Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cocktail Hour

Recently I read that the average cocktail in the average bar could run as high as $25 to $30 or more. A quarter to a third of a Bill for a mixed beverage? Why should I be surprised? When I visited my daughter’s book club last time I was stateside, she had a margarita that cost $18, and this was not a trendy bar in a social hotspot.

Still: $30 for a drink?

Not that I’ve ever been deeply into the drink or even the bar scene. Back in the day where I did go to places one shakes their ‘groove thang’, a Tequila Sunrise cost about $4. No wonder I’m suffering sticker shock at the going price of a libation, followed closely by the awe of: ‘people really pay that?’ Apparently so. Young Tom Cruise, in his role as barkeep in the movie Cocktail, would have made it rich without sliding across the floor in his tighty whities, at that price. Couch hopping not required.

In spite of my disbelief this article gave me pause. What about the drinking culture in China? Or the bar scene? Now that would be an interesting comparison, don’t you think?

Granted, I’ve not been to every little nook and cranny in China and I’ve yet to fully explore the large cities that are host to a large expat population. However, I have been to a bar or two. I have run the aisles of plenty of stores and I’ve ridden plenty of buses that crawl all over cities, and I’ve been all over Wuhan. I can honestly attest to the fact that there are indeed liquor stores in China, but they offer only 3… lines? Types? Of booze. More on them in a paragraph or two. In addition to those are more eclectic selections of the same variety: Snake wine, for example: Bai Jiu with a coiled snake pickling at the bottom of the jar,.

I say ‘jar’ because the one time I actually saw Snake Wine was at the cloisonné factory we toured several years ago. We had lunch in their cafeteria and they did offer Snake wine, as well as Tiger wine. Snake wine is said to enhance men’s sexual prowess while Tiger wine targets women’s libido. Both of these outrageous selections were paraded around the dining room on a stainless steel food handler’s cart, in large jars resembling restaurant sized pickle jars. There was indeed a snake coiled at the bottom of this jar.  

These spirits may well come in smaller packages but I’ve not seen them in any other incarnation. Remember: I’m not much of a drinker to begin with, so I generally would not frequent places that might offer such a selection. The few fancy restaurants I’ve been to did not have them on their menu or on display, and I’ve not seen it at any KTV I’ve been to.

One could make the general statement: if you have liquor, show it. That is true whether in America, China or any part of the world I’ve been to. In China and at Chinese restaurants in America, alcohol suggestions are made in restaurant lobby areas, with decorative bottles sparsely positioned on a shelf behind the host/ess. In America, bars make a huge to-do of building an attractive display of available liquors. Cordials, Malts – single or double, Whiskeys – sipping or mixing… their popularity is denoted by the fill levels of the bottles. Even family oriented restaurants have a bar area.

In China, that is a moot point. You have 3 main selections: beer, bottled or canned. Bai Jiu, bottled. Wine (usually red), bottled. If you are out for love or sin, or just want to be companionable, you will partake of one of the three. All of them are served with seal unbroken. In the case of wine, the bottle will be corked.

Beer is generally consumed at ‘street level’. Let’s say a group of friends get together, either at a local restaurant or at someone’s house. Maybe you’re playing poker (not American style poker) or just shooting the bull. Beer will flow like… beer. Not much point in comparing it to wine because of the minimal choice of alcoholic beverages here.

Bai Jiu will make an appearance at just about any level or social strata. I’ve been to weddings that served Bai Jiu in fancy bottles, birthday celebrations that called for revelers to sip at least one glassful dispensed from an earthenware bottle; KTV, the time I went with Gary and also the time I went with Mrs, C (see ‘The Hike that Wasn’t’ entry, posted May 2012). Sam’s mother has challenged my Bai Jiu capacity in her own home. Victor and I were offered Bai Jiu at our very first meet and greet lunch, way back in 2010. If I remember correctly, Dean Tu opted for beer, even though Victor and I demurely requested tea. (See A Great Honor entry, posted September 2010)     

The ritual is always the same. First, the carton the Bai Jiu comes in is shown off. Apparently there is good Bai Jiu and lesser. The higher the price, the finer the drink. That is, fine as Bai Jiu goes. According to my son-in-law, a drink aficionado, it tastes like diesel fuel. But that is just his opinion. After proper appraisal and commentary of the grade/quality of the Bai Jiu, the carton is ripped open. Well, cut open. Ripping anything open is well nigh impossible (see Over the Top entry, a few posts back). Next, the bottle is evaluated. The more experienced drinkers will offer thumbs up, while the one hosting the event begs for compliments. Then the seal is broken and the Bai Jiu flows like water.

Here it is apt to make a fluid comparison because Bai Jiu, being colorless, does in fact look like water. Smells much stronger, though. The water comparison is only visual.

Depending on the size of the party, everyone either stands (large group) or simply raises their glass (small group). A toast is made and a challenge is launched. He/she who drains their glass holds it upside down, allegedly to prove the depth of sincerity at the toast they just made. At least I think that’s the case. I’m still learning about the drinking culture over here. From what I’ve been given to understand I’m failing miserably at Bai Jiu drinking because I’ve yet to drain a full glass in one chug. My failure aside, cheers go ‘round for the hearty drinkers, and thus the party is launched. Fortunately, after that first disdainful assessment of my drinking ability – or, more aptly ‘inability’, I’m left alone to sip – SLOWLY, my little bit of booze. The party goes on around me, full force.

I’ve only experienced red wine in two settings: over dinner at someone’s home and in a tourist bar at the hotel we were staying at. Both times the wine was served with a decorum diametrically opposite to the rowdiness of Bai Jiu. It is neither polite nor expected to drink more than one glass of wine.

What would the average Chinese make of the drink culture in America? What would he/she say when informed a single cocktail costs more than a whole case of the best Bai Jiu?

If the success of such companies as Starbucks is any indication, I’d say at least the younger, hip crowd would be willing to take it on. At such establishments it is not uncommon to see this trendy group spend over 100Yuan on a beverage and snack, and then leave half the food uneaten and a generous serving of drink behind. It seems they are already bored with the cosmopolitan experience of being seen in such a venue and spending outrageous amounts, only to waste half of their gains. There is a good chance they are looking for the next ‘high’, ready to arrive at and cross the next ‘western’ frontier. Could a fully stocked bar be it? 

Western liquors are available for sale here, primarily at Metro. Walmart is taking a slice of that pie now too: their redesigned stores boast a section that resembles a wine cellar, complete with dark paneling and subdued lighting. It is not targeted solely toward the expat demographic. Outside of these types of ostentatious display, I’ve seen (and bought) Bacardi Breezers at mainstream Chinese grocery stores, as far back as the first few months after arriving here. NOTE: one can buy Bai Jiu, Hong Jiu (red wine) and beer at any grocery store.

My very first trip to Metro I splurged on a small bottle of Baileys’ Irish Cream: 75Yuan. Of course, Sam had to try it (at my insistence). He did not remark favorably. The texture and taste was too strange for him. Based on his reaction and on my drinking experiences with the Chinese I’m guessing that an American style full bar with top-shelf liquor and mixed drinks might find it hard to gain a foothold over here.   

But… non-drinker that I am and so far out of mainstream, who am I to say?                        

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