Alcohol in China is colorful. There are red ones, white ones, yellow ones. What does it mean? Red alcohol is wine, but both white and red wines are called “red alcohol” in the Chinese language. Of course there is a name for grape wine in general; in Chinese characters, it is written as “alcohol from grapes”. Then you can add a character before it to describe if it is red or white wine. So white wine in Chinese is written like white+grape+alcohol (白葡萄酒), and so is red wine (红葡萄酒).

But people in China do not like long words, they shorten them. Red wine is shortened to red+alcohol. However, it is not possible to do the same with the name for white wine because then it would be “white alcohol” and that is a Chinese spirit. So the white wine is also called “red+alcohol”. But language is not the only reason for this, economics factor in too. In China, red wine is greatly preferred. Sometimes it is even hard to find white wine in a shop. I was once designing a catalog for a wine importing company in China. 90% of their wines were red, 5% rose and 5% white. Why is that so?

I am not sure, I have no proof. But I have one theory. In the beginning, wine was drunk only to show social status. And that is still common outside the big multicultural cities like Shanghai. Many people don’t even like the taste of red wine, but they still drink it. The color red is also a traditional color of luck in China, while white is the color of death. So why should somebody drink something white when he just wants to show off? Of course he will choose the red one. As I said, that is my personal theory with no proof :)

When you are drinking white, you are drinking Chinese spirit. The white spirit is something like Chinese vodka; it has around 30% to 60+% of alcohol. Thus, no mush. It is traditionally made from millet and rice with the addition of further ingredients. There are many brands of baijiu, which is what it is called in Chinese. I will mention two of the most famous standings in complete contrast. The first one is called Erguotou and it is better known for its low price; it is alcohol for the masses. Its name translates as twice distilled alcohol, but it can also be translated differently in a little poetic way – “Head was hit twice by a pot” (the literal meaning of distilled is “went through two pots”, but the character for “went through” also means head in Chinese. It is a very free translation, grammatically incorrect but very popular among students of the Chinese language).

The second brand is Maotai. In fact, the premium Maotai is hard to get and it is pricy. It is one of the most famous high quality brands of Chinese spirits; it is drunk mostly in higher circles. Only once I had the opportunity to try it and truly, it was a completely different taste. While Maotai will melt on the tongue and it does have the “hardness” of strong liquor, Erguotou honors its name “Head was hit twice by a pot.” When I came to China, we tried to make it our student alcohol, since it is very cheap. But after opening every bottle, the smell spread and we just threw it away. Today I am more used to it and I have to drink it quite often when interpreting business meetings. Of course usually we do not drink Erguotou. There are so many premium brands, once I’ve even tasted a homemade one. It had 63% of alcohol and it was a killer. I have no idea how I came back to hotel that night. The more important business meeting, the more expensive the alcohol that is drank. So the Chinese government even had to put a limitation on money spent on drinks.

The last color is yellow, Chinese yellow wine.

It tastes a little bit like European herbal alcohols, but it is also made from rice, millet, wheat and other ingredients. It contains as much alcohol as our wines. It is also divided into dry, semi-dry, sweet and very sweet. With its stronger taste, not everyone is fond of it, but as with everything, there are good and bad wines. The most famous are from the city of Shaoxing, in the Zhejiang Province. A wine called “daughter in red“, made in Shaoxing, is a good choice and it is common at weddings. Its name also means “married daughter”. Traditionally, women get married in red dresses in China.

The Chinese use the phrase “boil alcohol and talk about heroism.” Boil is not a good translation actually; it should be more like “heat alcohol” because yellow wine is best slightly heated. You can even put a small slice of ginger inside the bottle. It is drank mostly during the winter, or when eating certain kinds of foods with cold energy (crabs).

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