Kaoliang and The Ganbei Culture
“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 western style wine. Red wine in particular has become synonymous with class and healthier drinking for such occasions as weddings, restaurant dining, pub hopping, 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 “ganbei”i culture. One phenomenon, the drinking or ganbei-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 describes 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 polarities and cultural habits in the Japanese occupational 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 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 ganbei (meaning “dry glass (cup),” akin to “bottoms up,” requiring drinkers to consume every last drop in their glass) culture, a small glass especially made for drinking kaoliang has been created called the mouthful glass. Drinking kaoliang is quite 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 ganbei (toast) after the first course by welcoming all of his guests. Toasts can be offered to the whole table or one by one to guests sitting around you and they are usually ushered in with hoisting the glass toward the guest and proffering the word “ganbei”. 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 a Chinese proverb that goes: “if you leave a social meal sober you did not truly enjoy yourself.” Rather paradoxical considering the Chinese frown upon drunkenness. Even though ganbei toasts are offered throughout the night, you only have to empty your glass once on the first toast when all drain their glasses and show each other the traditional empty cup. (ladies are supposed to take only a sip). The Chinese generally don’t touch glasses with each other during a toast.
Kaoliang Jiu literally translates to “sorghum liquor,” it is a strong distilled spirit made from fermented sorghum called gaoliang 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 on the global map, can you believe, a stones throw from the Chinese mainland). Jinmen Kaliang Jiu is one of the most popular brands of kaoliang in Taiwan. The name means ‘Golden Gate Kaoliang’ (Jinmen/kinmen translates-golden gate). The mainstays of the brand are the standard 58 percent and 38 percent alcohol bottlings. YuShan Gaoliang Jiu is produced by the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation. It is named after the highest mountain in Taiwan, YuShan (yu-jade Shan-mountain). One of their most notable products is their “XO” kaoliang aged for five years in tanks before bottling. Ba Ba Kengdao Gaoliang 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 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 aftertaste. I can hear you muttering now, 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 turpentine-ish. Kaoliang is definitely an acquired taste and not for the faint of heart or tummy for that matter. From my experiences 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 Kaoliang, it is best to drink it straight. Ice-Cold: Freezing (ala vodka/aquavit) 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 of kaoliang, from those aged between 20 and 25 years old to 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, Jinmen Kaoliang Liquor Inc. founded in 1953 on the island of Kinmen/Quemoy is providing 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 twenty years, from Taipei to Taidung, at weddings, with family, friends or at military banquets, whether the home be rustic or lavish, the cuisine a simple drunken chicken hot pot or an 18 course banquet, the culture never changes, “poetry, drinking, feasting and singing.” Hearkening back to Lin Yang-Kangs edicts, “Between host and guest, no matter who is toasting whom, one should ganbei 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.
A cultural anecdote: The 1987 Zhang Yimou film Red Sorghum is set in a rural kaoliang distillery in the Shandong province of China circa 1930’s.
Mark encourages your inquiries and questions on the world of wines and spirits and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org