In Defense of Baijiu

What Foreign Policy got wrong about China's most popular drink.

As anyone who has tasted sea cucumbers or smelled stinky tofu (the dish's real name) can attest, Chinese cuisine at times promotes flavors that can be lost in translation. So too with baijiu, the rice and sorghum-based spirit which recently received a less-than-glowing review in Foreign Policy.


  • Isaac Stone Fish:China's most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here's why you shouldn't drink it.

Baijiu is reminiscent of urine tinged vomit and "banging your head against a lamppost," wrote FP's Isaac Stone Fish. For him, the smell of baijiu is like Proust's madeleine, except one that recalls uncomfortable bus rides next to giggling fat men and open bathroom doors. I'm thankful I never tried that particular brand.

"I've never had very expensive baijiu," Stone Fish writes, "but I imagine it's drinkable." It is indeed, and I can't help but feel somewhat responsible for not giving him his first taste. So much unnecessary heartbreak could have been avoided.

While price is one indication of a baijiu's quality, it has almost no relation to approachability. The super-expensive Moutai brand is the most celebrated Chinese spirit, but it is also one of the most challenging. Its taste, which evokes fermented soy and bitter herbs, can be off-putting. Before graduating to more complex categories, I recommend starting with mild and smooth baijius that showcase flavors like chrysanthemum, honey and pine. These are typically inexpensive, less than twenty dollars a bottle. Drinkers don't need deep pockets to appreciate baijiu, just a deeper understanding.

Baijiu is not a single type of liquor. This is a common misconception. In actuality, the word baijiu represents a diverse category of distinct spirits. Most baijius are distilled from sorghum, but they can also be made with rice, wheat, corn, millet and other starches. Likewise, production techniques are similarly varied and generally regional. Unless you have lived all over China, you are unlikely to have tried more than one or two types, and there are over a dozen. This makes it easy to fall prey to overgeneralization. 

Baijiu is not for everyone. It will not soon supplant whiskey or vodka's place in Western hearts and cocktail glasses. It is the world's most popular spirit, but Stone Fish's antipathy places him squarely in the majority non-Chinese opinion. I also disliked baijiu at first, but I could say the same for beer, scotch, and coffee. It takes patience and experimentation to develop a taste, but that patience is often rewarded.

For drinkers who prefer complex and robust natural flavors, something to sip and savor, the baijiu category offers a dazzling array of delights. It is uncharted territory, a new Wild West (or East) for tipplers who enjoy spirits. It's not like rye or gin, neither is it like pisco or arrak. And that's a good thing.

At its best, America is a pluralistic society that embraces diversity and our bar shelves increasingly reflect these values. A century ago, Americans would seldom put anything more exotic than Dutch gin or Jamaican rum in their cocktail shakers. Now we drink vodka, tequila, and other spirits once deemed hopelessly alien. I see no reason why we cannot make room for baijiu.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images


The Recline! Response (Part 2)

Kristin Lord, Suzanne Nossel, Whitney Kassel, and Ari Ratner weigh in on Rosa Brooks's recent columns and a woman's right to recline.

In case you missed it, Rosa Brooks's recent columns -- Recline! and Slack? Nap? Snooze?-- have created quite the buzz. Yesterday, FP turned to Anne-Marie Slaughter, Julianne Smith, and Mieke Eoyang to get their thoughts on the Recline Revolution. Today, four others -- Kristin Lord, Suzanne Nossel, Whitney Kassel, and Ari Ratner -- offer their insights. And even a mantra or two. 

* * *

Kristin M. Lord:

Women of America: I have seen the enemy and it is us. 

Sheryl Sandberg implored us to Lean In. Tara Sonenshine implored us to Lean Out. Now Rosa Brooks asks us to Recline. Anne-Marie Slaughter reminds us that women still can't have it all.

Ladies, we are making ourselves, and each other, nuts.

I suggest a new (if somewhat facetious) mantra: "Who Cares?"

Who cares if a wealthy tech tycoon has perfect hair and wants others to be like her?

Who cares if you decide you can't be PTA president, run marathons, run your organization, and look fabulous all at the same time?

I have spent the past 20 years working on security, conflict, and science and technology. Suffice it to say, I have worked with lots of men. And this is what I've noticed: Men don't spend nearly as much energy worrying what other people think -- and that may be one of the secrets of their success. 

Many things hold women professionals back, but women also hold each other back by thinking that what other women do is somehow a reflection on them -- as leaders, as mothers, and as people.

Here are three reasons we should care less.

First, the alternative is exhausting. It is not possible to live up to the standard set for modern women without running ourselves into the ground and bringing the people who depend on us along for the ride.

Second, it is a distraction from bigger challenges. Difficult issues like flexible schedules and childcare affect women, men, and families alike. Let's focus on them.

Third, the current discussion is dominated by people -- myself included -- who generally have it good. Too many Americans are struggling with stagnant wages and levels of skills and education that don't make them competitive in today's economy. For all the problems we encounter, we should remember how fortunate we are.

When we hold each other down, it keeps us from doing the things that will help other women (and, yes, men) get ahead -- or enjoying a novel or taking a well-deserved nap. 

