fountain, the Silver Tree of Karakorum, which could pour four different alcoholic beverages.
Rubruck wrote, "In the entry of this great place, it being unseemly to bring in there skins of milk and other drinks, master William the Parisian had made for him a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares. And four conduits are led inside the tree to its tops, which are bent downward, and on each of these is also a gilded serpent, whose tail twines round the tree. And from one of these pipes flows wine, from another caracosmos, or clarified mare’s milk, from another bal, a drink made with honey, and from another rice mead, which is called terracina; and for each liquor there is a special silver bowl at the foot of the tree to receive it. Between these four conduits in the top, he made an angel holding a trumpet, and underneath the tree he made a vault in which a man can be hid. And pipes go up through the heart of the tree to the angel."
So, the four alcoholic beverages included a grape wine, fermented mare’s milk, rice wine, and a honey mead. None of these were Baijiu and notes to the text added by the editor mentioned, “There is another stronger liquor distilled from millet, and called shao chiu: in Anglo-Chinese samshu. Mongols call it araka, arrak, and arreki." Thus, Baijiu didn't seem popular enough to the leader of the Mongols to include in his elaborate fountain, and probably didn't provide it often to his guests. That might be another reason for a lack of mention of Baijiu by European travellers during this time period. Even famed Marco Polo, who journeyed from Europe to Asia from 1271 to 1295, didn't mention Baijiu in any of his writings.
When the Ming Dynasty was founded in 1368, much of the contact with Europe was ended and wasn't reestablished until the early 16th century. During this new period, travellers to China were even more likely to have tasted Baijiu though the first documentation of those experiences that I've found so far is from the 17th century.
Part of the reason for this seeming lack of early documentation may be that the travellers, such as sailors, merchants and missionaries, lacked an understanding of Baijiu, possibly confusing it with Chinese wines or other liquors. A deeper examination of the travel guides, journals and letters of these early travelers might be necessary to try to discern earlier, more subtle, references to Baijiu. If anyone else knows of such earlier references, I'd appreciate if you shared that information with me.
The earliest reference I found to Baijiu, under the name Sampson, is in An Embassy Sent by the East-India Company of the United Provinces to the Grand Tartar Cham or Emperor of China by Johan Nieuhof (1665, and in English 1669). Johan was a Dutch traveler who wrote about his travels to Brazil, China and India). His book stated, “After Dinner the Waiters brought up several Gold and Silver Pots full of Sampson, which they pouring out into Wooden Dishes or Cups, gave round the Company, and they drank lustily of it themselves. They told us that this drink was distilled from new Milk, and came out of the Emperor’s Cellar, and that this great favor and kindness was done to us, because we came from so remote a Country, and so we must drink away sorrow. And though this Liquor was almost as strong as Brandy, yet the Ambassadors were forced to pledge the Steward several times, and to take what was left home with them; but they gave it away to the Soldiers, and others who stood at the Gate, who were better pleased with it.”
It's intriguing that Johan states the sampson was distilled from milk. Most of the early references to Baijiu claim that it was made from rice, though we know some producers do make it from milk, though it is rare. Reference is also made that the sampson wasn't as potent as brandy, though close, and later references will often highlight the high alcoholic strength of Baijiu. In addition, as it was mentioned the spirit came from the Emperor's Cellar, it is possible this was high quality liquor, and possible even aged for some time.
The next written reference was in A New Voyage Round The World, Describing Particularly, The Isthmus of America, Several Coasts and Islands in the West Indies, the Isles of Cape Verd, the Passage by Terra Del Fuego, the South Sea Coasts of Chili, Peru, and Mexico by William Dampier (1697). Dampier received a present including “2 great Jars of Arack, (made of Rice as I judged) called by the Chinese, Sam Shu; and 55 Jars of Hoc Shu, as they call it, and our Europeans from them. This is a strong liquor, made of Wheat as I have been told. It looks like Mum, and tastes much like it, and is very pleasant and hearty. Our Seamen love it mightily, and will lick their Lips with it: for scarce a Ship goes to China, but the Men come home fat with soaking this Liquor, and bring store of Jars of it home with them."
Later notes indicate that Hoc Shu was a Chinese beer and "was brewed from a special variety of rice, to which drugs were added." In addition, Mum was a strong German beer. It's interesting to see how popular Samshu was with seamen, and the fact that they brought it back home with them. This meant that Samshu was also being experienced in Europe, shared by the various sailors and merchants.
