The Incredible, Incomparable, Anything but Incombustible—Kaoliang

Most the world has its own nationally or regionally distilled rotgut, Italy has grappa, Portugal has aguardente,  Mexico has mescal. What these whiskies have in common is they are nearly indigestible to the uninitiated. Each has its local proponents whose love for their local libation is heavily tinged with nationalistic pride. In my opinion most of these drinks prize alcohol content over taste.

The Chinese rotgut genre is dominated by baijiu (白酒), a clear unflavored liquor, or more correctly distilled cereal liquor. There are several types of baijiu common throughout Asia, kaoliang (高粱) is the jet fuel favored by Taiwanese tipplers. Kaoliang means sorghum in Chinese, so unsurprisingly sorghum is the primary ingredient in kaoliang jiu (高粱酒). Kaoliang is made by taking sorghum mash, pouring it over wheat cakes, and fermenting. The mixture is distilled after an appropriate fermentation period. The product of the first distillation is allowed to sit and further ferment, before being distilled a second time. The result is a clear, strong liquor that—to me—tastes an awful lot like the homebrew of my youth. I guess I would describe the flavor as having a strong core of black pepper, hints of toasted cereal, in a fiery liquid with a kerosene finish. The main characteristic of Kaoliang is the burn. It goes down like lighter fluid, burning its progress from the mouth, through the gullet, to the liver; and if you’re unlucky, retracing the same path on its reverse journey. Kaoliang is available in various strengths, from 38% to 63% alcohol by volume, but the most popular in Taiwan seems to be 58% alcohol, around 120 proof. It’llto give your liver something to think about.

Kaoliang developed in Dazhigu, China, east of Tianjin, during the Ming Dynasty. Today it is popular in mainland China, Korea, and Taiwan. In Taiwan it is so popular that it is fair to call it the national drink. It is currently manufactured on the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu. The industry developed in the 1950’s, when these islands were war torn areas that housed thousands of Nationalist troops fighting the Communists across the straits. The troops on Kinmen, like troops everywhere, needed hard liquor. Initially they made their own homemade baijiu, until a local entrepreneur saw an opportunity and set up Yusan Kaoliang Chiew which began producing Kinmen Kaoliang, still one of Taiwan’s favorite brands. The Matsu Distillery, based on one of Matsu’s islands, similarly developed during the Chinese conflict. The Matsu Distillery produces Tunnel 88, another popular Taiwanese brand.

As you might be able to guess, I’m not really a huge fan of kaoliang. Many of my Taiwanese guy friends seem to really enjoy this potent potable’s flavors, and will discuss the merits of one brand, or bottling, over another with the same passion Western connoisseurs have when discussing fine scotch whisky. For most of my time in Taiwan, kaoliang’s charms have eluded me.

I’m not alone among foreigners in failing to get kaoliang. I think this largely can be attributed to the fact that most foreigners have no idea how to drink kaoliang. My story is probably pretty typical. When I first arrived in Taiwan, I bought a bottle of kaoliang as I wanted to try the local liquor. I took my new purchase home and drank it as I would any other whisky. First I poured some in a tumbler over ice, and tried sipping it, like a fine scotch or bourbon. It had all the charm of a glass of formaldehyde. So, I regrouped and tried again. It’s a clear liquid, like tequila, maybe the answer was to shoot it back. I grabbed a shot glass and poured myself an ounce and a half and shot that down. Rookie mistake. It damn near shot straight back up—like it was on a bungee cord. So then I thought maybe cutting it with a mixer would help me get it down. So I hunted around the house to find some soda to make a kaoliang highball. I mixed about an ounce of kaoliang with a liberal dose of Coca-Cola. All that accomplished was to ruin a perfectly good can of Coke. In the end that bottle of kaoliang was used as lighter fluid for the barbeque—a task for which it was admirably suited.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned the proper way to drink kaoliang, while at a banquet on Kinmen Island with a group of students. At first I was hesitant when I realized we were going to be drinking kaoliang with the native Kinmen islanders present at our table. I knew that in the ganbei (乾杯), bottoms-up, culture of such banquets, I would have little ability to demure. I feared the kaoliang’s taste might cause me to launch my meal across the table. I was deeply concerned for my dignity and dinnermate’s clothing. Luckily the kaoliang was served in shot glasses about the size of a thimble. The contents were shot back between mouthfuls of food, the burn being quickly ameliorated by the next mouthful of food. Drank this way, kaoliang proved to be palatable, bordering on enjoyable. Of course the warm congenial feeling it leant to the meal created one of the nicer memories of my time in Taiwan.

Cheers to Kaoliang.