Friday, May 18, 2007

Will Maotai soon be just a memory?

Here’s another chapter in China’s incessant drive to ruin its environment through unrestrained commercialism.

China’s most famous liquor, beloved of both Chinese and expats over the years, is called Máotái 茅台 (web site). It falls into the general category of clear spirits, called báijiŭ 白酒 “white spirits” or in the Beijing slang the young Mandarin learned, báigānr 白干儿 “white dry.” It was probably the taste of Maotai that produced the unforgettable prune-faced look on Richard Nixon when he toasted Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai on his trip to China in 1972.

The taste of Maotai is difficult to describe to someone who has never tasted it, partly because – at about 110 proof – the drinker’s taste buds are quickly scorched into a pleasant numbness. “Chinese moonshine” is probably a reasonable synonym for báigānr. A description for Maotai’s “bouquet” is equally elusive – it changes subtly from the first sip to the last. And, a few hours later, when the Maotai drinker is safely back in his hotel, yet another subtle aroma begins to pour from every pore on his body, in what the Mandarin called – when he first experienced it in 1981, the dreaded “Maotai sweats.”

Actually, truth be told, in those days the Mandarin was partial to a rarer Sichuan cousin, brewed in Yibin (Maotai is brewed about 200 miles farther south, in Guizhou – see below) called Wŭliángyè 五粮液 “liquid essence of the five grains.” Wuliangye was a much subtler, more refined variety of moonshine. Smoother, at only 104 proof, and less reminiscent of turpentine or cat urine than Maotai. Also, the odor of Wuliangye in the inevitable night sweats was less obnoxious.

At the other end of the Mandarin’s personal quality scale were two truly nasty (but cheap!) clear liquors: from Beijing, a 110-120 proof concoction called Èrguōtóu 二鍋頭 “top of the second pot” – presumably a reference to being distilled twice, and from
the town of Jiujiang, "Nine Rivers," in Jiangxi, the slightly milder (only 64 proof) Jiŭjiāng shuāngzhēng jiŭ 九江雙蒸酒“Nine Rivers Double-distilled Wine”), made from rice.

Anyway, at the banquets that are indispensable parts of building relationships in China, it is (or was in the
pre-commercial 1980s anyway) de rigeur to have round after round of toasting, usually with Maotai. It was possible for the faint-hearted to toast with beer, or one of the early Chinese grape wines served at that time, or - Heaven forbid! - Kěkǒukělè 可口可樂 "Coca Cola," but it revealed a certain lack of courage, like not eating the obligatory sea slugs ("good for your blood pressure") or duck tongues.

The Mandarin word for “study” – as in, “We’ll have to study your proposal further before deciding to do business with you” – is yánjiū 研究 , which sounds suspiciously close to the phrase yānjiŭ 煙酒, “cigarettes and liquor.” So, it was no coincidence that the foreign guest at these banquets was often expected to bring the Maotai, which was rather expensive by the Chinese standards of the day, and sometimes a few packs of duty-free Wànbăolù 萬寶路 cigarettes ("Marlboros") to pass around.

At these banquets, the Mandarin was told many times that his pŭtōnghuà (a/k/a “Mandarin”) became much more fluent after a few Maotais loosened him up. The Mandarin never danced on any tables (as far as he can remember) but did recite a few 8th century poems from memory and once received a memorable compliment: “Shào wài (young foreigner), when you get drunk, your accent reminds me of my grandfather.” The Mandarin’s original teacher spoke a very pure and precise old-fashioned Beijing dialect, as it turned out.

Anyway, to the point:
When Maotai was designated China's official liquor, Premier Zhou Enlai - to preserve the purity of the water used to make it - banned any development or competing distilleries for a hundred or so kilometers upriver of the Maotai distillery, located in the northwestern part of the province of Guizhou, on the Chìshuĭ 赤水 "Red River."

With a Starbucks operating in the Forbidden City these days, should it surprise the Mandarin's readers that Zhou Enlai's ban is no longer enforced? A recent news story [link] reported:

The water purity of a river tapped to make China's national liquor is being threatened by uncontrolled building of other drinks factories along its banks, the official Xinhua news agency reported Monday.

Kweichow Moutai, maker of the fiery Maotai drink served at Chinese state banquets and used to toast guests ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Kim Il-sung, draws water for the brew from the Chishui River in remote southwest Guizhou province.

But authorities are investigating how 39 illegal alcoholic drinks plants have sprung up by the river, polluting both the air and water, Xinhua said.

[The Mandarin suspects the water of the Red River may at last be living up to its name....]

"It seriously threatens the environmental security of the Chishui River and the production base of Maotai," it added.

The illegal factories have been fined and ordered to close, the report said.

Well, given the track record of the Chinese government in enforcing such environmental orders in Beijing itself, never mind in a fairly remote corner of a fairly backward province in the southwest, the Mandarin isn't holding his breath (as he used to when downing shots of Maotai).

So, it looks like the taste and bouquet of China's national drink may be changed forever by unwanted chemical additives flowing down the Red River. But true Maotai aficionados need not despair. The distillery also sells, at some astronomical prices, Maotai aged 30, 50, and even 80 years. And if you believe the stuff in that bottle of 80-yr-old Maotai was distilled in 1927, the Mandarin has a bridge he would like to sell you. We can toast the sale by trading shots from that 80-year old bottle.

Postscript: the next installment of the Mandarin's tasting notes may deal with liquor distilled with special ingredients specifically aimed at ensuring the potency of older gentleman, among them Guīshéji
ŭ 龜蛇酒 "Turtle and Snake Wine," and the granddaddy (pun intended) of them all: Sānbiānjiŭ 三鞭酒 "Three-Penis Wine." And the answers to your obvious next questions are: 1) yes, in powdered form, and 2) deer, dog and seal (apologies to Heidi Klum).