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Chinese Wine and Spirits

It's easy to buy alcohol for a low price in China, so make the most of the opportunity. Cultural barriers disappear under the revelry and camaraderie of sharing a drink. For every tale of Chinese history and tradition that are told out of stodgy books, there are thousands more fascinating stories about the country and its people that are told over the fifth glass of baijiu.

Inebriates often eulogise the inventor of alcohol, but in China it's unclear to whom the praise is due. Some say it was Yi Di, a daughter of one of the rulers of the Xia dynasty. According to legend, after one taste, her father immediately banned the fiery liquid fearing that a future ruler would overindulge himself on it and lose the throne. Others say it was a man named Du Kang, also from the Xia, while some date it even earlier to the Huang Emperor. Some believe that drinking alcohol occurred in harmony with the creation of the universe.

Less speculatively, 5,000-year-old alcohol-drinking vessels were discovered in Shandong Province in 1987. An early milk-based drink called lilou was superceded by liquor distilled from cereals. Those who first drank this liquor must have thoroughly enjoyed themselves because records are incomplete and scientists can't decide whether it was pioneered in the Eastern Han, Song, Tang or Yuan dynasties. The cereal based concoctions have evolved into modern Chinese spirits called white alcohol.

There are a number of different kinds of baijiu, the most popular being the expensive maotai and the cheap and lethal being the erguotou. They are white, clear liquids with a strong and lasting aroma and are drunk, to the consternation of those who have been offered a toast, in whole shots from small glasses. During meals, the Chinese toast almost constantly, with glasses being clanked to shouts of ganbei (bottoms up). It should be noted that the lower you hold your glass the more respectful you are & this custom leads to glasses being scraped along tabletops in shows of excess humility.

Beer was first brewed in the foreign concessions during the early-20thcentury by the Russians in Harbin and the Germans in Qingdao. Tsingtao (Qingdao) Beer is famous in China and abroad, but it was only in recent years that consumption of beer overtook that of baijiu.

Wine production is limited, with the most famous vintages made from the grapes of the arid Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Traditional Chinese wines are sweet and low in alcohol, while Western-style brands are always improving their standards.

Appreciation of whisky, vodka and other foreign drinks remains limited. Keen to break into the market, Jack Daniel's has been steadily establishing a name for itself, as has Chivas Regal. They can cost over twenty-five times the price of their Chinese rivals for the same quantity.