-Kristin M. Lord is acting president of the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are her own.


Suzanne Nossel:

Sheryl wants us to lean in. Rosa wants us to recline. The rest of us want a choice -- to lean when we're motivated and recline when we deserve a break. To win this freedom, we need my mantra: Lean and Let Lean. By leaning on one another to share information, lend a hand, ask or give advice, or just sustain a friendship all of us will be better able to lean in, lean back, and stay up on our feet.

We've heard about the "mommy wars" -- battles between stay-at-home and working moms over who could claim the moral, financial, and feminist high ground. Yet even in the parental Ground Zero of Manhattan's Upper West Side, mommy corps seems a more apt metaphor.  

The "stay-at-home" moms are the mommy-corps infantry. They are class moms and PTA chieftains. Us working parents do our fair share of freeloading, but also run the pledge drive, the PTA Nominating Committee, and other time-bound and less demanding (and often duller) tasks. Working parents also tap their networks, employers, and bank accounts to support the school.

One of my favorite forms of leaning involves extending a hand to pull a stay-at-home mom back into the workforce once she's ready. Having tossed out their business cards years before, these women tend not to be looking for fancy titles or perks. They can work hard and well as consultants, getting experience that brings their resumes up to date.

Rather than ogling Sheryl's blow-dry or pondering Rosa's Lay-Z-Girl, we should focus on how to foster and support the leaning that can allow all of us to both lean in and recline. Workplaces that allow employees the time and resources to mentor others, schools with schedules that accommodate both working and stay-at-home parents, and companies that hire women returning to work can help make the choices and trade-offs less stark.

So lean in when you feel the passion, recline when you need to breathe but -- above all -- lean and let lean so that if and when you finally have "it all" you don't find yourself all alone.

-Suzanne Nossel is the executive director of PEN American Center.


Whitney Kassel:

In Washington, the "lean-in" mentality pre-dates Sandberg by decades, with unclear effects on policy-making, and foreign policy in particular. It's not just the bemoaned "tyranny of the inbox," which keeps senior officials treading water in a morass of memos and meetings so deep they can hardly step back and strategize, let alone recline. But there's also the issue of self-selection among those who choose to pursue high level policy careers.

These are major leaners-in (lean-iners?) from the outset, having climbed the ranks of a field in which the participants are driven not by financial incentive, but rather a feeling of purpose and duty -- two factors that make leaning in even more tempting than money alone, at least for some. 

In some cases, "short" stints of two or three years in a senior policy job may seem like a manageable amount of time to give up a bit of reclining. Maybe your kids are grown or your spouse is able to take time off while you grind away 14-plus hours a day. Nevertheless, those who are offered, and are willing to take these jobs are a very particular kind of bird.

It is very possible we want leaners-in to be running our country, as they are clearly both capable and highly motivated. We don't, however, know what we might be missing if we were to include other kinds of personalities in the mix. The realities of Washington may make this impossible. There is stiff competition for policy jobs, and those who make it to the top may inevitably be of the lean-in variety. But it is worth considering what a few more leisurely thinkers, or doers -- recliners, even! -- might bring to the policy-making table.

-Whitney Kassel is the regional director at the Arkin Group and previously served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense covering Pakistan, Special Operations and Counterterrorism.


Ari Ratner:

Rosa Brooks's advice to "Recline" struck a chord with my friends and me -- all of us single guys, most in government or former government officials. The consensus: Women obviously face particular hardships in attaining leadership positions and "balancing" work and family life. (Some that I can barely imagine: I heard Anne-Marie Slaughter speak last year and was identifying with her description of "why women can't have it all" ... until she started talking about whether a woman should freeze her eggs.)

But as much as I support any movement that encourages women to "lean in" into leadership positions, this entire town could stand to "Recline" a little more.

Today, I stand -- OK, sit -- with Rosa. Most of us privileged enough to have this conversation don't lead lives of quiet desperation. We lead lives of manic desperation -- constantly maneuvering, incessantly accumulating, surrounded by a cacophony of noise (email, Twitter, our own self-doubt). And I don't even have kids.

For what? Leadership comes with all sorts of perks. You have the chance to improve the world. People also return your emails. It's a heady brew.

But the climb to the top is toxic -- for leaders and everyone else affected by policies made on little sleep and lots of ego.

Look at D.C.'s typical psychopathology: Those striving for power tend to combine deep-seated insecurity with the conviction both that they're better than everyone else and that their superiority (somehow!) goes unrecognized. (Ted Cruz, you're not alone.)

Those at the pinnacle often just want to reclaim what they've lost -- their "Rosebud" -- before it gets tossed in the fire.

Leaning in can be valuable: Women rightly deserve their seat at the head of the table. And we can all benefit from Sheryl's sage advice on self-empowerment.

But our problems are systemic. We can't just escalate the arms race to the top. We need a comprehensive approach to empower all of society that would be something truly new under the sun.

-Ari Ratner is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He served as an appointee in the Obama administration's State Department from 2009-2012. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images for La-Z-Boy