A lot has changed since Li Zhihua was on the factory floor in 1972. Back then, a bottle of the Kweichow Moutai he helped produce cost about 6 yuan, a big investment for a worker earning around 30 yuan a month, but nothing compared to the 1,000-yuan ($154) bottles sold today.
To treat his young sons, Li said he would sometimes dip his chopsticks into the Moutai he was drinking to let them taste a drop. It was his way of introducing them to baijiu, or white liquor, a drink that has become a symbol of Chinese national pride.
But the culture surrounding Moutai is evolving as rapidly as the society around it. With globalization and greater economic prosperity, a new type of drinking culture has emerged.
Li, now in his early 60s, has retired from the plant, but his two sons have taken jobs there.
"Because the whole family has been drinking Moutai for years, we all like the taste of Moutai," Li said.
Older consumers like Li tend to be the norm in the baijiu market, said Derek Sandhaus, author of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.
"The average baijiu drinker is going to be usually, though not always, a man over the age of 30," he said. "Generally people start drinking more baijiu the further along in their careers they get."
It's a marked contrast to Western drinking trends, Sandhaus explained, where consumers' alcohol intake tend to mature in their 20s. But despite the fact that older, more experienced consumers tend to dominate the baijiu market, Sandhaus argues that there is still little awareness about the history and diversity of the celebrated liquor.
"There's not a culture of baijiu connoisseurship, like there is with whiskey connoisseurship in the West," he said.
Chinese people may recognize the prestige of a brand like Moutai, but few grasp the peculiarities that differentiate one class of baijiu from another.
Part of the reason lies with baijiu's relatively recent development. The drink itself has been around for centuries, but the industry was only established in the 1950s.
Liquors that were once regional specialties were suddenly available for mass consumption. Many remain obscure, but Moutai distinguished itself early on as a patriotic favorite, given its role in cleaning wounds and healing soldiers during the Red Army's Long March. It soon became a staple at formal occasions nationwide.
Modern Chinese dining habits are another impediment to the appreciation of baijiu, said William J. Isler, who works alongside Sandhaus in the consultancy firm Capital Spirits Ltd. In recent decades, baijiu has become a pillar of banquet dinners, where it is used to give toasts until a bottle of the high-proof liquor is empty.
You can't enjoy the variation among baijiu if you're committed to "pounding down" a bottle of a single type, Isler said. In 2014, he co-founded Beijing's first baijiu bar as an alternative to the pressure of banquet binge-drinking.
A new trend
"What we try to do is completely remove baijiu from the culture associated with it, and present it on its own as a spirit," Isler said.
The Capital Spirits baijiu bar was initially frequented by expats but Isler estimates that 60 percent of his current clients are Chinese, with almost half of them women. He stocks the bar with over 50 types of baijiu, including a lighter, more accessible version of Moutai's classic liquor called Moutai Prince.
"Among the younger Chinese generation, which is much more individualistic, they're rejecting the banquet culture," Isler said. "They're finding it very refreshing to be able to drink baijiu, which is something they're curious about, in the bar setting where they can drink it on their own terms."
It doesn't hurt that the bar's atmosphere reflects Western traditions, either. "If you can appeal to Westerners, you'll also appeal to the younger Chinese as well," Isler said.
His consultancy specializes in introducing Western consumers to baijiu in the hopes that it can establish niche markets overseas in the same way that the Mexican liquor mezcal has. Though Isler said baijiu is essentially "invisible" in the overseas market, there is reason to be optimistic. Just last year, another baijiu bar opened, the first of its kind in the United States.
Isler is adamant that success abroad will translate into success domestically for Chinese brands, especially those hoping to attract younger adults.
"If you look at younger Chinese people today, most of the trends they pick up on are coming from abroad anyway," he said. "So if baijiu can go abroad and make it, it can come back (in China)."
Moutai has already started its foreign expansion, investing a reported $11.76 million to open a store in Paris. More locations are planned for the United States, Russia, Japan and Australia, said Moutai's deputy general manager Yang Daiyong.
Overseas purchases account for 7 percent of Moutai's sales, Yang said, and he admitted that Chinese travelers account for most of those purchases. But he hopes, "step by step", to attract more foreign interest. The company's goal is to raise foreign sales to 10 percent by the end of the year, and to 20 percent over the long run.
If Moutai's overseas ambitions succeed, it could mark a new direction for the baijiu drinking culture, one that lifts the world's best-selling spirit to new heights.
A visit to the Moutai Museum gives people an opportunity to learn the brand's centurylong history and the local culture relating to baijiu. Jiang Dong/ China Daily
(China Daily 04/13/2016 page18)