A Weekend in Maotai: Inside the Bizarre Cult of China’s Most Notorious Liquor

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6:41 PM HKT, Wed December 12, 2018 7 mins read

“A cup of Maotai booze a day, and you’ll live until ninety-nine,” so goes a common, slightly dubious Chinese saying.

Although the translation doesn’t sound as slick as the original, lacking the rhyme between Maotai jiu (酒, booze) and jiushijiu (九十九, ninety-nine), I was still hyped at the prospect of spending a weekend in the birthplace and headquarters of China’s most famous brand of baijiu liquor, a clear alcoholic drink that’s as notorious as it is regularly drunk (by numerous estimates, it’s the most consumed spirit on the planet).

Made out of sorghum extract, the cheapest bottle of Maotai costs a whopping 1,499RMB (216USD). The complex and extensive manufacturing process for each Maotai bottle goes a long way in justifying the hefty price tag; five years, 165 steps, 82 techniques employed, some of which are taken from the twelve-step baijiu-manufacturing process used in Maotai town during the Qing Dynasty; human feet are still used to stamp a mixture of yeast and mould into blocks of starter called qu.

A selection of Maotai liquor

Many ascribe the liquor’s unique flavour to an irreproducible environment. To this date, no Maotai made outside of Maotai town has received widespread approval. In 1972, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, hoping to increase domestic output, ordered another Maotai factory to open further up the Chishui river in Zunyi. However, this led to a slight deviation from the usual combination of micro-nutrients and atmospheric conditions, which resulted in the production of a sub-par product; eleven years later, the Zunyi factory was permanently shut down.

Boosting Maotai’s global sales was actually the reason I was brought to Guizhou in the first place, for a week of free travel, board, and food that was to be accompanied by increasingly larger servings of Maotai — all as part of a promotional push by the brand.

“I know that after this trip you will fall in love with Maotai,” said Li Baofang, the company’s chairman, upon our arrival at the five-star Maotai International Hotel. “We hope you will all take our name back to your respective countries and share this precious gift with everyone.”

Maotai International Hotel

Maotai is no stranger to liquor diplomacy – in fact, its whole reputation was built on it.

“I think if we drink enough Maotai we can solve anything,” US diplomat Henry Kissinger famously told Deng Xiaoping in 1979.

Free-flowing alcohol has always been an essential part of high-brow diplomatic banquets, but few are the brands that can match Maotai’s track record of cooing foreign dignitaries. It’s a widespread belief that during President Nixon’s paradigm-shifting 7-day trip to Beijing on February 1972, the fiery liquor warmed the US President to his Chinese hosts. A mildly inebriated analysis of this history might even embolden some to claim that Maotai contributed to the establishment of US-China diplomatic relations.

Never has a consumer product received such generous patronage from the Chinese Communist Party as Maotai. The story behind the close relationship is one that was recounted to us over and over again by Maotai’s tour guides, salesmen, and museums: in January 1935, a battered and depleted Red Army arrived at the town of Maotai, in need of rest for the wounded, and merriment for the few who were unscathed from the many skirmishes with Kuomintang forces.

Maotai liquor supplied both – the liquor was a potent disinfectant, while the Party’s top brass quickly took a liking to its fiery taste, and on October 1 1949, the official founding day of the People Republic of China’s, Maotai’s prestige was cemented as it was used to hold toasts in Zhongnanhai’s celebration banquets in Beijing.

Since then, this tipple’s cultural and historical value has turned it into an essential tool for any company man or government official in the rat-race for power; it is served in lavish banquets as a form of status-signaling and frequently used as a bribe. As another old saying goes “those who drink Maotai, never buy it”.

A giant CCP propaganda poster stands outside the entrance to Maotai International Hotel

However, Maotai’s wishful thinking that splurging on us millennials will reap dividends in the form of increased global sales contains another, unglamorous truth: CCP patronage is no longer the bedrock of the company’s success. As a result of Xi Jinping’s 2013 anti-corruption campaign, Maotai came to be seen as part and parcel of the frequent “violations of discipline” among Party and government officials. By the end of 2013, Kweichou Maotai’s share price had halved, while Maotai town’s local GDP growth declined for the first time in over two decades.

Company sales returned to normal by late 2017, but the experience left a deep mark on Maotai’s leaders. The fear of being held hostage to the dangerous flux of party politics is what has driven Maotai’s recent outward-facing market strategy.

At the same time, another one of Xi’s flagship policies, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, has allowed Maotai to continue using its old playbook, presenting its global expansion as being aligned with the Party, further proof that its “destiny has always been linked to the Chinese nation,” a sentence peppered all over the brochures offered to guests at Maotai International Hotel.

It is perhaps no surprise then that Li sees the African market as containing the greatest potential for mass future consumption of Maotai, a prognosis that echoes Beijing’s heavy investment into African countries that began around the same time “One Belt, One Road” was unveiled.

“The African market only represents five percent of our total sales,” says Li Baofang. “But Africans have been the quickest to fall in love with Maotai and drink it on a regular basis.”

