Chardonnay – Still Queen of the Realm
“A thousand cups of wine do not suffice when true friends meet, but half a sentence is too much when there is no meeting of minds.” ~ Chinese Proverb ~
Drinking for pleasure and daredevil drinking has historically been part of Taiwan’s culture for who knows how long. Recently, favored liquid refreshments from abroad have included XO brandies, Scotch whiskeys, and in the past few years the Taiwanese have acquired a seemingly irresistible enthusiasm for wine. Red wine in particular has become synonymous with “class” and healthier drinking for such occasions as weddings, restaurant dining, pubs and entertaining in the home. Enjoying red wine has become the “passion des personnes” in such a big way that France’s five largest wine producers now come to Taiwan every year to promote sales. While the specific “tastes” of Taiwanese may change with fashion, one thing never changes: the “gan bei” culture. One phenomenon, the drinking or “gan bei-ing” of Kaoliang has never faded in popularity and is at an all time high in production, consumption and revenue earnings.
Westerners might ask, Why do the Taiwanese drink this way and what kind of drinking culture exists here? Taiwan’s early drinking culture can be described by the terms “poetry, drinking, feasting, and singing.” Cultural critic Nanfang Shuo calls the early drinking culture of intellectuals “literary drinking.” He traces its origins back as far as the late Ming dynasty and the brief rule of Taiwan by Zheng Chenggong, and notes that it grew in popularity through the Qing dynasty and into the early Japanese occupation era. Its form of expression was to compose verse and poetry on society while drinking. “Because of the political fissure and cultural habits in the Japanese occupation era, a counter-cultural focus of expression was even more prevalent. In Taiwan there were more than 200 poetry associations, and numerous poetry-and-drinking competitions.” When Lin Yang-kang, known for his drinking capacity, was provincial governor, he issued a drinking order whose three elements can be summarized as follows: (1) Unless there are religious or health reasons, those who can ganbei should do so in order to express their sincerity; (2) Between host and guest, no matter who is toasting whom, they should ganbei in order to express that they share the same ideals; (3) One should not sneak away with smaller portions, and when drinking there should not be enough alcohol left in the glass even to feed a goldfish. On the “front-line” island of Kinmen, where the local specialty is kaoliang, a unique drinking culture has taken shape. To accommodate the combination of powerful kaoliang with the gan bei culture. “Ganbei!” meaning “dry glass,” and is akin to “bottoms up,” requires drinkers to consume every last drop in their glass. A small glass specially made for drinking kaoliang has been created in Kinmen, called the “mouthful glass.”
But drinking kaoliang is different from chug-a-lugging brewskis, and is much more structured: “Pinky extended, lift the glass delicately, hold the kaoliang back in your throat, relax your brow, slam the glass on the table. . . . Now that’s good liquor!” To start with, one’s host usually begins the toast after the first course by welcoming all of his guests. Toasts can be offered to the whole table or one by one to people sitting around you and they are usually ushered in with “gan bei.” The Chinese are very big on toasts. Ganbei is heard after every course and guests are often asked to have one drink with every person who is considered a host. There is Chinese proverb that goes: “if you leave a social meal sober you did not truly enjoy yourself.” Even though ganbei toasts are offered through the night, you only have to empty your glass on the first one when people drain their glasses and show each other the empty glass (ladies are supposed to take only a sip). The Chinese generally don’t touch glasses with each other during a toast. And don’t forget, The Chinese generally frown upon drunkenness.
Kaoliang Jiu literally translates to “sorghum liquor”; it is a strong distilled liquor, made from fermented sorghum called g?oliáng in Chinese. It is made and sold in both mainland China and Taiwan, and is also popular in Korea, where it is called goryangju. Kaoliang is an important product of the islands Kinmen and Matsu which are under the jurisdiction of Taiwan (if you Google Earth Kinmen/Quemoy-your in for a surprise as far as where it’s located-a stones throw from Mainland China). Jinmen Kaoliang Jiu is one of the most popular brands of kaoliang in Taiwan. The name means ‘Golden Gate kaoliang’ (jinmen/kinmen means Golden Gate). The mainstays of the Brand are the standard 58 percent and 38 percent alcohol bottlings. Yushan Kaoliang Jiu is produced by the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation. It is named after the highest mountain in Taiwan, Yushan or Jade Mountain. One of their most notable products is their “X.O.” kaoliang aged for five years in tanks before bottling. Ba Ba Kungdao Kaoliang Jiu is produced by the Matsu Distillery on the island of Nankan, part of the Matsu archipelago. The name is derived from the name of an abandoned military tunnel which the distillery took over as storage space for their kaoliang and aged rice wine. It means “Tunnel 88 Kaoliang”. All of the distillery’s aged kaoliangs are stored in the tunnel for at least five years. Kaoliang Liquor is perfectly transparent and possesses a delicate and pure aroma.
When consumed it goes down exceptionally smooth with a subtle sweet aftertaste. I hear you muttering to yourself, your saying “I’ve tasted Kaoliang and it’s pure fire water.” True, Kaoliang is strong — up to 60% alcohol — and depending on the quality it can deliver an explosive burn that assaults the tongue, sears the throat, and ends up in the stomach like glowing charcoal. It has a long finish, and can have a persistent resinous aftertaste that smacks a bit turpentineish. Kaoliang is definitely an acquired taste and not for the faint of heart or tummy for that matter. From attending many military banquets I’ve been taught that there are three ways to drink the spirit. Au Natural: To experience the authentic(traditional) taste of Koaliang, it is best to drink it straight. The taste is smooth, pure and delicately sweet as it passes from the tip of the tongue to the back of the throat, so Kinmen Kaoliang Jiu Inc. would like us to believe. Ice-Cold: Freezing (ala vodka) or chilling the liquor will reduce the stimulating effect of the alcohol, making it smoother to drink with an enhanced aroma, and on the rocks will certainly dilute and tone down some of the high octane. Warm: Gentle heating of the liquor reduces its pungent, spicy taste which enhances the soothing smoothness and rich aroma.
Now having said this, I will also add that I have had the privilege of tasting the gamut from aged very old Kaoliang between 20 and 25 years old, and the variously aged XO’s and of course the more commonly available commercial grades. There is a difference, so the older the jiu the smoother and less volatile. For those who are on extended stays here in Taiwan and want to go Taiwanese all the way, aged kaoliang can be purchased. Since 2007, Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor Inc. founded in 1953 has provided free three-year storage for buyers of a 30-liter flagon of Kaoliang. The liquor is kept in military tunnels bored into a mountain that have been turned into cellars. The public response to the liquor in 30-liter pottery flagons, priced at NT$21,000 each, has been overwhelming, mainly because the longer the liquor is stored in a cellar, the more fragrant and valuable it becomes. It is believed that after three years of storage, the 30-liter package will be ideal for such occasions as wedding banquets, birthday parties or other celebrations. So what kind of drinking culture exists in Taiwan today? From my experiences with having been a guest over the past 20 years from Taidong to Taipei, at weddings, with family and friends or at military gatherings, whether the home be rustic or lavish, the cuisine a simple drunken chicken or an 18 course banquet, the culture never changes “poetry, drinking, feasting, and singing.” and I hearken back to Lin Yang-kang’s edicts, “Between host and guest, no matter who is toasting whom, one should gan bei in order to express that they share the same ideals.”
Wishing to one and all the ideals of Taiwanese friendship and hospitality and Peace on Earth. Happy New Year!
Mark encourages your inquiries and questions on the world of wines and spirits and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org