Tuesday, June 18, 2019
Historical Tidbits About Baijiu, The World's Most Popular Spirit (Part 2)
With the start of the 20th century, we see some early and interesting stories from Hawaii. We begin with The Hawaiian Star, August 9, 1902, discussing a legal case. “Officer An On was driven to drink this morning at the police station….he drank the liquor in Judge Wilcox’s court room. An On drank the liquor under orders, for he was used as an expert witness on samshu, the Chinese liquor. The case was that against Ma Quai charged with selling Samshu without a license. An On was called upon to testify as to whether the liquor illegally sold, had really been samshu. The little police officer drank the stuff from a bottle while on the witness stand, and after making wry faces, declared that it was the liquor claimed.” The Defendant was assessed $100 for the violation.
A tale of ghosts and samshu. The Hawaiian Star, January 22, 1904, related the story of Peleliilii, an elderly native guide who escorted a party of scientists to the summit crater of Mokuaweoweo. On December 31, during a prior visit to the volcano, Peleliilii claimed, “As darkness set in I saw over 1,000 akuas of all nationalities.” Akuas are Hawaiian gods. When he left the crater, over 100 akuas came with them, following him to his home, Puakalehua, where his wife and children were buried by the mudflow of 1868. Eventually, there were only 8 akuas left and Peleliilii stated, “I got eight glasses and filled them with samshu which I placed on a small table near them. I watched to see what they would do. Did not see the akuas drink but when I looked in the glasses they were empty.” He gave them a refill and had some himself. He went to bed, and in the morning the akuas were gone.
Another alleged case of the illegal sale of samshu, but with a twist. The Honolulu Advertiser, April 7, 1905, printed, “Is Sam Sue the victim of the machinations of an overzealous and irresponsible police spy?” Sam was a grocer who had been in business for 20 years, with no prior trouble. He was recently arrested though for selling liquor without a license. The evidence against him included two bottles of samshu and some marked money, which was allegedly used by a Japanese police spy. However, a harness maker next door to the grocery claimed that he had seen the spy enter the store, carrying 2 bottles of samshu. The spy then bought some pork, took out the samshu, started drinking, and then signaled a police detective. Sam wasn’t even in the store when the spy first arrived. When Sam did show up, he told spy not to drink in his store. The Sheriff though claimed he had a witness who saw the transaction with the spy. No decision was made on the case, and I didn't find any subsequent article indicating the end result.
More flavored samshu. The Sun (NY), July 20, 1905, mentioned that, “Such of the Chinese liquors as I have sipped have as their basis samshu, which is a spirit made from rice, and they taste like fire water slightly impregnated with a variety of sweet nastiness. One, however, better than the rest, is made in northern China, and is flavored with orange peel.” This is the first reference to an orange peel flavored samshu, though fruit flavored samshu has been referenced before.
Samshu and a shave? An article in The Logan Republican (Utah), October 4, 1905, provided a fascinating tour of Chinatown of San Francisco, titled What is Seen During a Three Hours visit after Dark. Amidst all the other details, there is an intriguing reference to samshu at a barber shop, not the type of business you normally associate with that liquor. “One feature of this shaving business of interest to many customers, no doubt, is that with each shave goes a drink of liquor, ‘samshu,’ by name.” I wonder how many people went there for a shave on a daily basis.
A bit of history, though with a tinge of negativity. The Belding Banner (MI), February 22, 1906, published a brief bit, “The Chinese claim that they distilled alcohol so far back as 2200 B.C. whereas the Europeans only learned how to produce eau-de-vin in the thirteenth century. Certainly the samshu tastes as if its secret was discovered when man was barbaric and his digestion very strong.”
The Panama–Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), a World's Fair, was held in San Francisco from February 20 to December 4, 1915. China attended the fair, showcasing a number of exhibitors, including distillers from Maotai and Xinghuacun. China entered a number of their alcoholic beverages into competition, and it's alleged they won over 1000 awards. Nowadays, a number of Baijiu producers brag about their wins from this event. However, records from this time period seem to say very little about China's participation in their competitions. Why is that so? Derek Sandhaus has done an excellent job in researching this event and you need to check out his findings on his blog, 300 Shots at Greatness. He helps to bring some clarity to the myths surrounding this competition.
