White Lightning From the East 

A new Chinatown liquor store is the go-to spot for the potent spirit baijiu.

Lu Jia and Jackie O at China Place Liquor City

Lu Jia and Jackie O at China Place Liquor City

Eric Futran

As a pharmaceutical sales rep in Beijing, Lu Jia attended many a business dinner at which China's infamously searing baijiu, aka "white liquor," was consumed in volumes large enough to drop elephants.

"If you can get them drunk you do business well," he says. "People open their heart. They talk some real stuff, their real concerns."

With each hoisted glass and cry of "ganbei!" ("empty the cup"), Jia knocked back a wealth of experience that today, he wanted me to know, makes him more than a mere shop assistant at Chinatown's new China Place Liquor City. The 27-year-old graduate of UIC's corporate MBA program is a baijiu expert.

The store, which had its grand opening in mid-November, sells 60-plus varieties of baijiu and rice wine—easily the largest selection in the midwest—and Jia can indeed tell you which grains they're distilled from and whether they're named for their starter yeasts or the towns of their origin. He can discuss in some detail their company histories and the various branding strategies their manufacturers pursue. And, most important, he can tell you which bottle to share among old pals splitting the check and which one to break out when you need to seal an important deal over shark-fin soup.

A few weeks ago Jia walked me down the aisles, offering a baijiu tutorial and pointing out other curiosities like lychee and wolfberry wines and a ginseng-infused California-style red. The space in front of the store was still lined with the elaborate floral arrangements sent by friends and well-wishers for the grand opening party a week earlier. Jia's boss, Jackie O—yes, that's his name—scurried between the liquor store and his three other stores in the mall, taking calls on his cell phone.

O, a native of Macau, is a retail magnate who, since arriving in Chicago in 2001, has opened a total of five stores in Chinatown and two more in Houston, stocking dried shark fins, scallops, abalone, bird's nests, goji berries, and candies, teas, and other sundries. He opened the liquor store for the obvious reason that Chinatown didn't have one, surmising that there was a tremendous potential market for BYO diners who want hooch with their hot pot, ma po tofu, and crispy-skin chicken.

As you enter the store, there's a wall of Hennessey and Remy Martin cognac bottles behind the counter, and the rear half of the space is filled with Western-style wines. Despite mainland China's exploding interest in the grape, so far that section's more popular with non-Asian customers. The Korean, Japanese, and Chinese who come in mostly shop in the front, where O stocks the baijiu alongside more than 100 brands of sake and shochu.

In preparation for our meeting Jia typed up and e-mailed me a detailed primer. There are thousands of baijiu varieties produced throughout China, some with centuries-old histories. Distilled from a variety of grains, including sorghum, rice, barley, or wheat, and sometimes flavored with herbs, fruit, flowers, or even pork fat, baijiu can contain anywhere from 38 percent alcohol by volume to a punishing 72 percent.

It can be classified by origin, ingredient, or production method, but Jia says the most common way to categorize it is by flavor and aroma. He breaks it down into five categories.

"Spicy aromatic" may be the most familiar to Westerners, exemplified by the Kweichow Moutai (or Maotai) brand from the southwestern province of Guizhou. This is the stuff Chou En-lai plied Nixon with during his historic 1972 state banquet in China. Distilled from sorghum, wheat, and, according to the bottle, peas, it has a powerful, sweet, almost soy-sauce-like aroma, but at 53 percent ABV it goes down scorchingly hot.

Next Jia described a "strong aromatic" category, also with a distinct and brawny aroma and a sweet bottom note. Moutai's main competitor, Wuliangye, distilled in Sichuan from five grains, belongs to this group.

"Mild aromatic" baijiu is more delicate and mellow. Fenjiu, one of China's oldest varieties, with a 1,500-year history, falls into this category. Eighth-century poet Li Bai was a fan, composing more than few odes to it.

"Rice aromatic" baijiu are mellow and less flavorful; in southern China many people make their own. Finally, "compound aromatics," such as Jiu Gui (whose name translates as "drunkard"), can fit into two or more of the other categories.

Jia admits that though the aromas can be quite distinct and the premium spirits go down smoother than the cheaper ones, even an experienced drinker can have a hard time distinguishing among brands. But people do have their preferences. Jia's loyal to Beijing's hometown erguotou, a blue-collar favorite, a mild aromatic best known under the Red Star brand. At 56 percent ABV, it's the hardest stuff in the store.

Most of Liquor City's baijius range from $14.99 (for Heng Shui Lao Bai Gan) to the high $40s (for Maotai or Wuliangye), but a bottle of Shen Zhou, released to commemorate the Chinese space program, is $93.99. And while the most expensive baijiu in the store at the moment is a $450 15-year-old Moutai, O is trying to get his hands on some 60-year-old stuff that will be released to celebrate the diamond anniversary of the People's Republic. To reserve a bottle he'll have to put down a $3,000 deposit. "This one is mostly for gift," says Jia. "Nobody will buy it and drink it. [But] this one is a good investment."

I asked Jia to help me pick out a few bottles to take home. At first he tried to steer me toward the store's selection of considerably milder rice wines, or huangjiu, but I eventually convinced him to sell me a bottle of Moutai and a premium Red Star erguotou, less boozy than the regular stuff.

Over the next few days I poured side-by-side shots of these and tried to sort out the differences. Moutai definitely had a more powerful nose, like sugar, turpentine, and a slight funky breeze from the barn. Each left a bit of sweetness on the front of my tongue before blazing their way down my throat, numbing my face and making hair sprout from my palms. But I was damned if I could discern much difference between the flavors.

When I reported my findings to Jia, he just laughed. Even a baijiu expert can relate: "My dad? He can tell you, but me? Sorry. It's very hard."

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