Book review: 'Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture', by Derek Sandhaus

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

02 April 2020

An engaging introduction to baijiu, the world's biggest selling spirit, Sandhaus gives the reader as much historical and societal context as he does entertainment

‘It was a smell conjured from the pits of hell, the last whiff one senses before waking up in a serial killer’s rumpus room,’ is Derek Sandhaus’ first recollection of sniffing baijiu, in a Shanghai high-rise in 2006.

Despite it being the world’s best-selling spirits category (it sells more than vodka and whisky combined), knowledge of baijiu outside of China is low, so this new book from China-based Sandhaus is a real-time discovery of the elusive liquid, entertainingly weaving anecdotes with cocktail recipes and contextual history to explain why the drink is so popular.

As well as an exploration of the production of baijiu (meaning ‘white spirit’), Sandhaus is keen to set the spirit in China’s geography and history, beginning with a crash course in the Chinese language, before running through the history of alcohol in China (from 7000 BC through to 2012) and providing a drinkable map of the Chinese mainland.

Anecdotes puts baijiu – something rarely involved in the day-to-day here – in relatable context

Sandhaus has collaborated with the likes of drinks consultant Paul Mathews (who has worked with Diageo on its baijiu brand Shui Jing Fang and co-owns numerous London bars, including The Hide); Jesse Shapell of Win Sun, and Justin Lane Briggs of Kings Co Imperial (both in NYC’s Brooklyn), to provide the cocktail recipes that announce the beginning of each of the book’s five parts. Local experts have also been paramount in Sandhaus’ own experience of the liquid, which gives this book an authentic edge.

It’s the anecdotal content that provides this reader with the most entertainment, though, and puts baijiu – something rarely involved in the day-to-day here – in relatable context. An excellent example is Sandhaus’ regalement of a state dinner that took place in 1972, between POTUS Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic in China.

Since the 1950s Enlai, the second most powerful man in China next to Mao, had served his favourite baijiu, Kweichow Moutai, at every state dinner. But U.S. deputy national security adviser Alexander Haig wired the following warning from Beijing: ‘Under No Repeat No Circumstances Should the President Actually Drink From His Glass in Response to Banquet Toasts.’ A stark warning considering that Haig would have been aware of the strict toasting ritual in Chinese dining culture. So why the warning? That the President (known for not being able to handle his drink) would be undone by ‘the dreaded Chinese firewater.’

And with chapter titles like ‘Drink of the Dead’, ‘Dust Bowl Ballad’ and ‘Three Hundred Shots’, this may be one of the most entertaining spirits books we’ve read. Not to mention how wonderfully it’s written with Sandhaus’ deft turn of phrase.

It is certainly one for those wanting an in-depth, socio-historic account – and a laugh. Buckle up.

£23.37, Pontomac Books,

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