The Chinese drinking culture is very different from a western night out. 

Navigating the complex cultural customs can be a challenge not its own, but then the recent restrictions on official spending on extravagant booze need to be considered–  companies like Pernod Ricard, the world’s second-biggest wine and spirits producer, said that sales in China dipped 7.0 percent in the third quarter of 2013, due to the clampdown on extravagant feasts at official events. A competitor Diageo, known for its high-end cognac Hennessey, reported weak organic sales growth of 0.3 percent in the nine months ending March 31, 2014 and said sales in Asia-Pacific tumble by 19 percent in the three months to that date.

So while the crackdown on indulgent alcohol must be taken into account, the even more important aspect to understand is how booze in consumed int he culture and how western brands can become a part of the Chinese drinking ritual.

wedding-toast

To answer some of these thoughts, here are a few insights from an interview with a Baijiou specialist in Beijing about how the Chinese view their drinking culture:

The biggest difference between the way traditional Chinese alcohol is consumed and the way alcohol is consumed in the Western culture is that Chinese drink their spirits with the food. And aside from a few places like Russia and Scandinavia, almost nobody anywhere else in the world will drink hard liquor while eating food. Chinese drinking is also more of a social activity, which is a little weird to say, because in the West we also think of it as a social activity. But in Chinese drinking culture, you’re never supposed to just casually sip on a beverage. You always drink with other people. What that meant traditionally, was that you only drank at meals when you were toasting someone else or they were toasting you. And when this tradition started, they were drinking huangjiu, not baijiu, which is much much weaker. So this was not viewed with the same menace as it’s viewed in China today. Originally, people actually thought that by limiting alcohol consumption to when you toasted, you were slowing down the consumption of alcohol but today it’s a very different story. It’s turned into a ritual reminiscent of frat party drinking. And I think that turns off a lot of foreign drinkers. But it’s deeply rooted in the culture and it goes back to ancient religious practices. So yeah, it’s a more strictly regimented drinking culture. You drink at meals and you always drink with someone else. You don’t drink when you want to, you drink when other people want you to. That’s uncomfortable for a lot of Westerners.

The places that you drink baijiu are restaurants, banquet halls, or at the home. You don’t drink baijiu at a bar or a KTV or a club. That is where Western alcohol is starting to make its inroads in China in the non-traditional, non-eating situations. Baijiu cocktails is an interesting subject because it’s something new that bartenders haven’t totally figured out. But they’re starting to understand what flavors mix well with baijiu. What they’re finding is that citrus complements baijiu really well due to the fruitiness of the liquor. In a very similar way to rum, which is maybe the closest thing we have in the West (a very naturally sweet spirit). The kinds of fruity cocktails that you make with rum are very well suited to baijiu. And a lot of the early baijiu cocktails are similar to rum-based cocktails. Or are even re-tooled cocktails. In the end of the my book there are an El President and a Zombie, which are both originally rum-based cocktails that are being made with baijiu. Last week in Beijing I had a very excellent baijiu cocktail that reminded me a lot of a mojito. It had almond liqeur, mint, citrus. I think it works really well but when you’re talking about a baiju cocktail it’s a bit of a difficult proposition, especially in China, because a lot of people that enjoy drinking baijiu don’t like it in cocktail form. When they go to a Western bar, they’re there specifically for Western alcohol, and they see baijiu cocktails as a perversion. And on the other hand, you have Westerners who love cocktails, but are afraid of baijiu thus are afraid of ordering a cocktail that’s baijiu-based. I think it will take time, but baijiu will cross over to cocktails, because I’ve had excellent cocktails that I’d drink at any bar. It’s just a matter of people getting comfortable with the idea.

To read the full interview about the Chinese alcohol market and the rise of Chinese spirit Baijio, click here.

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