We often talk about China’s unique and delicious cuisines, but have you ever been curious about the history and culture of Chinese alcohols? From Qingdao to Guizhou, there are spirits, beers, and wines produced all over the country that intimately tie into their surroundings.
Each alcohol carries its own fascinating story so whenever you’re next in the country, be sure to check out our list of some of our favorite alcoholic drinks in China. There’s even tips on where you can find them. Ganbei! (Cheers!)
Tsingtao Beer (Tsingtao Pijiu, 啤酒)
Tsingtao Beer is produced in the port city of Qingdao, in China’s Northeast. The beer is one of the most widespread and popular drinks in China (it’s rumored to even rival water!). Surprisingly, from 1898 until 1914, Germans actually occupied this port city and founded the brewery where Tsingtao Beer takes its namesake. The old city center has many German-style buildings with German architectural design. Every year they also have a special treat for beer lovers: the Qingdao International Beer Festival.
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As you walk through the streets of China’s major cities you’ll see men sipping Tsingtao whilst playing cards and people sat down to street-side barbecue stands with refreshing Tsingtao Beer on their tables. Even in far-flung villages, you’re sure to find this beer’s green bottles in the homes of local families.
In our opinion, the best way to savor a Tsingtao Beer is with a local family while eating in a smaller, local kitchen. Think of it as a way to share the good cheer in the universal language of a toast for good luck. Of course, on a WildChina trip you’ll also have a local guide with you who can translate for you as you chat with the family.
Shancunfengwu Hakka Rice Wine (Shancunfengwu Kejia mijiu 山村風物客家米酒)
Wine made from the fermentation of rice starch originated in China and today, there are many variations found throughout Asia. Although rice wine is one of the most popular alcoholic spirits in China, for us, there are a couple brands that really stand out. One of our favorites is Shancunfengwu Wines in Fujian that makes typical Hakka Rice Wine.
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The ethnic minority Hakka people are well-known in Fujian for their UNESCO World Heritage style tulou houses. Ancient customs are followed to make traditional Hakka Rice Wine which is a local delicacy fitting for special occasions in the Hakka community. The distillers select high quality, organic ingredients and source water from a natural stream. All of the traditional processes are completed by hand and some of the wines have been fermenting for years; the producers blow the dust off the top of the bottle before it is consumed.
If you’re interested in visiting Fujian, we have a one of a kind journey where you can spend the night in a tulou home on our Fujian: Hakka Homes tour.
Maotai Baijiu (Máotái jiǔ, 茅台酒)
“Bai” means white and “jiu” is liquor – so Baijiu is a distilled white spirit made from grain and a high 60% alcohol content is typical – that probably explains why it is sold often in small bottles and served in tiny glass cups! It is another drink found in most parts of China and in a variety of brands.
The epicenter of baijiu history and culture is the southern province of Guizhou. The center of China’s ethnic minority culture, Guizhou is also the the birthplace of one of the most iconic brands of Chinese alcohol: Maotai Baijiu.
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Maotai Baijiu has a fascinating history in Guizhou with ties to the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Although Maotai originated during the Qing Dynasty, the spirit leaped into national consciousness when during the Chinese Civil War the People’s Liberation Army forces camped out in Maotai. Since they achieved victory, Maotai baijiu has become a symbolic representation of this. Even famed diplomat Henry Kissinger told President Deng Xiaoping on his visit to the USA in 1979, “I think if we drink enough Maotai we can solve anything.”
In 2017, Maotai actually became the world’s most valuable liquor maker, surpassing more well-known brands. While visiting Guizhou, you can take part in festivities where baijiu is freely poured such as the Miao Long Table Banquet where local minority people bring out all their tables to the center of the town to form one long table for feasting.
Changyu Wines (Zhang yu pútáojiǔ, 张裕葡萄酒)
Although it’s not going to rival your Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s sure interesting to see the distinctive culture of Chinese wine emerging from the shadows. One of the main company’s is Changyu Wine. In the same province as Tsingtao Beer, this French-style winery comes from the seaside city of Yantai. Change Wines has grown into the largest wine business in China and has a developing international reputation with red and white varieties.
If you want to sample China’s twist on wine, your WildChina guide can help you choose a good bottle to share with a local family. They’ll be sure to appreciate the offering!
Osmanthus Wine (Gui hua chen jiu, 桂花陈酒.)
Osmanthus wine is another alcoholic drink with a key role in Chinese culture. It plays an essential part in the Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the biggest yearly celebrations in China. Known globally because of the iconic mooncakes eaten during the holiday, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a public holiday that traditionally celebrates the fall harvest.
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During the Mid-Autumn Festival, Osmanthus wine is typically used as a “reunion wine” which means it is served in the dinner where family and friends all come together. Osmanthus wine is sweetened and produced from weak baijiu and flavored with Osmanthus flowers, hence its name. Although it is distilled, it typically has less than 20% alcoholic content.
If you really want to take part in local customs, you should really enjoy a glass of Osmanthus wine. Your WildChina guide can help you choose some of the best varieties and you can drink some yourself or give it as a gift to a local family that you’re eating with. For an authentic experience, enjoy it in the historic former capital of Xi’an where much production takes place – while there, be sure to visit the Terra-Cotta Warriors (who are not allowed to drink on duty!).
If you’d like to enjoy a sampler flight of Chinese alcohol, what better place to do it than in the heart of the Middle Kingdom? We invite you to plan your trip with us – the true China experts – where you can enjoy VIP access to familiar sites like the Forbidden City or go off-the-beaten path with nomads in Tibet. Now that’s something to cheers about!