In 1727, Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish sea captain, merchant and privateer, wrote A New Account of the East Indies, mentioning receiving “a small Jar of Samshew, or Rice Arrack.” He later mentions, “...Samshew, a Kind of strong Arrack made of Rice, and with Hockshew, a Kind of strong Ale made of Wheatmalt by Fermentation.” Notes at the end of this book state that Samshew is the same as Chinese san-shao.
In 1744, John Philips, a midshipman, wrote An Authentic Journal of the Late Expedition Under the Command of Commodore Anson, and stated, “a But of Samshue: This Liquor is a Spirit distilled from Rice, and is either of a pale or reddish Colour; several Travellers give it the Name of Wine.”
A Narrative of the British Embassy to China in the Years 1792, 1793, and 1794, by Aeneas Anderson (1795) mentioned, “6 Large jars of samptsoo. The last is a liquor made in China, and imported from thence.” as well as “a small quantity of samptsoo, a spirituous liquor already described.”
Looking back at these five references, we see that Baijiu was called something different by each of the sources, though the names were similar. Samshu is a common term for Baijiu, one which would become very prevalent in the 19th century and into the 20th century. Most of the references also indicate the samshu was most commonly produced from rice.
The Hampshire Gazette (MA), December 5, 1832, printed an article about Canton and the European sailors that stop at the port. The article stated, "Foreigners 'catch' (or obtain) too much samshu (a strong drink made from rice). 'No good' results from it. They make great disturbance." It was then noted that the Chinese would drive the drunken sailors back to their ships. This is but one of the first references to drunken sailors, who drank too much samshu, causing problems.
The Christian Watchmen (MA), April 26, 1833, published a letter from a Reverend who was stationed in Canton. It stated, "Almost all the frequent disturbances among sailors here, arise from the forbidden use of the native spirit, 'Samshu.'" It seemed that due to the problems caused by drunken sailors, an order came down that they were prohibited from drinking Samshu.
A placard warning against Samshu. The Dedham Patriot (MA), May 19, 1836, printed the contents of a placard for "The Sailor's Coffee Shop" in Canton, China. The placard stated, "A friend warns you against the stuff sold to you in Canton for Rum. Much of it is not rum; it is fiery Samshoo, with sugar and tobacco, and sometimes arsenic (which you know is deadly poison) mixed up with it; all intended to stupify you as fast as possible, that you may be cheated or robbed, by the bad people who deceive you and sell this abominable stuff to you. By drinking it you are not only cheated out of your money, but your bowels and health are injured; so as to make dysentery, and by and by death not unlikely occurs. The death of many sailors in China is occasioned by their drinking the nasty samshoo sold at Whampoa and Canton." Obviously these claims have to be taken with a grain of salt as it was an advertisement for the coffee shop, trying to scare sailors from drinking native liquors and drinking only at the coffee shop.
More details on Baijiu production are provided in The Fan-Qui in China, Vol.1, by C. Toogood Downing, Esq. (1836-37). However, the book also gives a strong warning about sam-shu, alleging that the Chinese were intentionally adulterating the liquor. Besides being strong in alcohol, there is no evidence of any adulteration, and this is likely a racist attack on the Chinese, intended to blame them for the actions of overly drunk and rowdy sailors.
The book states, “The Chinese manufacture a kind of arrack, made chiefly from rice, and which is called Sam-shu. The ordinary mode of preparing it is as follows:--The rice is kept in hot water until the grains are swollen; water is then added to it, with which a preparation called “Pe-ka,” consisting of rice-flour, liquorice-root, aniseed, and garlic has been mixed. This hastens fermentation, and imparts to the liquor a peculiar flavor. This liquid, if prepared in the foregoing manner, would be highly pungent and stimulating, but would not occasion those deadly effects which appear to be produced by the ordinary sam-shu. It is most probable that the Chinese add other more deleterious ingredients, such as cocculus-indicus, to that which they supply to the sailors, as it has been considered of such an acrid and destructive nature, that an order is always given by the admiral to the officers of the ships belonging to the Royal Navy, which are about to proceed to China, to guard as much as possible against the introduction of sam-shu among the crews, as it is “found to be poison to the human frame.”
The Belfast News-Letter (Northern Ireland), November 10, 1840, published, “In China an ardent spirit is made from rice, and called sam-shu, of which punch is made in a coffee-pot, and it is drink out of China cups; but the natives are not much addicted to its use, a simple infusion of tea being the general beverage of all classes.” This points out that the Chinese are not big drinkers, preferring tea. It's also interesting that they allegedly made a punch out of samshu, and I wish more details were provided as to whatever other ingredients were added to the punch.
