It never ceases to amaze me the kind of hobbies some people seem to get up to; or the kind of things people collect just for the fun of it. Yes, I know I’m the last one to talk in this regard, with my 'special collection' that my best friends all know about. But I wonder what the wife of Luo Qiang – the guy who decided to collect old baijiu bottles – had to say to him with all his old empties lying about the house?
Well, out of the weirdest collections arise some priceless gems, and if the idea of old booze bottles turns you on, maybe you should head on over to the Qianding Old Liquor Museum, not a stone’s throw away from Beijing’s Drum and Bell towers.
According to topchinatravel.com, “if you are an old liquor lover, visiting this museum would be an interesting thing”. (Interestingly it doesn't say whether it is of interest to young liquor lovers like me.)
Qianding Old Liquor Museum bills itself as the “first museum of alcohol in China”, though as it only opened in 2011 I have to say I have serious doubts on that score.
Baijiu is a pungent clear liquid averaging 110-proof, and is remarkably the world’s most consumed form of liquor, with 5 billion litres sold in 2016. It accounts for more than one-third of all spirits consumed in the world. It is not dissimilar to vodka in strength and mouth-feel.
Baijiu is usually distilled from fermented sorghum, although other grains, such as glutinous rice, wheat, barley or millet, are also used.
Like other spirits such as gin, baijiu can be broken down into a set of six ‘fragrances’, which indicate the spirit’s flavour: honey fragrance, layered fragrance, light fragrance, rice fragrance, sauce fragrance, and thick fragrance.
I well remember trying my first shot of baijiu many centuries ago when I lived in the UK. My first impression was something which reminded me strongly of the stench that hits your nostrils when you enter the elephant house at London Zoo. (In fairness, my ex had heated up the liquid, mistaking it for a bottle of Japanese sake!) Other descriptors include sweaty socks, rotten fruit, or other unimaginable epithets. When we threw dinner parties, the first prize offered to the winner of a party game was a shot of Moutai baijiu. The losers got two shots.
Confusingly, the Chinese also refer to baijiu as wine, and when offered a glass of wine in China it is always best to ask if they really do mean wine, or this thinly disguised version of paint stripper.
But I shouldn’t really be so deprecating. The fact is that its taste really does grow on you... after a matter of time; though I will never forget that the only time I have ever got (just the slightest bit) drunk in the past two decades is when I was fed multiple glasses (that is, I lost count after the tenth glass) of baijiu at a dinner party. I woke up at 4am stretched out on my bed still wearing my now-not-so-pristine-suit of the night before.
According to Wikipedia, Moutai (茅台, Máotái) has a production history of over 200 years, originally coming from the town of Maotai in Guizhou. It is made from wheat and sorghum with a unique distilling process that involves seven iterations of the brewing cycle. It became famous across the world when Mao Zedong served Moutai at state dinners during ‘Tricky-Dick’ Nixon's state visit to China, and Henry Kissinger is said to have remarked to Deng Xiaoping that "if we drink enough Maotai, we can solve anything".
You’ll find the Qianding Old Liquor Museum on the corner of Zhangwang and Zhaofu Hutongs, and you’ll know you’ve arrived when you come across a building with massive brown distillation jars embedded into its walls.
Zhangwang Hutong itself is 235 metres long and runs east-west. As a wall plaque will tell you, it used to be within the domain of Xianghuangqi (rimmed yellow banner – a military administrative system established in the early 1600s and kept throughout the Qing Dynasty). During the reign of Emperor Xuantong it was called Zhanmao Hutong, but was given its present name in 1947. A little further along at No 15 stands the former residence of Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston, who was once teacher of Puyi, the last emperor of China. These days the hutong is entirely residential.
What the neighbours must think of this individual style of decoration on the outside is anyone’s guess. It’s certainly eye catching, and reminds me of that other eye catching museum in Tianjin, known as China House.
The museum has a total of over 5,000 dusty bottles of more than 1,300 varieties of baijiu, and the production dates range from as far back as the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722). The oldest bottle in the collection is called Double Happiness that was bought in 1995 for 1.15 million RMB (though it is too precious to be put on display). Most of the bottles are still full, and have their original wax seals still intact, though in many cases the wax is superseded by the not-very-subtle use of cling film so that no more alcohol ‘flies away’.
chinahighlights.com tells us that “the liquor bottles are displayed according to their places of origin and each brand is arranged in chronological order. As a result, you can know vicissitudes of liquor brands in different periods”. I consult the Oxford English Dictionary: “Vicissitude – A change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant”. Maybe chinahighlights.com knows a thing or two more than it is letting on about.
Among the famous brands on show are Double Happiness, Ginseng Wine, Duolun Liquor, City Shun Pavilion Aging, Long Bin Wine, Rainbow Hill Liquor, Ancient Pottery Daqu, Shepherd Boy Wine, Dukang Liquor and Dongfeng Wine, to name but a few.
Some come in specially crafted bottles, which a cynic like me might well take to understand that the booze inside wasn’t so appealing without a special bottle to make the purchase so tempting.
The main exhibits are interspersed with much older items from China’s alcohol-laden past. Here you can also find Warring States drinking vessels and Yuan Dynasty kettles. There’s also antique furniture, a bicycle or two, ‘super large wine jars’ and a range of antique bottle stoppers, not to mention this hand loom, whose relevance to baijiu somewhat escapes me for the moment.
Most of the bottles, and glass cabinets in which they sit out their final days, are covered in dust. Mrs Luo obviously gave up on the house cleaning long ago.
By the time you have peered through the dirt at your #,000th bottle of baijiu, bottle-fatigue starts to creep in.
Maybe the museum’s curator felt this too; and so to lighten the gloom, you’ll come across 50-year-old cigarette packets and antique paintings of Chairman Mao just as you are starting to feel you simply can’t take much more of this.
There are, of course, other liquor museums in Beijing, but they tend to be pristine shrines to specific brands, or are there simply to attract punters in so that they can then begin the hard sell – such as this one in YandaiLu which is also called Qianding Old Liquor Museum.
It might well say ‘tickets’ on the wall outside, but it is free entry, with signs warning you not to take photos… just to make it feel more special perhaps (such signs are always ignored in China, as everyone knows that such strictures only apply to other people, never to oneself!)
It’s hardly even worth bothering going in, I have to say; but if you’re there anyway, you can easily fill a spare two minutes of your valuable time.
Another slightly more interesting baijiu “museum” is the Qianmen Yuanshenghao Museum which can be found on Qianmen Street, backing on to Liangshidian Hutong, some 300 metres south of the gate.
Yuanshenghao was a famous Chinese baijiu factory founded in 1680, the 19th year of Emperor KangXi’s reign. Three brothers built their factory here and invented a new style of distillation which became the signature brewing technique for Erguotou.
In May 1949 the government decided to set up a new state-run baijiu factory called Red Star which would incorporate 12 manufacturers including Yuanshenghao. And so it was that Red Star exclusively inherited the traditional brewing technique of Beijing Erguotou
Erguotou (二锅头, literally "head of the second pot") is inexpensive compared with the likes of Moutai and thus particularly popular among blue-collar workers. It is probably the most commonly-drunk baijiu in Beijing and Red Star (红星, Hóngxīng) is one of the most popular brands.
Pop inside for five minutes and you’ll see a number of tableaux of happy workers creating the elixir…
… not to mention happy drinkers…
… and equally happy bar and shop tenders.
Dusty bottles? Tableaux of peasant workers distilling baijiu? Can life really get any more exciting than this?