#120 Ganbei!

Having just returned from a trip in China, where shots of “bai jiu” (literal translation “white wine/alcohol”) were forced down my throat in great volume over lunch (mind that I usually don’t drink alcohol!), I started to dig into a stack of articles I had saved for later reading.
I vaguely remembered that a few months ago, the Financial Times reported on Chinese manufacturers wanting to make that vile liquid a global export success. And indeed, there it was: according to the March 19/20 weekend issue of the FT, Chinese consumers drink between 10 and 17 billion liters of the hard liquor made of fermented grains every year. Wondering how many of those liters were involuntarily consumed by foreigners who went through seemingly endless toasting rituals, I find this an ambitious undertaking. Apparently, Chinese manufacturers of bai jiu are hoping to replicate the global success of scotch, tequila, or Bailey’s, but I am almost certain that it won’t work. In addition to its Western-palate-challenging taste, a whopping 50-60 percent alcohol content also might be a bit of a turn-off. I seriously think that the Financial Times’ suggestion that it takes (only) 300 shots to stop disliking bai jiu is setting the bar to low. There may also be a cultural component to the high bai jiu consumption in China that will be a barrier to success abroad. Most of the time, bai jiu is consumed in a social setting – business partners around a round lunch or dinner table, regulated by invisible rules. At my recent trip, our host pointed out that there are four major insults in Chinese social settings – first, not accepting the invitation to a lunch or dinner; second, showing up, but not eating a lot; third, showing up and eating, but not talking; and forth, showing up, eating and talking, but not drinking (lots). And the drinking itself often follows a ritual that is indicative of both the paternalistic and collectivistic culture of China – the host directing his community of guests when to drink, with whom to toast, and how much to consume. It’s easy to see how through group pressure and by virtue of the host’s status, up to 17 billion liters of bai jiu are consumed each year. Based on tastes, but also because of the lack of the cultural context, I have serious doubts over the delight that bai jiu will bring to customers worldwide. Therefore, don’t expect to hear a lot of shouts of “Gan Bei” emanating from the West….

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