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A Guide to Chinese Liquor in Los Angeles

Mao tai | Photo by CNS Imports

The history of Chinese liquor dates back to the Neolithic period 9,000 years ago. Made primarily from grain, liquor was originally used for sacrificial ceremonies before evolving into a common beverage consumed warmed and usually before meals -- because it was believed that such a combination was good for the body.

While booze isn't as much a necessary accompaniment to a Chinese meal as it is to, say, a French one, the Chinese are still avid consumers of liquor. Spirits are usually reserved for special occasions and packaged in elaborate vessels. It is usually joked that the packaging is more important than the actual booze contained inside.

Today, China is the top beer producing country. The country's signature drink, baijiu, which is usually fashioned out of distilled sorghum, is the most consumed distilled spirit in the world.

In Los Angeles, Chinese liquor isn't consistently found on menus. At best, you might spot a bottle of Tsingtao on the back of a Northern Chinese restaurant menu, and the fancy Cantonese banquet rooms might have a vial of baijiu or two for your indulgence. You just have to know where to look. Here's a guide:

Types of Chinese Liquor:

Nu Er Hong | Photo by Nu Er Hong
Rice Wine:
Rice wine is used mostly in cooking and is made by steaming the grain, letting it ferment, and then filtering it under pressure. There are three main categories of rice wine: Shaoxing yellow wine, millet wine, and red fermented wine. Shaoxing yellow wine is perhaps the most popular of the bunch and is derived from yeast, glutinous rice, and water from the Mirror Lake in Shaoxing. It's mixed with herbs, then mud-sealed and stored in earthenware jars.

Popular brand:

Nu Er Hong: Stored in wine jars engraved with flowers and aged for 18 years. It has a mellow and sweet flavor.

Yanjing Beer | Photo by Flickr/brostad
Beer:
Beer was popularized in China in the 1900s, when a group of Russians built China's first brewery in Harbin City. Today, China is the world's top producer of beer and as of 2011, Tsingtao, Yanjing, China Resources, and Harbin Beer all boast an annual production capacity of more than 1 million tons, according to the book Chinese Wine by Li Zhengping. In 2008, China produced over 41 million kiloliters of beer.

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Popular brands:

Tsingtao Beer: Brewed with water from the Laoshan Spring and made with barley malts, hops, and 25% rice. There's a moderate degree of fermentation. It has a soft and sweet flavor.

Yanjing Beer: Brewed with water from the Yan Shan Mountains, barley, and hops. It's highly fermentation, and it has a mild, bitter flavor.

Changyu Wines | Photo by Changyu
Grape wine:
The practice of using grapes to produce wine dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), but it wasn't adopted extensively throughout China until 1892, when a Chinese business tycoon by the name of Zhang Bishi founded the Changyu WIne Production Company in Yantai in the Shandong province. Zhang recruited wine specialists from Europe, gathered proper machinery from abroad, and is accredited to popularizing wine in China. These days, China is on track to be the world's top wine producer within the decade and the country has its own collection of vineyards throughout the country. China is known for its dry white wine.

Popular brands:

Changyu Cabernet: Changyu is the largest wine producer in Asia and in 1905, they created Asia's largest underground wine cellar and their rosé wine has won international recognition. They've also developed a unique variety of red wine called Cabernet Gernischt.

Great Wall Wine: They were the first to produce China's first dry white wine and as of 2011, account for over 40% of China's total wine exports.

Baijiu collection from Peking Tavern | Photo by Clarissa Wei
Baijiu:
Baijiu is the national liquor of China -- a strong distilled spirit that racks up to about 70% alcohol when fully aged. It's the world's most consumed liquor, usually made with sorghum and a starter culture known as qu that is typically stored in the form of dried bricks. Of course, not all baijiu is made the same. It can be divided into three categories: light aroma, strong, and sauce aroma.

Popular brands:

Maotai: Maotai is the most famous brand of baijiu and is produced in the town of Maotai in southwestern China. The spirit falls under the sauce aroma category, which means that it has an extremely complex flavor that's often difficult to pinpoint. In fact, scientists employed by the company have isolated over 1,000 aromas. The complexity gives it a smooth finish, which pairs well with a heavy meal. It isn't cheap; a 375 mL bottle costs $140.

Red Star (Er Guo Tou): Er Guo Tou means "second distillation," according to Shawn Shih, a representative at CNS Imports, the largest baijiu distributor in the U.S. "It has a light aroma and is great with salads or vegetables. There's a bit of a floral flavor and it has a pomelo-like aftertaste," he says. Red Star also has a strong foothold in Chinese history; it was the ceremonial drink for the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Shui Jing Fang: Packaged in a gorgeous crystal vessel with gold embellishments, Shui Jing Fang falls under the strong aroma category. "There's a pineapple and star anise taste to it," Shih says. "It's great with spicy dishes." Fun fact: the liquor is made in a 600-year-old fermentation pit.

Where To Buy Chinese Liquor:

Wing Hop Fung aisle | Photo by Clarissa Wei
Supermarkets

Wing Hop Fung:
Wing Hop Fung is your best bet if you're looking to arrange a Chinese liquor tasting with all of the above selections. With locations in Chinatown, Monterey Park, and one to open at the Arcadia Santa Anita Mall, Wing Hop Fung is the go-to place to get Chinese specialty items from herbs, ginseng tea, and of course, liquor. You'll find items like dried deer tendon, caterpillar fungus, and an entire section dedicated to Chinese spirits. 727 N Broadway, Los Angeles, CA; (213) 626-7200.

99 Ranch Supermarket:
99 Ranch is a chain with an extensive selection of imported goods from around Asia. Compared to Wing Hong Fung, it has a smaller selection of spirits, but the supermarket carries all of the baijiu brands. Of course, beer is readily available. 40 W Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776; (626) 307-8899.

Peking Tavern baijiu | Photo by CNS Imports
Restaurants and Bars

Peking Tavern:
Peking Tavern is the baijiu expert in Los Angeles and have all of the baijiu brands listed above. They're the first bar in L.A. to have baijiu cocktails, crafted by bartender extraordinaire Cari Hah. There are ten baijiu cocktail varieties on their menu in addition to the pure stuff that you can get served in a miniature shot glasses. 806 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90014; (213) 988-8308.

Hakkasan:
Hakkasan is a fanciful Chinese restaurant chain with an outpost in Beverly Hills. They have an extensive cocktail selection and in recent months, have launched a baijiu cocktail called the Eastern Elixir. It's mixed with Aperol, grapefruit juice, tarragon, lemon juice, and coffee syrup. 233 N Beverly Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210; (310) 888-8661.

Miscellaneous:
Most higher end Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley will have at least one or two Chinese liquor selections on their menus. Of note: Restaurants Hai Di Lao, 888, and NBC have baijiu; Beijing Restaurant and Beijing Tasty stock Yanjing Beer.

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