More negative attacks on Samshu! The Morning Chronicle, London, December 8, 1840, posted an article about the battle of Chusan, during the First Opium War. The article mentioned that, “The only formidable enemy we have found, in this place, is the infernal liquor they call Samshu. Incredible quantities of this cursed stuff were destroyed immediately after we landed, but several days elapsed before all the cellars were discovered and destroyed, and indeed it is too easily procurable still. The consequence has been, that a great number of men have been drunk. We have had courts-martial, and several men have been flogged.” There is another mention too, “Besides, this liquor appears to be more insidious than any to which they are accustomed.” Sounds more like soldiers simply got rip roaring drunk, and then some were penalized for their actions. Flogged for drinking samshu!
The Boston Post, January 9, 1841, also discussed the effect of samshu on the soldiers at Chusan. : “The overland mail from India brought dates from China of the 4th of August. On the 5th of July, the city and island of Chusan were captured by Brig. Gen. Burrell, after a brief but not very serious resistance. The inhabitants had left the town but were returning. The soldiers had been excited by unlimited indulgence in a spirt called samshu, and had committed several outrages, for which they had been severely punished.”
More issues with soldiers and samshu. The Herald (NY), December 22, 1842, reported that, "We are sorry to learn that sickness prevails to a great degree on the island of Kolongaoo, near Amoy, amongst the garrisons, and that out of 400 of the 18th Royal Irish there are 117 sick, mostly with brain fever, we suppose brought on by the too liberal use of that dangerous spirit, Samshoo."
More information on the First Opium War and samshu was referenced in The Ipswich Journal, (England), October 14, 1843. “One of the many causes of mortality amongst the British Forces in the recent war with China, was the two free use of a most pernicious liquor, called Sam-shu. Thus destructive spirit is distilled from rice, and also from sweet potatoes, and is used by the Chinese as an ingredient in cooking. They also drink it in small portions at their meals, warmed. In appearance and flavour it resembles an inferior sherry wine. Many men of all arms, as well naval as military, died miserable deaths from too unguarded an indulgence in its use; and to such an extent did the evil spread, that the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Hugh Gough, considered it necessary, with the view of checking the crime of drunkenness, to notice in in Brigade Orders, and vigilant measures were taken to prevent the Chinese from selling the spirit to the troops.”
This passage is interesting for several reasons. First, it is stated that some samshu is made from sweet potatoes, which appears to be the first time this is mentioned in English sources. Second, it is also stated that the Chinese generally drink it in small portions, with food, and warmed. It seems that Americans, especially sailors and soldiers, weren't able to control themselves with the samshu. Third, samshu is described as an inferior sherry wine, and this wouldn't be the last time that it would be described as similar to sherry in some respects.
In the Ottawa Free Trader (IL), December 5, 1845, there was a lengthy article about the Chinese, including information about their food and drink. In one part, it stated, "..samshoo, a liquor distilled from rice, which is mingled with hot water, and served in small covered vessels with a glass to drink from, quite in the manner of hot whiskey toddy at some of the fashionable hotels in this country. The Chinese pledge healths in drinking, and empty and reverse their glasses."
The Encyclopedia Metropolitana (1845) published that, “The Chinese make rice wine perfumed, and distill the Rice wine lees, whence they obtain a spirit like brandy, which they call sam-tchoo, or san-tchoo. Before distillation the liquor is called tchoo only, and san, or same, means fiery or hot. The Chinese spirit is above proof, and is not found to contract the bad taste so frequently discovered in European spirits.” A more positive look at samshu.
The article Chinese Alcohol Use and Hong Kong by Henry J. Antkiewicz (1993) briefly mentioned that, “The first European hanged in Hong Kong in l845 allegedly committed it under the influence of ‘samshoo!” More details were provided in The History of the Laws and Courts of Hong-kong: Tracing Consular ...by James William Norton-Kyshe. Three English sailors, Charles Ingwood, Thomas Cox, and John Mears, were arrested for murdering another Englishman, Wilkinson. The four men had been drinking samshu together, and then took a Chinese sampan back to the shore. However, they fight together, leading to the first three men to tie up Wilkinson and throw him into the water, where he died.
It was later alleged that Wilkinson and Ingwood were the two who actually fought, while Cox and Mears just watched, not interfering in the matter. Ingwood was convicted of murder and sentenced to death while Cox and Mears were acquitted. Ingwood was then hanged on July 3, 1845, but before he died, he said to a shipmate that he wanted to "warn his shipmates against 'samshoo' (a native intoxicating drink), and he hoped his fate would make an impression upon them which would not be effaced."
