Maotai is a magic word that can open all doors in the People’s Republic. However, it has also made the 53-percent millet spirit a symbol of corruption. The name is now synonymous with China, just as vodka is for Russia, or cognac and whiskey are associated with France and Scotland. Beijing has so far failed to globalize its national drink and make it a brand to toast China’s rise to the world. Maotai, which belongs to the group of “white (clear) alcohols” (白酒), is not catching on overseas. Neither in taste nor from the exorbitant price. A label change is now supposed to help, according to the motto: A strong country needs a strong liquor.
Henry Kissinger, who masterminded the US-China reconciliation, had to toast Maotai (茅台酒) at the Beijing state banquet when his President Richard Nixon visited in 1972. He was not impressed. In his memoirs, he compared the millet liquor (干杯) to aviation fuel: “It is only drunk and not used as jet fuel because it is too flammable.”
Just how right he became apparent after the return of the Americans. As a gift, Nixon brought two bottles back to Washington. To prove to his daughter Tricia how much alcohol in the Maotai was, he poured it into a bowl and held a lighted match to it. The bowl shattered. Burning liquor spilled over the table and set off fire alarms in the White House.
Top-quality Maotai, which foreigners could buy for just ten yuan a half-liter bottle at the Beijing Friendship Department Store (友谊商店) back in the early 1980s – today a bottle costs at least ¥1,499 (the equivalent of more than €190) – is not only suitable for Molotov cocktails. Rich Chinese stashed away decades-old original bottlings from the distillery, which was converted into a state-owned company in 1951.
When I moved back to Germany from China at the end of 2019, I wanted to take seven bottles of Maotai with me that had been gathering dust in my pantry for more than 20 years. The shipping agent warned me that German customs would charge 30 to 40 percent of the market price to import them. He suggested selling them. The bottles had once been given to me by friends. They were untouched.
On the current online address list on the search portal Baidu, I found that Beijing had 168 shops that bought old Maotai. I made an inquiry to one of them. The owner immediately sent for an inspector who used special measuring instruments to examine the porcelain bottles, check their authenticity, and weigh how much of the contents had evaporated due to improper storage. One bottle was forged, the other was missing a third of its content. The dealer bought the five remaining bottles for the equivalent of €6,000.
Maotai is a cult beverage. The state-owned company, “Kweichow-Moutai” (贵州茅台), has been causing a sensation since its IPO in 1999. Distilled after a secret recipe from millet (sorghum) and wheat and aged for five years, the noble variety owes its alcohol volume to multiple distillations and its status as a state liquor to the nationalization of its three original companies. Of all the “Baijiu” varieties, Maotai is the most expensive brand and a sought-after collector’s item. Auctions report record prices for old vintages. Maotai precursor brandies are often worth more than their weight in gold.
This has also made Maotai synonymous with corruption. One who knew his stuff was party official Yuan Renguo. He steered Maotai affairs from 1994 to 2018, serving as President and Chief Executive of the state-owned conglomerate from 2011. He resigned in 2019 and was arrested shortly after. At the end of September 2021, the Guizhou provincial court sentenced the now 65-year-old to life in prison. He allegedly took bribes of money and real estate worth ¥112.9 million ($17.48 million), sold Maotai sales licenses and representations. Yuan avoided the death penalty only because he confessed and revealed more than investigators knew. 180 employees of the group involved were punished, as were 514 Maotai concession dealers. The province’s Vice Governor, Wang Xiaogang, was also dragged down by yuan. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined ¥174 million. He was said to have thousands of bottles of Maotai in his possession and was nicknamed the “Maotai Collector.” He gave Maotai dealerships to four relatives.
Even though China’s alcohol market has opened up with Beijing’s opening policy and the consumption of imported wines, cognac, liqueurs, or whiskey is booming, the People’s Republic loves its Baijiu more than anything. The classical drinking culture and the traditional custom of drinking beer and schnapps only with food, with toasts and ganbei rituals, is still reflected in the ratio of schnapps to wine consumption. It is at one to seven, according to the latest industry report by German Trade and Invest. In the rest of the world, both are drunk in equal proportions. The gigantic amounts in which a population of billions consumes alcohol daily make China’s market so appealing. By 2030, the per capita consumption of the adult population will exceed the annual ten-liter mark, and China will have overtaken the USA in alcohol consumption.
Young people behave differently. In 2019, more than 80 percent of China’s wine drinkers were between 18 and 35 years old. The new generation does not want to hear anything about the table manners of their parents or grandparents. They now drink socially in bars, clubs, salons, or at home.
The small town of Maotai in Guizhou, where China’s legendary liquor is brewed, remains a world apart. As a landmark for visitors from the provincial capital of Guiyang, located 230 kilometers away, the town has erected a 31 meters tall monument of its red-and-white porcelain bottle. It bears a title in Chinese calligraphy that China’s emperors only bestowed on extravagant structures along the Great Wall. They called it “First under Heaven.”
The “First Bottle Under Heaven” found its way into the “Guinness Book of Records” as the world’s tallest advertising sculpture. But all export initiatives to globalize Maotai and make it palatable not only to Chinese abroad but to the entire world failed. Now Beijing is trying a new name. Instead of the dry English label for Maotai as “Chinese distilled spirits,” as of January 1st, “China’s 2021 Import and Export Tariff Code” gave it a name with a bit more punch: “Chinese Baijiu” (中国白酒英文名改了). Patriotic bloggers praise the label change. It should convince foreign countries that “China’s favorite liquor deserves a place among the world’s famous alcoholic beverages.” A strong country needs strong liquor.
In contrast, the Marxist reformer and polymath Yu Guangyuan once said that the Chinese should first learn from the drinking culture of the world and of Europe before they bestow their drinks on others. In 1987, he coined the term wine culture. For him, it meant “education for enlightenment” and was a tongue-in-cheek act of resistance, as he once told me in Beijing. A philosopher who could read Karl Marx in German, he was brutalized during the Cultural Revolution before being sent to the CCP’s May 7th cadre school in Ningxia in early 1971. There he was forced to spend another three years planting rice and herding pigs. But his illiterate tormentors allowed him to study the works of Mao, Marx, and Engels in the evenings for his re-education.
Yu lived with a simple functionary who liked wine. He suggested to him that they excerpt all the remarks about wine that were hidden in Marx and Engels’ correspondence. Then they could refer to them when they wanted to drink wine. Every evening, Yu wrote down what Marx and Engels wrote to each other about wine on more than 100 index cards and sewed the pages together into a manuscript with needle and thread. His ulterior motive was to hold up a mirror to China’s orthodox, humorless ideologues, who, along with Mao, shaped Marx and Engels into ideological supermen. Yu countered with his tract. Both, he said, were “normal people with human traits who drank wine and could be cheerful.”
The manuscript was lost. After Yu’s rehabilitation, he reconstructed it and published more than 150 pages of annotated remarks by Marx and Engels about wine. It was also a “reminder of desperate times” for him.
East and West have different opinions on Maotai. While the Chinese rave about the “liquid gold,” legendary CBS correspondent Dan Rather coined a Western bon mot. He accompanied President Nixon in 1972, poured the Maotai down, and bluntly described the taste as “liquid razor blades”.