The consumption of baijiu comes with many traditions that must be observed. Chief among these is the vessel that baijiu is consumed from. Rather than a traditional tumbler or wine glass, baijiu is invariably served in a small shot glass that resembles an undersized goblet. This is a far cry from the 14th Century days of the Liangshan Heroes, when baijiu was consumed from oversized bowls.
For reasons that will soon become clear, however, it is important to drink your baijiu from these specialist vessels. This practice first became apparent during the celebrated Han and Qin Dynasties, with enthusiasts of Chinese antiques discovering porcelain cups of comparable size that were used in royal courts. Ultimately, drinking baijiu from a small vessel is seen as a dignified approach – and, as we will now discuss in more detail, a way to savour the baijiu experience.
The first thing that any baijiu novice will notice about this spirit is the scent. Every baijiu is divided into one of four core aromas – rice aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma or strong aroma. As you can imagine, the latter two scents are more potent than most. All the same, the nose may take a while to grow accustomed to any kind of baijiu. If you’re unfamiliar with this spirit, filling a large cup could lead to sensory overload.
While a glass of fine red wine is designed to be sniffed, with the nose providing the first sensation for the palate to follow, baijiu can smell pungent if inhaled too deeply, in too great a quantity. A reaction that betrays this response is certain to offend any Chinese hosts and is understandably best avoided. In China, it is customary to embrace the scent of spirits, relishing this as part of the experience of consuming baijiu. Allowing the aroma to linger and mellow is part of the experience.
Of course, we also need to consider the alcohol content of baijiu when considering the vessel that hosts the spirit. In the west, a whisky or vodka with an alcohol proof of around 40% is considered standard – and these are widely regarded as strong, potent spirits. When it comes to strong or sauce aroma baijiu, a 40% ABV is child’s play. Expect a reputable bottle to have a proof of at least 50%, possibly higher – and you will not be able to water your baijiu down with the aid of a mixer.
Finally, we have perhaps the most important element of baijiu consumption – the social norms and etiquettes that surround in the spirit. If you are enjoying neat whiskey, to return to our previous example, you would sip and nurse it. This is not an option with baijiu. This is probably just as well, as few western palates would find such an experience enjoyable. Baijiu is very much designed to be consumed as a shot.
This is because, in China, baijiu is a social spirit. It is rare to wander into a bar and find somebody ordering baijiu to drink alone. Anybody that does indulge in such a practice would likely be regarded with suspicion. Baijiu is the preserve of fine dining – including state-sponsored banquets – and large family dinners. As communal dining is a large part of Chinese culture, many customs surround the serving of baijiu.
Further Reading: How To Drink Baijiu
Typically, a bottle will be emptied into a central vessel on a table before the small glasses of every diner are filled. The host of the dinner will then toast all present, usually with the term, “ganbei!” This loosely translates as, “empty the glass” – meaning that all present will be expected to drain their shot of baijiu.
By this point, you should have an idea of why a small cup is essential. The strong scent and potent alcohol volume of baijiu lends itself to a small glass that can be emptied in a moment. Do not assume for a moment that your consumption will end there, either. The moment the toast is concluded, and glasses emptied, they will be refilled.
Throughout the meal, many more toasts will be raised by the host and attendees alike. All attendees will likely toast at least once, expressing gratitude and respect to their fellow diners. This means that, at a dinner with eight seats, you can expect to drink at least eight shots of baijiu. Do you really want to be draining a tumbler of this spirit every time? Refusing a shot, or failing to empty your glass, is seen as a sign of disrespect and will not ingratiate yourself to your host. Small shots are considerably easier for anybody to cope with.
Further Reading: Baijiu Tradition And Customs
Finally, the expense of superior baijiu must also be considered. In China, investing in a fine baijiu is a status symbol. A bottle of appropriate standing for entertaining reputable guests will easily cost three, or even four figures. If this was swigged and emptied in a matter of moments, it would be considered a waste of money. As baijiu is designed to be a shared experience, guzzling it by the bowl in the style of the Liangshan Heroes is not merely dangerous and fiscally irresponsible. It’s outright poor manners.
If you plan to dine in China, whether for business or personal reasons, it is essential that you understand the etiquette surrounding baijiu. Chief among these is understanding why a small glass is used when consuming this spirit. It is not simply a matter of tradition or aesthetics. In many respects, it is the only way that you’ll have a fighting chance of walking away from a dinner table on vaguely steady legs.