Tourists not being able to handle their drink on holiday is a stereotype some may be too scared of living up to. Wising up on alcohol in China certainly isn’t a bad idea if you’re planning to make a visit. Here’s a rundown of what to drink, how to drink and – most importantly – the notorious spirit that is baijiu.
It may be reassuring to know that there is a lot still in common with home. While they may not be cultural drinks, most Western alcohol is still available in large stores. You’re unlikely to find a bottle of classy wine outside of Shanghai, but you can’t ask for everything in life. Beer is a common drink to have with your meal in any Chinese restaurant – Snow beer and Tsingtao being the most common brands to find in the fridge. In general, it’s weaker in China but much cheaper.
As for finding Chinese bars serving the specialities you miss, the bigger the city the more likely you are to find the drink you’re looking for. Makes sense right? Shanghai boasts a diverse range of luxury alcohol providers; the Boxing Cat Brewery, the Rhumerie Bounty rum bar, and the Pop American Brasserie cocktail bar are all well worth a visit.
Offering Westerners free drinks in Chinese bars can be common practice, especially in the smaller cities. If the barman gives you a free bottle of whisky the alcohol is likely to be fine to drink but it probably isn’t the authentic bottle of Johnnie Walker that the label claims it is. If you don’t feel comfortable taking the free drinks then just don’t take them. Don’t worry about offending the bar owner, they’re likely to be much more interested in you being seen in their bar than taking their free drinks.
And if you’re looking for the drink of the nation itself then you’re best directed (for better or worse) to baijiu. It’s an acquired taste – to say the least – but trying it is an essential part of the Chinese experience. Translating literally as ‘white alcohol’, baijiu varies between 40% and 60% in alcohol per volume. It can be seen in most Chinese restaurants – likewise, if you’re there on the right night, you’ll get a chance to see large groups of diners enjoying the drink a little too much. If you do find yourself wooed by the spirit’s distinctive character there’s a wide range of flavoured variants to explore – including the fruity Yangmei Jiu, the fragrant Sunhua Jiu, and Jin Jiu (a supposed form of Chinese medicine).
Still want something more authentic, or maybe just more challenging to like? Perhaps you should try shéjiǔ or ‘Snake wine‘. A traditional drink made by infusing rice wine with, you guessed it, snakes. If you’re trying to hunt it down you’re most likely to find it in southern China – try going to some of the markets in Chengdu. Once again, it’s an acquired taste. As fascinating as some of China’s alcoholic beverages are, it certainly helps that it still has the drinks you know from home.
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Last updated on 9th January 2020