Another more positive view came in Five Years in China: From 1842 to 1847 by Lieut. F.E. Forbes, R.N. (1848) who noted, “Some of the vessels are placed on a heated metal plate, beneath which is a slow fire, and contain very tolerable samshoo, of all strengths, from brandy to sherry.” The book also notes, “Down we sat to a very good Chinese dinner…,washed down with some very tolerable samshoo.” Seems that the alcohol content of samshu could vary.
How much Samshu was consumed in Hawaii? The Polynesian (HI), February 1, 1851, provided some figures for spirits which paid customs duty in 1850. Brandy was by far in first place, at about 6484 gallons, with Gin in second place at about 1159 gallons. Rum was in third place with about 337 gallons and Samshu was in fourth place with only 112 gallons. So, Samshu was still relatively a niche beverage at that time.
The Congregationalist (MA), April 18, 1851, printed a short article from a Seaman's Chaplain in China. who noted that "..., sailors from different ships meet ashore, where the Chinese ply them with poisonous 'samshu,' and rob them of their money." Blame is placed on the Chinese though it's fairly obvious that the seamen quite voluntarily consumed samshu, and its doubtful the Chinese tried to steal from the drunken sailors.
In comparison to the prior year, the Polynesian (HI), May 8, 1852, provided statistics for 1852, showing an increase in Samshu consumption. Brandy was still in first place, at about 6397 gallons, with Gin also again in second place at about 1183 gallons. However, Samshu had risen from fourth to third place, with about 286 gallons, more than twice the consumption of the prior year. Whiskey, at about 87 gallons, was in 4th place and Absinthe, at about 61 gallons, was in 5th place. Rum dropped to sixth place, with only 46 gallons, a significant drop from 337 gallons.
Paradise or drunkenness? The Sun (PA), June 3, 1854, briefly noted that "There is a shop for the sale of samshoo, or rice whiskey, in Hong Kong, which bears over its door the following inscription: The joys of Paradise are nothing compared to a perpetual drunk."
In describing a Chinese banquet, The Daily Exchange (MD), February 25, 1858, published, “Meanwhile the ministering boys flew and fluttered round the table; forever filling the little wine-glasses with hot wine from the metal pots. There were three kinds; the strong samshu for every occasional ‘spike;’ the medicated wine, for those who, having once experience its many flavors, chose to attempt it a second time; and the ordinary wine, which is so like sherry negus, that any one who can drink that preparation may be very well satisfied with its China substitute.” This shows the different spirits and wines available in China, with samshu being the strongest one.
In a similar vein, there was an article on Chinese festivities in The True Northerner (MI), June 25, 1858. The article mentioned, “The women—hired singing women of not doubtful reputation—in the intervals of their music, they take their seats at the table opposite the men. They do not eat, but their business being to promote the conviviality of the feast, they challenge the men to the samshu cud and drink with them. It is astonishing to see what a quantity of diluted samshu these painted and brocaded she-celestials can drink without any apparent effect--.” The article continued, “For the first time since I have been in China, I have seen Chinamen under the influence of samshu. They are not boisterous, or even jolly when in this state, but only sheepish and good-humored. I saw no quarrels.” Again, it seems the Chinese rarely get intoxicated on samshu, and even when they do, they don't start arguments or violence.
There was a brief mention of samshu in the New York Evangelist (NY), February 2, 1860, which mentioned, "the Chinese wine, or samshu, is universally drank by all classes..."
The Maine Farmer (ME), July 12, 1860, publishing an article, Wine-Drinking In China, which mentioned that "China is emphatically a sober country; though her wine is cheap, sound and good--though there is no tax upon it, no restriction whatever in its sale or manufacture--though nearly all persons, both men and women of all classes, freely use it, but few comparatively drink to excess." There was also a note that what English sailors and soldiers refer to as samshoo, is what the Chinese call seaou tsiew, a distilled spirt.
More support that the Chinese rarely get drink was provided by Sir John Francis Davis in his Chinese Miscellanies: A Collection of Essays and Notes—1865. He indicates, “Generally, however, they are very moderate in their habits. Even the use of the distilled spirit called samshoo, so general on the arrival of the British, very much declined subsequently, in consequence of the many restrictions it became necessary to impose for the sake of the troops.”
Yet, the negativity against samshu would continue. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), May 11, 1867, printed, “Last Saturday, in the Police Court, a Chinaman was fined $100 and costs for selling a villainous kind of spirituous liquor to native, called ‘Samshu.’ It is manufactured in China from the juice of the green bamboo and is imported here in jars. It is said to be maddening in its effects on the brain—worse, of possible, than strychnine or ‘forty-rod’ whisky.” Worse than strychnine, a poison? This is clearly a vast exaggeration, likely fueled by racism.
