The Origins of China’s National Drink

Baijiu and the myth of the national liquor – Derek Sandhaus

No one casually happens upon Xinghuacun, but many are driven there by drink. A dusty backwater in north-central China’s Shanxi province, for centuries its residents have made a dry and herbaceous distilled spirit called fenjiu. The road in from the provincial capital of Taiyuan presents a bleak, repetitive landscape of belching smokestacks punctuated by the occasional missionary church steeple, leftovers from another time. Turning off the main drag toward the town’s largest distillery, I travelled down Jiudu Dadao, or “Liquor Capital Avenue.” I was here in search of the birthplace of baijiu, China's beloved national spirit.

Yet thousands of miles southwest, nestled deep in the mountains of Guizhou province, I later found another Liquor Capital Avenue outside of Maotai, whose namesake distillery produces a pungent savory baijiu sometimes affectionally known as the guojiu, or “national liquor.” You can smell the liquor even before you see the factories.