Li’s belief that Maotai should be re-branded as “ideal for foreign holidays rather than confined to the Chinese calendar,” brings up the thorny question of whether Li is suggesting Maotai displace other countries’ native liquors, or perhaps the consumption of both Maotai and a native liquor during the festivities, an equally unlikely scenario. The thought of a Frenchman giving his Christmas toast with Maotai rather than red wine sounds far-fetched – even to previous leaders of Maotai.

These flasks usually contain a substance that if ingested, will kill. In Maotai, most of it will just get you drunk

During a 2013 news conference on the effect of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign on Maotai, then Vice President and General Manager Liu Zili asked sarcastically, “If Maotai is banned, do you really think the government will start drinking Chateau Lafite?” referring to one of the world’s most expensive French wines.

On the last day, we took a thirty-minute drive to the town of Renhuai, where near the Renhuai Maotai Airport, lies the recently opened Maotai Academy, which claims to be the only university in China centered around a single brand. Opened in 2017, the campus covers 295,000 square meters and cost over 370 million RMB to build — all for the purpose of increasing the quality of Maotai’s existing products, and creating new ones, like red wine.

Maotai Academy also operates a research lab that runs thousands of experiments designed to improve the quality of Maotai’s products

Deciding to sit out of the wine and baijiu-tasting offered by the academy’s laboratory director, I slipped out under the alcohol-worn faces of the Maotai employees to look for some students willing to tell me more about life in this unique university.

“The campus has a bit of an eerie atmosphere,” said 19 year-old Cai Xiaopiao, a first-year undergraduate studying Chemistry at the baijiu department, “It’s too big for only 600 students.”

Lunchtime at Maotai Academy and this central road is devoid of students

Like the rest of her classmates, Cai’s dream job is to join Kweichou Maotai after graduation. However, the odds aren’t in her favour; only five of the 300 baijiu department students can receive a personal recommendation from the academy that will grant them direct entry into the company. For the other 295 students, they must sit an examination along with 30,000 other hopefuls – only 200 make the cut every year, and most will have to spend a few years packaging Maotai bottles before they are allowed take office positions, according to Cai.

Forcing brainy graduates to do manual work might seem somewhat illogical, but Cai claims it’s all part of Maotai cleaning its act up in the wake of Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns.

“Maotai is looking for people willing to sacrifice themselves for the company, rather than make money off it,” said Cai, whose aunt packages crates of Maotai bottles in the local Renhuai distribution factory.

Maotai Academy’s leviathan of a library

Cai claims her aunt and many other Maotai employees, including those engaged in manual labour, receive an 80,000RMB “red packet” every Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). Although I was unable to verify this, Cai’s story helped me understand the Maotai Academy’s raison d’être — with so many aspiring Maotai employees, any leg-up is bound to be welcome, including associating oneself with the Maotai brand as quickly possible by attending Maotai Academy.

At the farewell party, we were all tacitly given the green light to consume Maotai á la a government official. I found online reviews of liquor-tasting experts praising Maotai’s “fruity body” and “soy sauce after-taste”, but after the first sip, my uneducated palate could only taste the burning 53 percent alcohol. A Maotai employee tried to educate us on how to correctly degust the liquor, but to no avail; by the time he had gotten to step 2 – “allow the liquor to rest underneath your tongue so as to feel the full range of its aromas” — most of us had already swallowed, putting an end to our pain.

Maotai employees have banquets such as these every other day, which gives them ample time to practice

The bellflower, mid-sized pitcher, and 500 ml “Feitian” standard model. Downing one of the three will result in near-instant death

But after we got over the initial harshness, the firewater became increasingly easier to swallow, and we were soon abandoning the bellflower cups for the small pitchers. In China, banquets such as these are often witness to endless “rounds of toasting”, where mischievous heavy drinkers go around tables, holding toasts under the pretext of gratitude and love – or at least that’s the impression I got from this dinner; the Maotai employees were clearly on a mission to get us blackout drunk. As I downed a full pitcher, all I could think about were the countless stories I’d previously read online about foolish businessmen dying of Maotai-induced alcohol poisoning.

“Maotai, the nation’s liquor: drink up and let it bring you health”

To my surprise, the next morning I found Li’s promise that Maotai “doesn’t cause dizziness, thirst, or a hangover” to be true. We were all sent back to Beijing with two bottles of Maotai each – a gift to remind us of our role to play as the company looks to conquer new markets far from China.

“We hope you can enjoy this Maotai with your countrymen,” said Li, re-hashing his words of welcome, except in a different order. “Let them know who we are.”

Unfortunately, what Chairman Li doesn’t know is that a rather tipsy and chatty tour guide let slip during the farewell party that a handsome profit can be made if one is patient enough to hold on to a Maotai bottle for only a decade or two – a ten-year vintage Maotai bottle can fetch anywhere between ten to thirty times its original price in China’s luxury market.

Granted, this kind of thinking is what lay behind Maotai’s inflated prices right before the anti-corruption campaign popped the speculative bubble, but Maotai can rest assured I will not forget to repay my debt — rather than try and convince my Portuguese countrymen to drop their mellow red wine for the fiery baijiu, I’ll let them in on the profitability of purchasing a Maotai bottle, relating word for word the tour guide’s street-smart advice:

“Those who buy Maotai, never drink it.”

For more travels in Maotai and around China’s “Liquor Golden Triangle”, see here:

Cover photo: Shutterstock

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