Old tipple misses spirit of the times

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 July, 1999, 12:00am


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Shanghainese business travellers to Beijing or other northern cities often fear entertaining clients who have a fondness for bai jiu - Chinese white spirit.

Unlike northerners who know how to handle their drink, Shanghainese find bai jiu too strong for their liking.

To them, it tastes like kerosene - a few gulps and that warm glow soon turns into an unpleasant fiery rush. Not, apparently, a drink to be savoured.

A Shanghai broker who often travels to Beijing on business, said: 'The worse thing is northerners love to gan bei [bottoms up]; when everyone gets jolly, you have to gan bei as well in order not to spoil the atmosphere.

'And when it gets to you - and it gets to you really fast - you feel nauseous; it's awful.' In Shanghai, tastes run to mild drinks - red and white wine or beer.

The trouble is bai jiu is about as strong as a spirit can get. The mildest contains about 30 per cent alcohol while the strongest tips the scales at about 60 per cent.

Foreigners usually regard mao tai as the epitome of hard liquor in the mainland, thanks to the perception built up in the early days of increased economic access when it was served to foreign dignitaries at state banquets.

However, mao tai at about 35 proof, is thought mild on the bai jiu scale. To hardened drinkers, er guo tuo - at a tongue-numbing 60 per cent alcohol - is the liquor to swallow.

Unfortunately, for the bai jiu industry, social tastes nationwide appear to be moving away from the north and closing in on those of Shanghai.

Although the bai jiu market looks huge on paper - a rural force of drinkers numbering more than 800 million - the younger, better-educated set, the nation's trend setters, choose lighter refreshment.

And as the country develops, traditional bai jiu drinkers have become more conscious of the long-term effects of consuming extremely strong liquors.

These two factors have resulted in an industry long associated with the mainland's ancient customs and festivities facing a severe decline.

Published figures show the annual bai jiu output of about 4,000 distillers fell to about 4.5 million tonnes last year - from about 6.5 million tonnes in 1994.

Analysts said manufacturers could take a number of measures to arrest the decline: lowering the spirit's alcohol content would be a start, followed by repackaging and repositioning of the various brands to project a new image, and a reworking of price strategies.

In line with this thinking, Shanxi Fenjiu Distillery has produced Zhu Ye Qing for drinkers in the south and overseas visitors who prefer less alcohol in their drinks.

Bai jiu has long been linked with the hardy farmer toiling in the fields and rough and ready northerners who love a hearty drink.

Nothing wrong with that, except as any brand-marketing expert will advise, the positioning of that image is crucial when it comes to attracting up-and-coming professionals to a company's products.

Even the bai jiu industry could do with a touch of marketing segmentation and image repackaging. Bai jiu is cheap, costing a few yuan a bottle to about 30 yuan (about HK$27.9) for a top-quality brand.

However, the future need not be bleak.

A look at Japan's sake industry and how it lured young consumers away from competition by emerging beer and wine producers, says much about its success.

Today, it is not uncommon to see young and old around the same table sipping sake.

But if there is to be a future for the mainland's distilling industry, it will need to break the perception that drinking spirits is only for northerners, farmers and the old.