Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Cheap Chinese Booze - a Tasting

A few weeks ago I was buying my hourly Diet Coke at a Kedi Convenience store (located on a street corner near you) when an annoying drunk cut in line in front of me, to buy a large bottle of alcohol. I was initialy peeved but it was worth it to see the price: 5.9 kuai, or slightly less than 75 cents.

Don't get me wrong, I realized this wouldn't be the top level stuff. At a logistical level, you can't run a legitimate civilization if a bottle of high-quality alcohol can be purchased for $.75. There just wouldn't be a motivation to do more than $1.50 of work a day.

From my limited earlier exposure to cheap Chinese alcohol, I have two problems. First is a sickly sweetness, worse than with a fruit brandy. Perhaps you can take it for a small amount, but I can't even imagine you'd want to keep at it. Second is a strong taste of mold. This isn't a defect in the manufacturing process. The mold is an intentional flavor that has been cultivated specifically to flavor the alcohol, much the way mold is cultivated for cheeses. Still I find the taste terrible, the smell worse, and it makes the drink impossible to mix in a cocktail.

I realize an obvious criticism: if I want the quality stuff, I should spend more money. Well I'm a cheap jerk and going to China hasn't changed that a bit. Instead I went hog-wild and spent $5 trying out five bottles of the cheap stuff - and really, the lion's share went to one $3 bottle of a low proof alcohol.

Here are my tasting notes. I include a price to get drunk off the alcohol, with the mathematics that six 50mL shots of 80 proof alcohol will get a person drunk. Please believe that I didn't myself partake of more than a few sips. Also, 1 kuai is approximately twelve and a half US cents.

Tasting Notes:

Ming Dian Lu Wang:

3.6 kuai 100mL at 70 proof: An unidentifiable but rich, musty aroma. Not stong in taste. Initial sweetness with a thin flavor gives way to a smoky moldiness. A syrupy mouthfeel. Surprisingly drinkable, although I suspect I would grow sick of it quickly. Price to get drunk: $1.54

Si Zhou Da Qu:

3.9 kuai 120mL at 84 proof: Cool bottle with tapered bottom. Smells like an old cheese. Strong pungent taste that overwhelms the other flavors (sweetness, overtones of mold, and a not-subtle hint of lighter fluid). Boring. Price to get drunk: $1.16

Jian Zhuang:

8.0 kuai 475 mL at 100 proof: Unbelievably packaged in a re-purposed plastic sports water bottle, although plastic sports water bottles aren't otherwise available in Shanghai. A somewhat repulsive smell of mold, locker room, and wet cardboard. Initial balance between a sharp pungency and mold flavor is interesting and masks the sharp bite of the alcohol, but the mold quickly overwhelms everything else. Drinking more than a small amount of this would probably make you very sick. Price to get drunk: $.50

Shen Xian:

2.0 kuai 150 mL at 78 proof: Comes packaged in a drinking glass with a plastic cap. The plastic cap is re-attachable but the definite idea is for the alcohol to be finished in one go. Overwhelming aroma, dominated by a horrid smell of mold. Upon taste, surprisingly enough, this is a step away from a neutral spirit. Very smooth, with a lesser amount of mold flavoring than previously reviewed alcohols. Dangerous. Price to get drunk: $.51

2001 Shikumen:

23.80 kuai 500mL at 20+ proof. A tinted caramel coloring with a somewhat musty smell. Strong initial flavor of berries is slightly sweet and tart with an appealing if somewhat chemical taste. Quickly gives way to a dissappointing wateriness. Still a likeable drink that is probably worth experimenting with in cocktails, perhaps as a replacement to Pimm's Cup. Bottle doesn't specify alcohol content, merely that it's higher than 20 proof. I'll make a guess of 30 proof. Price to get drunk: $4.78

In conclusion, I can't recommend getting drunk off of really cheap alcohol purchased from Chinese convenience stores. I can even say that I strongly advise against it. However if such is your wont, I would recommend paying the extra cent and opting for Shen Xian over Jian Zhuang, even if Jian Zhuang's packaging is more convenient at the gym or local basketball court. Ming Dian Lu Wang and 2001 Shikumen are perhaps worth an impulse purchase, and I'd even consider buying the premium versions of these alcohols.

Even if the thought of moldy alcohol is repulsive to you, China isn't the place to go for a forced sobriety. Johnnie Walker Black and Red are available on pretty much any block, and many other international hard alcohol brands are available as well, for prices equivalent or cheaper than in the US. Beer is available at convenience stores for a quarter to fifty cents apiece. Tsingtao is the best of them, unfortunately, but it's better than the Tsingtao you get in the US. And Kirin has been giving away their recently-launched fruit ciders for free, right on the street.

Finally, some cocktail experts give a few ideas about mixing Chinese alcohols into drinks on the E-Gullet Forums. David Wondrich (who wrote an excellent cocktail book for Esquire) makes some recipes that even sound appealing, in post #7. If I ever get around to trying them, I'll post the follow-up.


A. Barrera said...

... so in the end, would you rather be drinking Cisco? They make Apple Cisco now, it's pretty tasty!

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