And even more negativity! The Charleston Daily News, July 21, 1871, stated, “The Chinese prepare a drink from rice called ‘Sam-shu,’ which is not only intoxicating, but like absinthe, peculiarly mischievous in its permanent effects.” Lots of assertions about the terrible dangers of samshu but no actual evidence.
A Chinese birth-day feast. The National Baptist (PA), April 4, 1872, provided a detailed list of the food and drink for such a feast, including the prices of each item. There is a listing for "Whiskey (Samshu)" with a cost equivalent to 3 cents. That is opposed to "Old Wine" which had a price of 67 cents. In comparison, the hiring of a cook for two days only cost 60 cents.
Drinking at a "true" Chinese dinner. The Springfield Republican (MA), December 18, 1872, provided an article about this dinner, noting they received "a tiny cup and saucer for the 'samshu,' or liquor, which we were expected to take a sip of at the end of each course." Though their reactions to the food were mentioned, the article didn't say what they felt about the samshu.
It doesn't end! The North Carolina Gazette, October 23, 1873, in an article titled, How Sailors Are Poisoned in China, discussed a meeting of the Marine Temperance Society. The article stated, “..; for sailors ashore, of whatever nationality, had no alternative, when weary or thirsty, than to go into some low Chinese grog shop where poisonous liquor was sold, which had the effect of filling both the jail and the hospital. It is well-known that nineteen twentieths of the crime committed by foreigners is committed by the drunken and disorderly classes of sailors.” It continues, “.., for the quality of the drink sold in Chinese shops to sailors defies description. Suffice to say that it is composed of native samshu, kerosene, tobacco bang, and sulphuric acid. One bottle of this stuff is sufficiently strong to make a whole ship’s crew drunk, and its price is only a shilling. It can be bought wholesale at about nine shillings per dozen, and is said to be a cheap and effective blister for horses;..”
Once again it seems that the main problem was drunken sailors, and it probably wouldn't matter what they had been drinking. As it was cheap, the sailors could buy plenty of it and any alcohol consumed in such large amounts would likely cause serious hangovers. Rather than blame the sailors, it was far easier to blame the Chinese and their samshu.
7 types of Samshu? The Massachusetts Ploughman & New England Journal of Agriculture (MA), May 16, 1874, detailed a Chinese dinner, which included "Seven different sorts of samshoo," made from items including ".., made from rice, from pease, from mangoes, cocoanut, all fermented liquors;.." It was also mentioned that, "The samshoo was drunk warm in tiny cups during the course of the dinner."
A more measured mention was published in The New York Herald, August 20, 1874. In a visit to Formosa (now known as Taiwan), “there were great vessels of sweet potato samshu,.. It was reheated and then handed around with persistent, not to say oppressive, hospitality. The liquor was not particularly palatable but was extremely potent, with a flavor not unlike very inferior Irish whiskey.” Once again, we see a reference to sweet potato samshu, its strong potency, and some distaste at its flavor. However, we''l return to Formosa shortly for a more grisly samshu reference.
Samshy? The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), July 24, 1875, had a short article about samshoo, also known as samshy. The term means "thrice distilled" and is said to be, "a strong spiritous liquor distilled from the yeasty liquor in which boiled rice has been fermented under pressure many days." The article mentioned many Chinese on the islands drink samshoo, and it is imported in earthen jars from China at a duty of $3 a gallon.
During the latter half of the 19th century, there were a number of cases of attempted smuggling of samshu, to avoid paying a duty, into the Territory of Hawaii. For example, The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), August 26, 1876, noted, “For violation of the Revenue Laws, will be sold In Bond, 5 cases—50 Gallons Fruit Flavored Samshu." It is interesting to see that the samshu was fruit flavored, which is the first mention of such.
Besides the auction of this seized samshu, there were auctions for legal samshu as well. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), June 16, 1877, had an advertisement for an Auction sale of Goods and Liquors, including “Jars Chinese Samshu.” This may be the first reference to the legal sale of samshu in the U.S.
The healing power of Samshu? The Evansville Courier & Press (IN), November 12, 1881, published an advertisement for "Carolina Tula Tonic," for "Pulmonary Diseases and General Debility." It was also said to be a cure for dispepsia, coughs, colds, bronchitis, asthma, and "the only remedy that is beneficial in malarial climates." The basis of this tonic is "Rice and Rye Whiskies" and the rice whiskey was Samshoo, said to have "been used for many years by the Chinese..as the only antidote to Malaria and Rice Fever." The ad even states, "We guarantee a positive cure in every case. Harmless and very pleasant to take."
