It's strong, and it smells, but Chinese moonshine's here

Updated: 2013-08-28 10:50

By Yu Wei in San Francisco (China Daily)

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 It's strong, and it smells, but Chinese moonshine's here

A clerk shows Swellfun baijiu during a photo opportunity at a liquor shop in Beijing. Chinese baijiu, a flammable, pungent white liquor averaging a 110-proof wallop, is the world's most consumed form of liquor thanks to its popularity in China, but for the first time distillers are looking to develop export markets. Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

It's strong, and it smells, but Chinese moonshine's here

As US winemakers continue to seek a share of the vast Chinese market, Chinese baijiu producers are eyeing the US market as well.

Baijiu, a distilled spirit made from sorghum that can be 80 to 120 proof, is the most popular liquor in China. Drinkers in China bought 11 billion liters of it in 2012, accounting for more than one-third of all spirits consumed in the world, according to data from International Wine and Spirit Research.

However, baijiu hardly ever makes the world's most popular liquor rankings since almost all of it is drunk in China. Chinese firewater has enjoyed much less popularity outside the country. But that may soon change, as baijiu-makers are making a push to globalize the traditional Chinese spirit and boost its sales abroad.

"Twelve percent of its sales are outside of China," said James Rice, general manager of Swellfun, one of the premium baijiu brands based in Sichuan. "We expect that to grow to 40 percent in the next five years."

Last month, London-based Diageo, the world's largest liquor company, got approval from Chinese authorities to buy the remaining 47 percent stake of Swellfun, which is the joint venture partner to Diageo. The acquisition of the stake will give Diageo a full indirect control to 39.7 percent from 21 percent.

"Swellfun has already been sold in the US for two years," Rice said, adding that Diageo has been distributing it there.

Currently, Swellfun is only available in the US in big airports and 99 Ranch Market, a chain of Asian-American supermarkets with 35 stores in four southwestern states. "Our first target customers are travelers and immigrants from the Chinese mainland to the US but we want to expand to non-Chinese Americans," Rice said.

However, selling baijiu to Americans requires extra efforts for the white liquor producer.

Traditionally baijiu is not sipped but pounded back quickly, like shots, with the glass full. The Chinese toast "Gan bei!" literally means "bottoms up". That drinking style and the pungent aroma of baijiu often scare first-timers away.

"I still can remember how horrible baijiu smelled when I first opened it," said Dan Redford, director of China Operations at FirstPathway Partners. "I almost vomited just because of the smell, and I thought to myself how can anybody want to drink this stuff!"

But Rice and his team have come up a strategy to change baijiu's unpleasant first impression.

"Americans aren't used to the fragrance of baijiu or drinking room temperature shots. If served cold or as a cocktail, both these issues are resolved," he said. "We will introduce Swellfun based cocktails. For example, Chinese dishes with baijiu, such as Swellfun twice-cooked pork."

Rice believes being successful in the US will also take a lot of consumer education.

He said a baijiu event would be held at Long Beach-based (California) Forbidden City Restaurant this fall.

"I bet you never thought a Chinese brand could be sexy, innovative, and global, but Swellfun is," Rice said. "It is my China dream that Swellfun becomes a Chinese global brand. But we need to teach Americans about it."

(China Daily USA 08/28/2013 page2)