30 January, 2009

Red Star Erguotou - Chinese Firewater

Several years ago, my brother-in-law Bob and I were selling at a flea market in early November. Like many of the vendors, we had set up a small camp behind our sales area; we would be there for three days and two nights, so we had a camper van, a canopy and a small cooking area.

On the first night, after the gates had closed, we decided to walk around the market grounds and see what some of the other guys were selling. The market was at a local racetrack and was kind of an automotive swap meet, and we thought we might find some tool or parts sellers, or maybe some who were selling stuff like ours: car-related toys and collectibles.

About a hundred yards down from us, some Chinese vendors had set up a "dollar store" with rows and rows of boxes filled with hardware, inexpensive tools, tarps, bungees, and just dozens of small, indispensable things that everyone likes to pick through and buy. There were six or seven of them sitting in a circle around a big campfire, and they were passing around big half-gallon bottles of some kind of clear liquor. We smiled and waved at them as we walked by, and they all smiled back and waved us over to the fire. We sat down with them and shared the bottles as they passed along - none of our new friends spoke very much English, and Bob and I didn't speak any Chinese, but that didn't matter. We all spoke the universal language of Drink, and within an hour or so we were all half-popped, telling jokes (Bob and I in English, and our hosts in Chinese) and laughing like idiots. I don't remember much else that night. In the morning I woke up and found myself warm and toasty in my van with my propane heater running, so I must have had enough on the ball to find my way back and get ready for bed. I got the camp stove going and put on a huge pot of coffee, and while Bob rummaged around the cooler in search of bacon and eggs I went over and invited the Chinese crew to breakfast. Breakfast was alcohol-free, but we still had a great time, laughing it up as we managed to communicate in broken English and hand signals.

Bob and I never ran into those guys again, but we've never forgotten them, either.

I never knew just what we were drinking that night, only that it was strong and a little harsh and reminded me of very strong, very cheap vodka. It wasn't until years later, when my friend's daughter Stephanie brought me back a bottle from China, that I found out what it was: Erguotou ( 二锅头) an inexpensive 112-proof firewater distilled from sorghum and popular with blue-collar workers in northern China.

These days, Steph speaks fluent Mandarin and has a degree in Chinese Studies and lives in Shanghai teaching English in a Chinese school. She recently came home for a visit during the school's Spring Break, and brought me a small 100ml bottle of Red Star erguotou, bless her.

Red Star Erguotou is extremely popular in Beijing. It's cheap and strong. Stephanie likens the aroma to gasoline, but I don't think it's all that bad. It is indeed quite vaporous, but it reminds me more of the purple-printed mimeographed sheets we used to get in grade school than it does of petrol. Despite the aroma, it has little or no flavor, but it does have quite a burn! 112 proof would be strong enough on its own, but erguotou is harsh and raw-edged, too, and a big swallow burns all the way down. I enjoy the hell out of it, and when I have a bottle of it handy I always have the first drink from it to the health of the anonymous Chinese flea market vendors Bob and I met those years ago.


Red Star Company's website (English language version) - uses Flash and loads kind of slowly, even with a broadband connection.

Stephanie In Shanghai is Steph's blog about living in China. Stop in and enjoy her perpective as an American ex-pat in China as she recounts her adventures (and her mundane everyday life, too.)



Stephanie/Sproffee said...

Hey! In happy news, my friend Cori got her package that I sent the same day as yours. So you should get it soon if you haven't already!

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

Bought a souvenir bottle for 1 RMB last week (15 cents!) or $1.5 a liter. Also saw a bottle of Moutai (sorgum based) for 285,000 RMB a liter. Quite a range.

Bobby said...

I can tell you that the first time I tasted this chinese moonshine I detested it. But like cigarettes, scotch whiskey and easy women you learn to love it just like a real North-East Chinese construction worker. Love that erguotou !