Some samshu statistics. The Daily Honolulu Press, March 18, 1882, presented an Annual Trade Review for 1881, with a list of Increase of Exports and Imports. “Table of spirits taken out for consumption for 1881….shows that Brandy leads the list, standing together at a little over 18,000 gallons, while Gin and Samshu, the articles largely dealt in by the Chinese, show a large increase,…” Imports for Gin were at 12,154 gallons while Samshu imports were at 9429 gallons. In comparison, twelve years later, in 1893, Hawaii imported only about 3,400 gallons of Japanese Sake.
Once again, negativity! The Boston Globe, March 24, 1882, wrote, “There is a vile decoction from China, called Samshu, is drank, compared to which benzine is nectar.”
The Stephens City Star (VA), December 23, 1882, discussed a visit to China, and a dinner at a restaurant, where, “The drinkables were samshu of two different strengths, the one to imbibe while eating, the other at dessert—the former was flat, mild, and rather flavorless, the latter rough and potent—both, to my palate disagreeable. Samshu is a spirit distilled usually from rice, although it may be made from potatoes, beans, or sugar-cane; it is of a whitish color, and not altogether unlike bad whisky much under proof. It serves the Chinese in lieu of wine, which they never make from the grape.” It is interesting to see that a mention that samshu can be made by various ingredients. This is also the first mention of different types of samshu that are drank at different parts of a mea.
A bit more explanation of the translation of samshu is provided in The Middle Kingdom by Samuel Wells Williams (1883). “Only one distillation is made for common liquor, but when more strength is wanted, it is distilled two or three times, and it is this strong spirit alone which is rightly called samshu, a word meaning ‘thrice-fired."
Some details on the distillation process of Samshu were provided in the Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society: Volume 18 (1884) in the article, Samshu-Brewing in North China by H.B. Guppy, M.B. Surgeon, R.N. Guppy visited a couple "Samshu breweries" in the suburbs of Tientsin, taking notes about what he saw. He began with, “The first step in the process is concerned with the production of the fermenting-element or yeast. This is obtained by grinding down a quantity of oats and barley or some other cereals: the powder is then moistened and shaped into brick-like cakes, and is kept for a period varying between six and twelve months before it is ready for use: some of these cakes, which I observed stowed away like bricks in the corner of one of the buildings, were much worm-eaten and partially encrusted with mould. When required for use the cakes of this fermenting-element are reduced to a fine powder, which is kept dry and ready at hand. This powder when examined microscopically is shewn to be composed in great part of the starch-cells of either barley or wheat, together with a large number of small disconnected bodies which exhibit a lively molecular motion when moistened, and are evidently the spore-cells of the ferment-fungus."
The article then continued, "The next stage — that of fermentation — may be thus described. In a building, which is kept cool in summer and artificially warm in winter, a number of large earthen jars are buried in the ground with their mouths on a level with the surface; these jars are filled with millet-grains previously mixed with about five catties of the powdered yeast-cake, and moistened with water; when filled, each jar is plastered over with mud and covered with millet-refuse; and there it is allowed to remain undisturbed for ten or eleven days, during which time the fermentation is in active operation."
Finally, he noted, "The process of distillation occupies about an hour. When the fermented millet is taken out from the jars, it is placed in a large wooden vat or tub, the bottom of which is made of a kind of grating; and beneath this vat is placed a large boiler of water which is heated by an adjacent furnace. The steam ascending through the grating and passing through the fermented millet finally comes into contact with a cylinder of cold water; it is there condensed, and trickling off into a little gutter finds its way out through a long spout in a clear stream of veritable samshu. After the process is completed, the vat is emptied of the millet, which is subsequently dried and sold as fodder for ponies, donkeys, etc."
As an addition, he also mentioned that, "Kow-liang" is, I believe, the name of samshu thus prepared from millet. The spirit to which these notes refer, is that which is in common use amongst the poorer classes in Tientsin; and in two different samples which I examined the proportion of alcohol by volume varied between 48 and 54 per cent. I was informed that the samshu drunk by the higher ranks is a weaker spirit, and is only prepared on the approach of the warm season."
The New Ulm Review (MN), February 18, 1885, in an article titled, Chinese Tangle-Foot, described Samshu and its production. "Samtchoo is the famous drink of China. It is made from rice. The grain is steeped twenty or thirty days in water and then gently boiled. When it is soft and pulpy and completely diluted by the heat it is allowed to ferment in vats of glazed earthenware." The article continues, "The yeast is made from wheat, several wholesome ingredients being added during the process of fermentation, such as fruits and flowers to impart a pleasant flavor and color." In addition, "At the end of several days it is drawn off into glazed vessels where a second process of fermentation goes on. It is then shipped in jars all across the empire. The lees are distilled and yield a strong liquor."
