Quiz question for you: What is the most commonly consumed spirit in the World? The answer is rather surprising.
I am an experienced world traveller and love experiencing new cultures, drinks and foods. Having just returned from Kigali in Rwanda (beer at £1 a pint!) I have noticed a real shift in drinking trends across the World. One of the most enjoyable parts of my travels is sampling the local dishes. If you’re of legal drinking age in your destination country, participating in local drinking culture can go hand in hand with this. I love exploring new cultures and new traditions. It was my visit to China that provided the answer to the trivia question (read to the end).
The real truth is that alcohol is largely confined to certain countries. Much of the world does not, for religious or cultural reasons (having spent lots of time in Saudi Arabia), drink at all. Worldwide, in 2016, 57 per cent of those aged 15 or over had not consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months, according to World Health Organisation figures.
The only regions where more than half the over-15 population drank alcohol were the Americas, Europe and the western Pacific. The highest per capita consumption was in Europe, although European drinking had decreased, from 12.3 litres per person in 2005 to 9.8 litres in 2018. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story.
The World has been coming to Japan – post-Rugby World Cup and the upcoming Olympics and Para Olympics the number of tourists is rapidly increasing. In keeping with Japanese dining customs and many other aspects of its culture, Japan has some very nuanced drinking customs based on centuries-old traditions. Of course, since Japan is renowned around the world for its beer and sake, its unique drinking customs come as no surprise.
There is a system for serving drinks in Japan, which must always be respected, especially if you want to impress new Japanese business associates or friends. As is customary in most East Asian cultures, it’s considered a great faux pas to pour your drink. You must always watch to make sure no one’s glass is empty and the favour will certainly be returned. Most importantly, any elders or those in a higher position sitting at the table must always be served first. This is especially crucial if you’re socialising with business associates.
In Japan, business acquaintances frequently gather after work at karaoke bars and izakayas (establishments that serve both liquor and food). This can lead to heavy drinking and late nights, even on weeknights, and foreign colleagues may be expected to participate. Not doing so could lead to serious setbacks in business relationships because socialising outside of work helps build trust between business associates. Whether you’re drinking with business associates or Japanese friends, knowing the etiquette will be sure to make a great impression!
On my recent trip to Italy, it was clear that drinking is closely linked to eating and mealtimes. Though this is slowly starting to change with increased influence from British and American tourists, Italy traditionally doesn’t have as much of a bar or nightclub culture as is seen in the US and the UK. Public intoxication and excessive drinking are seriously frowned upon and not often seen among locals, so tourists might be hard-pressed to find a party atmosphere similar to the one they’re used to at home.
Italians sometimes gather for an aperitivo at a bar or caffè before lunch or dinner. An aperitivo is usually a cocktail, wine or liqueur served with snacks and is meant to stimulate the appetite before a meal. Drinks typically served for aperitivo include prosecco (a dry sparkling white wine), Campari (a fruit and herb-infused liqueur) and Aperol (an infused spirit like Campari, but with lower alcohol content). These are often accompanied by cured meats, cheese and olives.
Having visited Moscow recently I was of course confronted with their well-known range of Vodkas. It is consumed regularly and usually taken without any dilution. It can be very strong and burn on the way down.
Rumour has it that the reason Vodka is so popular in Russia is because of the extremely cold weather conditions! It helps people to keep warm. It is acceptable to drink Vodka in Russia at any time of the day. It also a drink that is becoming increasingly popular in many countries across the world especially among the youth. The young are more abstemious than their elders, and manufacturers and marketers need to keep up.
In China, there is was a surprise waiting for me. I was there 2 weeks before their New Year and there was a huge increase in drinking. This is part of the tradition of celebration and feasting to celebrate the New Year. These drinking sessions are shared with friends and family and is not limited to a specific type of alcohol. Except for the most widely drunk spirit in the World.
The traditional Chinese liquor Baijiu is said to be the most consumed spirit in the world, but only a small amount is found outside the country’s borders. While most view it as a single product, the broad range of grain-based liquors within the category can seem unrecognisable from one another, the result of centuries of different traditions and geographical influence.
Unlike the more well-known popular spirits like Whisky and Bourbon, there’s no official group that regulates baijiu. However, there are four main styles kept by most producers. These are known as strong aroma, sauce aroma, light aroma, and rice aroma. The styles differ in grain, fermentation and distillation, and even within those classifications, brands showcase signature blending techniques.
Baijiu adheres to traditional methods of production and distilling that have been preserved over centuries. Baijiu is made from grain, usually sorghum or rice, with additions of sticky rice, wheat or corn being common. Grain husks are also used, though judiciously, as they can create undesirable flavours in large quantities.
The majority of baijiu is based on sorghum, and high-quality examples are usually made from local grains, like the red variety of sorghum used in Sichuan province. Less expensive versions rely on imported grain to meet demand. Regardless of style, all baijiu is made with Qu, a composite of yeast and mould cultivated with grains and formed into cakes or balls. Qu is a cornerstone of Chinese cuisine, used not only to produce rice wine and spirits but also soy sauce, vinegar and bean paste.
Qu does much more than the average wine or beer yeast, and its role is vital to understanding what makes baijiu distinctive. Unlike a winemaker’s grape must, or the sugary, liquid wort distilled into whiskey, baijiu is derived from solid grain.
Perhaps due to a lack of genuine exposure outside of its native country, baijiu has developed a reputation for being fiery and face quite unpalatable. I tried it and winced – more than any spirit I have drunk. As with any high-proof spirit, the drink can be bracing, although many are bottled at 40% abv. Beyond the heat of alcohol, there’s a complexity of flavour that can stun the uninitiated.
Well there you have it – the world’s most popular spirit is one you may never have heard about.