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US president Richard Nixon and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai toast renewed diplomatic relations with glasses of baijiu in Beijing in 1972.

China training sommelier army for global battle to make baijiu the new whisky

Cheers! Ganbei! Salud! Located in the Sichuan mountains, China’s new Baijiu College aims to make the nation’s favourite liquor as popular as Scotch, and to clink glasses with the world

China’s mission to protect its economy now includes a college where students study booze. The US$58 million school – built in just nine months and so new that plastic still covers the surveillance cameras – is one outpost in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s national push to rethink the country’s growth recipe as trade frictions with the United States intensify.

Beijing aims to produce more goods at home and sell larger numbers abroad, ordering farmers to ramp up soybean production and microchip makers to purchase local copper while earmarking billions to advance domestic technology.

The Baijiu College, located in Yibin, in the misty mountains of Sichuan province, teaches youngsters how to craft its namesake grain spirit – or work on robots that could someday automate the brewing process. The goal is to turn China’s native liquor into the next whiskey or tequila or gin: a drink with global recognition.

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While outsiders can be stunned by baijiu’s customary burn, students such as Luo Meixin, 19, believe in the spirit’s potential. The chemistry ace with bottle-shaped earrings has forsaken hot peppers and gardenia-scented shampoo to preserve her sense of smell. She lifts a plastic tester cup of baijiu to her nose.

Is this one appropriately fruity? Or too bland? “The smell is so great,” Luo says, grinning.

Luo and more than 2,000 classmates are learning to distil, inspect and market baijiu in the humid Sichuan region, whose history is tied to the traditional Chinese spirit.

Chinese president Li Xiannian (right) smiles as US president Ronald Reagan samples baijiu in the Beijing in 1984. Picture: AP
A day before her late September tasting class, the Chinese president met with farmworkers in the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang, preaching the merits of independence. “Unilateralism and protectionism in the world are on the rise and force us to rely on ourselves,” Xi said.

Indeed, the deepening commercial battle with the US has only accelerated China’s drive to reduce reliance on the American market, especially in technology. Expanding exports in all sectors – including baijiu – is viewed as essential to offset losses from a protracted trade dispute with the White House.

I hope all of the world can know it, smell it, drink it
Baijiu College student Luo Meixin, 19

Xi’s message on the front page of state newspapers last month came after Washington and Beijing slapped each other with the most extensive round of tariffs yet, placing punitive duties on roughly half of their traded goods.

Luo, a native of sleepy Yibin, says she feels called to help her country. She is one of the first 32 students in China training to become an “international baijiu sommelier”, and she wants to teach foreign drinkers about her favourite beverage, which is made from sorghum, rice and other grains. “I hope all of the world can know it, smell it, drink it,” Luo says.

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At Wuliangye Yibin, the region’s biggest government-backed brand (and a supporter and major benefactor to the Baijiu College, alongside Sichuan University of Science and Engineering), more than 50,000 employees work to brew the spirit in factories that resemble giant barns.

Above them tower dozens of structures, including a 15-metre Goddess of Rice Wine, promoting a bountiful harvest with a “W” for Wuliangye on her golden crown. A hulking shark with a fish in its jaws reminds workers that they must top the food chain, while a 30-metre bottle of baijiu stands there … well, just because (actually, it’s an office building).

Across China, baijiu is the liquor of choice for special occasions. Picture: Xinhua
The trade war does not scare Zheng Jia, deputy director of Wuliangye’s technology research centre. The company, which posted US$4.4 billion in sales last year, grows its grains on 66,000 hectares of Sichuan land, with no imported goods necessary. If tariffs raise the cost of American booze in China,

“It could be a good opportunity for us,” Zheng says. “I expect the sales will only increase.”

The brand is also forging partnerships abroad. Wuliangye recently teamed up with the Austrian crystal maker Swarovski to create wedding-themed baijiu bottles, including one shaped like a diamond ring. It is also concocting a variety that tastes like whisky, to entice Western palettes. The international focus follows a local shift.

When I was seven years old, my father told me, ‘You must learn how to drink it’
Long-time baijiu fan Lei Xingyue, 19

After Xi launched his anticorruption campaign in 2012, China’s baijiu makers pivoted away from bottles that cost hundreds of dollars – once popular among China’s business and political elite – and rebranded the beverage as a drink for the people.

Volume sold since then has swollen between 10 and 20 per cent every year, says Luo Huibo, director of the Baijiu College. Such growth caused a labour shortage, he adds, and the spirit cannot develop internationally without a surge of fresh talent. “We are trying to share our best with the world,” Luo says.

To this end, the school is developing an English dictionary of baijiu terms so Western drinkers can learn how to order different styles. Some taste like soy sauce or sesame, for instance, while others invoke “fiery pineapple”.

An office building of Wuliangye Yibin, in the shape of a baijiu bottle, stands close to a 15-metre statue of the Goddess of Rice Wine, in Sichuan province. Picture: Imaginechina
More forms of outreach include sending baijiu to Britain’s royal family – but not yet the White House – and conducting informal tastings at the Hard Rock Cafe in Los Angeles. (The bartender prominently displayed his free bottle of Wuliangye, according to one staff member’s iPhone photos.)

Most students at the Baijiu College study a foreign language – the most popular being English and Japanese. They describe their passion for drinking as a national duty.

In the bright-white tasting lab, a couple of dozen silently smell and sip the spirit in five tester cups. Then they spit it into buckets to stay sober. Lei Xingyue, a 19-year-old from a nearby city, says he has loved baijiu since boyhood. His family sees the drink as a tradition to cherish. “When I was seven years old,” he says, “my father told me, ‘You must learn how to drink it.’”

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Lei wants to become a brewer because many of his province’s 200-plus factories are hiring. He can make good money, he says, in a socially responsible way. “Our country needs more people to make better baijiu,” he says.

Baijiu-related jobs that require college degrees pay up to US$30,000 a year, more than three times the average Chinese income, the school’s director says.

For Luo, who carries a baijiu-patterned purse to match her bottle earrings, the sense of purpose is more attractive. The drink does not just lift your mood, she says, but could also be a force for peace.

“I think this, part of our culture, could be a way to connect with others,” she says. “Connect with Americans.” The Washington Post