The test results indicate that the samshu has 45.70% of alcohol by volume (or ABV), and “These analyses show that Sam-shu contains as much alcohol as any liquor usually sold." In comparison, today, most vodka, rum, and similar spirits are about 40% ABV, so samshu is stronger and there are plenty of modern versions of Baijiu over 50% ABV.
Would you try a medicine called the Tincture of Five Poisons? The Iron County Register (MO), January 14, 1886, published an article on Chinese medicinal remedies, noting, “A favorite remedy is known as ‘the tincture of five poisons,’ made by steeping scorpions, snakes and other venomous creatures in samshu. This is given for fever, rheumatism and catarrh. In some parts of China it is considered the very highest degree of philanthropy for the rich to place this tincture at their doors, to be used without cost by the poor.” Catarrah is an inflammation of the mucus membranes. A couple years ago, I had a Vietnamese "wine" which had a snake and scorpion in the bottle, and it was horrible, like rotted kerosene.
And the negativity returns. The Sunday Leader (PA), June 6, 1886, printed, “If he is ‘fond of his glass’, and can afford it, he will take a couple thimblefuls of ‘samshu,’ a fearful burning sort of spirit made from the juice of a plant called ‘Kowliang." The plant this reference mentions is Kaoliang, sorghum, which is now the main ingredient in many Baijiu spirits.
Another samshu seizure. The Santa Cruz Sentinel, January 22, 1887, reported that in San Francisco, “Seven hundred bottles of samshu, a Chinese liquor worth about $500, were to-day seized on the steamship San Pablo by the Customs officers and confiscated, as it was not in the manifest and was to be smuggled ashore.” This indicates that the price of a bottle of samshu is worth under $1.
We can note the amount of Samshu which was exported from China in 1886 and 1887. In China. Imperial Maritime Customs. Returns of Trade & Trade Reports 1887, there was a table of “Export of Native Goods to Foreign Countries 1886 and 1887” and there was a listing for Samshu.
In 1886, China exported 36,381.09 Piculs, with a Value of 80,930, and in 1887, they exported 123,480.24 Piculs, with a Value of 370,068. A Picul is a Chinese unit equivalent to about 133.33 pounds. From 1886 to 1887, there was almost an increase in exports of four times the prior amount.
Though some people warned of the dangers of consuming Samshu, of how it can negatively affect your mind, a doctor who analyzed Samshu disagreed. In A Manual of Practical Hygiene (1887) by Edmund Alexander Parkes, M.D., F.R.S., there was a section on “Alcohol as an article of Diet in Health.” Within that section, it addressed Samshu, noting, “Dr Dupre analysed for Dr Parkes a specimen of the best samshu from Singapore. It contained in 100 c.c. 23'91 per cent, of alcohol by weight, and this was made up of 23’874 parts of ethyl alcohol, and 0’036 parts of amylic alcohol : the amount of free acid (almost all acetic) was 0’105; of residue (sugar almost entirely) 6’01, and of ash 0’06 per cent. Cheap samshu gave nearly the same result. There seems to be nothing deleterious here; and from inquiries among soldiers who have served in Hongkong, it seems doubtful whether good samshu docs produce the effects ascribed to it. It is probably the adulterated (with opium, &c.) article which acts so violently.”
Archibald John Little, in his book Through The Yang-Tse Gorges (1888), noted, “The business of the day commenced with swallowing endless thimblefuls of hot ‘sam-shu,’ a fiery spirit made from millet." This is the first reference to samshu being made from this grain.
Is samshu a killer? The San Francisco Examiner, November 26, 1888, in an article titled Sam-Shu Did It, it mentions that, “Thomas Stewart, an ex-trusty at nearly every public institution in the city, having been cook at the City Prison, County Jail and House of Correction, was found dead on the sidewalk, corner of Clay and Dupont streets, by Officer M. Hayes last night. Stewart was a native of Boston, Mass. And possessed a fine education, but had been ruined by drink. Of late he had been drinking sam-shu—Chinese rice brandy—and this is what killed him.”
A samshu drinking game! The Pittsburgh Dispatch, November 10, 1889, wrote a Chinese drinking game, stating, “A common game at Chinese dinners is the guessing the number of fingers which one man thrusts out quickly before the eyes of his neighbors. If the guess is wrong the guesser has to take a drink of samshu.” I suspect this is only one of plenty of other drinking games the Chinese play.