The Salt Lake Tribune, March 21, 1917, notes how sorghum, referred to as Kaoliang, is used for the production of samshu. “A species of tall millet grown throughout Manchuria, China, serves to supply the Chinese with heat, food, and drink. Kaoliang is the name of this wonderful plant which is put to so many uses. The grain is used as food and is also largely used in the production of samshu, an alcoholic drink that is consumed in large quantities by the Chinese.” Sorghum is now the main grain used to produce Baijiu.
One of the most extensive articles on samshu was in the Honolulu Star Bulletin, September 8, 1917, which mentioned how all imports of foreign liquors were to be stopped due to the food control law. In Hawaii, who would that hurt the most? “The liquor edict will perhaps fall hardest on the consumers of samshu for the quantity of this in bond is limited and Hawaii’s Chinese population is not incline to adopt the ‘’fire water’ of other nations."
The medical virtues of samshu were then discussed. "Nearly all the consumers of samshu, of which there are 24 brands imported here, look upon this liquor as having medicinal virtue. It was this belief that led to a treasury decision sometime ago that it should be classified as drugs containing alcohol and the knowledge that the so-called Chinese wines are distilled and not brewed.” In addition, “Belief that samshu has medicinal properties is indicated by the titles of the wine, the following being a few samples: Tri-Serpent, Deer Horn, Lizard, Dragoon, Tiger, Monkey, and Undressed Snake medicated wines."
It was interesting to see that 24 different brands of samshu were being imported into Hawaii, though no specific brand names were provided. The Treasury decision is strange and I will need to look into it at more depth. The article also mentioned, "All the Chinese wines are generally referred to in the liquor trade as sam-shu, perhaps the Chinese equivalent of the American term “booze.” As such, it sometimes can be difficult to determine when an article that mentions samshu is referring to Baijiu or not.
Although Prohibition didn't start arriving in the Territory of Hawaii until April 1918, illegal stills were still being shut down bring to this Prohibition. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 25, 1918 and The Honolulu Advertiser, January 26, 1918 detailed one such case. “Lee Wah Chung’s hog farm in the Palolo Valley has come to a bad end” as a U.S. Marshall and revenue agents found “twenty gallons of the choicest samshu liquor in the cellar of the house, twenty-six mash barrels and a kettle in an outbuilding,..” Chung was arrested when he returned home, charged with possessing an unregistered liquor manufacturing outfit. He was held under a bond of $1000, and the potential penalty was 6-24 months imprisonment and/or a fine of $1000-$5000.
The family of another moonshiner caused a bit of an uproar at the U.S. Marshall's office. The Honolulu Advertiser, November 14, 1918, printed that the wife a convicted moonshiner created a "mad scene" in the office of the United States Marshall. “Pang Sang was convicted Monday for distilling three barrels of samshu at Waikiki two months ago.” He had to serve a one month sentence as he couldn't afford to pay the fine of $500. As he turned himself in, his wife and children accompanied him to the marshall's office. “With her nine children, ranging from six months to fifteen years of age, grouped about her, all shrieking at the tops of their young voices, Mrs. Pang Sang, a Chinese woman, dashed her head against the walls of the United States Marshal’s office yesterday afternoon as her husband was being led off to the penitentiary by Deputy Marshal Charles Laval."
How much samshu was China exporting in 1917? According to the Commerce Reports, Volume 1, Issue 10, January 3, 1919, “Rice wine, sam-shu, is made in enormous quanitities in China, although the people are not given to intemperance. The best rice wine is made at Shaoshing, in Chekiang. Six thousand tons of ordinary sam-shu, and 4,000 tons of medicated sam-shu, were exported in 1917.” The statistics didn't mention what portion of these exports were sent to the U.S.
The Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem, Volume 5, by Ernest Hurst Cherrington (1929) had a listing for samshu, initially noting some alternative spellings, including Samshoo, Samchoo, Sam-tchoo, Sam-tseou, and San-tsiu. It then provides a short definition, that it is “An intoxicating drink made form rice, in general use in China. ‘Samshu’ signifies ‘thrice-burnt,’ and has reference to the method of producing the liquor.” The entry continues, “Samshu, like all other spirits and rice-wines in China, is usually served hot.” It then finishes with, “The lower classes seldom, if ever, partake of a meal without a small cup of samshu.”
The Des Moines Tribune, February 1, 1932, reported on the city of Chapei, in Shangahi, which was currently occupied by the Japanese. “One sees ‘sam-shu’ houses (sam-shu is a potent native drink made from rice) crowded with coolies, many half bad from the effects of this violent intoxicant.” Back to that negativity. With the occupation, who could blame them for drinking?
