Diageo wants to sell Westerners the “disgusting” firewater Chinese officials are no longer allowed to receive

Instead of trying to sell baijiu to Westerners, Diageo should aim its marketing at the likes of this guy.
Instead of trying to sell baijiu to Westerners, Diageo should aim its marketing at the likes of this guy.
Image: AP Photo/Greg Baker
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Baijiu, or “liquid razor blades” as it was once described, is an eye-wateringly strong grain liquor that Chinese officials often toast with at the regular banquets they do not pay for themselves.

Now that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is cracking down on official corruption and excessive banqueting, baijiu sales are falling. So the Chinese unit of Diageo that makes the white spirit is looking to go international. According to Bloomberg, Diageo’s Sichuan Swellfun division now aims to get 40% of its sales from abroad, up from a current 10%. It will market initially to Chinese travelers and overseas Chinese, but also plans to sell Westerners on the white spirit.

That could be tough to swallow. Outside China, the common perception of the liquor is that it is revolting. Chinese business people love it, but Western executives generally dread the evening banquets they’re expected to attend, where they are forced to drain shots of baijiu to repeated cries of “gan bei!”, which means “drink it all!”

As satirical Chinese website the China Daily Show outlines here, baijiu is “best enjoyed when completely drunk.”

“It is too strong and reminds me of paint thinner, says George Kade, a 39 year old half-Chinese pilot and Singapore native. “For an overseas Chinese brought up in France or the US who is used to beer and wine, baijiu would be far outside their comfort zone.”

So while it seems unlikely the Chinese liquor will gain the cross-cultural appeal of sake or tequila, Diageo’s move could be a good sign for Chinese politics. While cynics dismiss Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive as populist posturing, the fact that a huge and well informed multinational is taking him seriously shows the popular expectation in China is that the nation’s graft riddled bureaucracy could really, this time, be about to change.