Samshu as medicine? In China. Imperial Maritime Customs. Medical Reports for Half-Year Ended September 30, 1891, it noted that, “A peculiar disease of an epidemic nature is said to be constantly present during the hot weather; yang-mao-ch’eng is the common name for it. It begins with fever and diarrhoea, during which the Chinese doctor is called in, and, from the character of the pulse, diagnoses the disease and proceeds to apply the remedy. This usually consists of Wheaten ﬂour mixed with hot samshu, which is spread over any part of the patient’s body the physician may select. It is removed after some time and examined, when some small white hairs may be seen in its substance. I was fortunate enough on one occasion to see a similar treatment applied.”
What's the penalty for stealing a bottle of samshu? The Evening Bulletin (HI), July 16, 1892, reported that “Oscar Schussler was caught last Wednesday breaking open a case of Chinese liquor and taking out a bottle of samshu. The case had just been landed from the British S.S. Palmas and Schussler was employed as a dock laborer in discharging the steamer. Customs officer Charles Clark found the bottle in Schussler’s pocket. He was arrested since then and was tried in the Police Court this morning. Schussler denied the accusation and stated some natives broke the case, got full on the liquor and left a bottle on the wharf. This of course was believed—not, and Schussler was found guilty of larceny in the 4th degree and sentenced to imprisonment at hard labor for thirty days.” Maybe he should have pled guilty and sought the mercy of the court.
The Salt Lake Herald (UT), October 23, 1893, in an article titled Chinese Surgery, also had information on alcohol in China. "The native spirit, samshoo, is very extensively consumed, but it is invariably in minute quantities and never excepting with meals, intoxication being a thing practically unknown in China."
A rather grisly method of drinking samshu. If you're squeamish, skip to the next paragraph. You have been warned. In the San Francisco Examiner, June 15, 1895, there was an article with a lengthy title, With Formosa Savages, Cannibals Who Drink Samshu Through Carved Chinese Throats, Wandering Warrior Bands That Eat Human Hearts and Livers and Have Chiefs Who Tread Like Conquerors. T.G. Gowlan, a tea exporter, recently traveled through the wild regions of the island of Formosa. Concerning the island's inhabitants, he said “these savages are head takers and cannibals. In their wars with the Chinese they cut off heads and then pour the native drink, samshu, into the mouths and drink it through the bleeding neck. They eat human hearts and livers.” Though there is evidence of head hunting and cannibalism among some of the indigenous peoples of Formosa, whether they actually drank samshu out of a bloody neck is suspect. However, they have been said to drink alcohol out of skulls.
In December 1895, a Chinese samshu saloon opened in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Gazette, January 14, 1896, wrote about this new saloon and interviewed the owner. The saloon was located midway between Hotel and King streets on the Waikiki side of Nuuanu, and it was noted, "The general appearance of the place is decidedly American.” It is also said to be more of a liquor store and not really a saloon as “…there is no drinking done there. Each and every man, woman and child is required to buy a bottle duly sealed with dirty sealing wax and stamped with the name “Kat Poo” or go home empty-handed.” The Chinese owner is named Kat Poo and had some difficulty speaking English, so the newspaper cleaned up his English for the answers they printed.
Kat Poo stated, “No, samshu is not the name of any particular liquor. It is the Chinese name for spirituous liquors of all kinds.” “Now, then, I have wines, whisky and gin of many Chinese brands here. The gin is white, the whisky yellowish, and the majority of the wine red. You may be surprised when I tell you that all Chinese liquors are manufactured from rice, but such is the case.” He then continued, “The power of intoxication of our liquor, I claim, to be above the average, but, then, I would not have this go abroad, as it might have a very bad effect, particularly since everything in my store is so cheap. The highest priced article in the house is only $.150.” As for his clientele, “most of my patronage comes from Chinese and Hawaiians. White men are not very far behind. Those who come here once always return.” And as for his sourcing, “All my liquor comes from Hongkong, to which place it is brought from surrounding smaller towns and cities.”
This was certainly an in-depth and interesting article, and largely positive in its depiction of samshu. It was also fascinating to learn that the saloon had many "white men" as customers, indicating the popularity of the spirit was spreading outside of its usual channels. It likely helps that everything is so inexpensive.
Not all samshu is inexpensive. The Buffalo Evening News, July 13, 1897, printed, “What shoa-shing is to the upper classes, sam-shui is to the masses. It is made from rice, and is its triple distillate. Old sam-shui is very expensive, and tastes like old sherry.” Nowadays, there are some very expensive Baijiu, especially some of the more aged versions.
Check out Part 2 of this article.
(This article has been updated, expanded and revised as of May 7, 2020.)