Beer becoming more popular than samshu? The News Journal (DE), October 20, 1938, noted that the “Chinese are drinking more beer and less samshu (rice wine). The daily consumption of beer here has risen in the past six months from 30,000 bottles to 70,000. Samshu was formerly the most popular beverage among Chinese but it is now no longer available." Why was samshu not available? "The Chinese government has restricted the brewing of this wine in order to preserve all the rice for war needs.” So samshu consumption during the extent of the war probably remained low, though after the war returned to its previous heights.
The best samshu? The Brooklyn Citizen, May 25, 1942, stated, “The samshu or rice wine of Shaohing is regarded as China’s finest. Its quality is attributed to the water of a local lake used in its production.”
The first mention I found of the term "Baijiu" was in Dragon Pink On Old White (1963), by Phillip Bonosky, a political analysis of the Chinese revolution. It briefly mentions Baijiu two times, without providing any description of it. The first passage stated, "We continued to drink toasts, all but Shao Hua, in red wine and baijiu." The other passage noted, "Nobody was drinking mowpm, or baijiu or pijiu. There was a modesty to this entertainment that made it seem somehow touching and pure."
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 2, 1970, related some history, “Under the Ming Dynasty, 1348-1644 A.D., China took its most intensive interest in chrysanthemum growing. Ming literati showed particular interest in the flower and in the emotions they could provoke, and scholars drank ‘samshu,’ a distilled rice wine, with chrysanthemum petals floating in their cups to stimulate their senses.”
Curiously, there were close to nearly thirty years, from around 1942 to 1972, when samshu largely remained out of the newspapers. A whole generation of Americans heard almost nothing about this Chinese liquor. it wouldn't return to the front pages until 1972, when President Richard Nixon drank Baijiu on his visit to China.
In The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, she wrote, "On February 21, 1972, President Nixon, his staff, and members of the American media attended a banquet in Peking to mark the beginning of Nixon’s historic trip to China. The ceremonial drink that night was mao-tai, a sorghum spirit with an alcohol content over 50 percent. Alexander Haig had sampled the drink on an advance visit and cabled a warning that 'Under no repeat no circumstances should the President actually drink from his glass in response to banquet toasts.' Nixon ignored the advice and matched his host drink for drink, shuddering but saying nothing each time he took a sip. Dan Rather said it tasted like “'iquid razor blades.”
The historic toast of Kweichow Moutai Baijiu between President Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sparked curiosity about this liquor. The Chinese capitalized on this curiosity and put plans into operation to ship Moutai to the U.S., Canada and other countries.
Canada might have been the first country to receive Moutai. The Ottawa Journal (Canada), April 29, 1972, noted that The Ontario Liquor Control Board had ordered Mou-Tai for the government-controlled liquor stores. It was thought that it would be available in 2-3 months. This was only two months after the historic toast, which indicates Canada was quick to react.
The Philadelphia Daily News, May 25, 1973, received a question from a reader, wondering if they could obtain the liquor President Nixon drank in China. The newspaper responded, “Mou-Tai Chiew, a rare 106-proof potable distilled from millet and wheat will soon be available nationwide on a limited basis. The price: $10-$15 a pint.” For comparison, a pint has about 473ml and currently, a 375ml bottle of Mou-Tai sells for about $170.
Baijiu in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), October 20, 1974, reported that, “The Chinese Trade Exhibition at the showgrounds has a secret weapon—a beverage called kweichow mou-tai chiew. Innocent Westerners who tried it claimed, after recovery, that it definitely was atomic and named it the “two-megaton cocktail.” Around this time, Moutai was about 106 proof, 53% ABV, so it was potent, though primarily intended for drinking out of small cups.
According to The Gazette (Canada), March 22, 1975, there was an article about a visit to a Chinese restaurant, the Mandarin, in Morocco. It mentioned, “—a fine Chinese liqueur, Mou-Tai Chiew, which tastes like a minty Cointreau. It is made in Kweichow, China, and it not obtainable in the United States.” Apparently, it took longer than expected to import Moutai into the U.S., except possibly in very limited quantities.
At a private dinner at the Imperial Palace Restaurant, The Baltimore Sun, April 6, 1975, reported that “This was accompanied by tiny cups of Mou-Tai, a searing, powerful Chinese liqueur made from wheat and millet which comes from the province of Kweichow near the border of Burma.”
Moutai arrives in the U.S.! The El Paso Times, April 9, 1975, published a story from Cambridge, MA titled U.S. Gets ‘Chinese Lightning.’ “Mou Tai Chew, brewed from the grain millet, has been produced for over 200 years in central China’s Kweichow Province." Apparently imported by Federal Distillers, Inc., Mou Tai Chew recently arrived in the U.S., especially the East Coat. Jack Guttag, president of Federal Distillers, stated, "For one thing it’s ‘outrageously expensive. It costs as much as $27.95 for an 18.39 ounce bottle.” Part of the reason for its high price are high tariffs but the Chinese also set a high wholesale price because ‘they feel it ranks with the finest of French cognacs.” Finally, Guttag said the Mou Tai has ‘a lot of taste and a tremendous bouquet.”
The Boston Globe, April 9, 1975, had a similar article, though with more negativity, titled Mou-Tai Chiew (ugh) at $27.95 (yum for the importer) a Bottle. Some of the information is more basic, “The liquor has been brewed from grain millet in China’s Kweichow Province for more than 200 years. It is sold in a squat bottle with a red label, which has a picture of a sunflower on it.” However, Harvey Cooper, VP of Federal Distillers, is clearly not a fan of Mou-Tai, commenting on the taste, “It was horrible, terrible, I wouldn’t give you 8 cents for it.” Despite his comments, “The firm has since found a small but select market for the liquor,…” and “In New York, we’ve had months where we sold 25 to 50 cases.” So, it was popular with some people. And when is the last time you heard an importer criticize the taste of a product they brought into the country?
As a little background, the town of Moutai, in the Guizhou province, has been producing Baijiu for a few hundred years and in 1951, the different distilleries were consolidated into a single company, Kweichow Moutai Winery. It is now the official state liquor of China and about 200 tons of Kweichow Moutai are sold in over 100 countries. It is currently the #1 top selling spirit brand in the world.
The Daily News (NY), March 18, 1983, in a review of a Omei, a Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn, noted, “If you’re adventuresome, try the Chinese after-dinner drink ‘Kweichow Moutai’—at 106 proof—it’s clear up your sinuses or anything else.”
During the late 1980s, there were a number of brief references go Baijiu in the newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 8, 1987, mentioned “a cup of baijiu, the potent rice wine.” The Northwest Herald, May 28, 1987, noted “baijiu, a popular Chinese spirit distilled from grain.” And the Detroit Free Press, October 21, 1988, stated “high proof bai jiu, a sorghum-based liquor.”
And in the 1990s, there were a number of brief references as well. The Tampa Bay Times, February 10, 1994, published an article which mentioned that Chenliang Baijiu and Mao Tai are brands of Chinese ‘white wine.’ This is what Westerners would refer to as "grain alcohol, " and "it is the only hard liquor most Chinese drink.” The Missoula Independent (MT), March 25, 1994, referred to “a bowl of baijiu, searing Chinese whiskey.” The Wisconsin State Journal, December 24, 1995, stated, “Baijiu is the local liquor, which could stand in for ethanol with grace and aplomb.”
How much Baijiu was produced in 1995? The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), February 3, 1997, noted that "distillers bottled almost seven million tonnes of the clear, 45 per cent alcohol drink known as baijiu,.." This can be compared to their production of over 15 million tonnes of beer and 200,000 tonnes of wine.
On a more grisly note, the illegal manufacture of Baijiu in China can be an extremely serious offense. The Index-Journal (SC), January 26, 1997, reported that "China on Saturday executed five people convicted of manufacturing or selling liquor spiked with poisonous industrial alcohol that killed 36 people and sickened more than 100."
It is only within the last twenty years, and especially the last five years, when Baijiu was been mentioned significantly in the media. However, it continues to remain a niche beverage which hasn't spread much to the general population. It still has a bad reputation in many circles for possessing an off-putting taste. We need more articles that explore Baijiu in greater depth, discussing its extensive history, its diverse flavor profiles, and intriguing production process. We need more tasting events, to show people that not all Baijiu tastes the same, and that they can find Baijiu that will please their palate. Let's see some Baijiu-paired dinners.
"These are exciting times for the Chinese spirits industry. Like the nation that created it, baijiu has in a matter of decades achieved a level of quality and sophistication that rivals any of its global competitors. It is time that spirits lovers take note. That few have, thus far, can only be attributed to its current obscurity outside of Asia."
--Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus
Check out Part 1 of this article.
(This article has been updated, expanded and revised as of August 6, 2019).