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China booze maker urges U.S. 'bottoms up!'

A Chinese distiller says its fiery sorghum spirit "Erguotou" is leaping the cultural divide, and making inroads into the American market.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stand aside, Smirnoff. Keep on walking, Johnnie. Erguotou, China’s fiery national spirit, is on its way to America.

Six hundred bottles of a superior blend of the clear liquor native to Beijing will be shipped to a Los Angeles-based agent next week, according to Zhang Jian, a member of the international trade department of distiller Red Star Holding Co. Ltd.

That follows successful sales of a test shipment of Superior Erguotou in the United States at Christmas, Zhang said. The company also sells its less expensive ordinary Erguotou in the United States and other foreign countries, most of which is bought by Chinese restaurants and grocery stores, she said.

Zhang wouldn’t give the name of the U.S. distributor, and news reports said company officials were keeping it a secret.

Erguotou, whose name translates roughly as “twice-distilled spirits,” is the best known of thousands of brands of Chinese sorghum spirit known as “baijiu,” or white liquor.

104 proof
Drinking the 104-proof booze — accompanied by spicy food and shouts of “ganbei!”, or “dry glass!” — is a national tradition.

It’s especially so in northern China, whose natives assume a tougher persona than their rice wine-drinking southern compatriots. Pocket-sized bottles of the stuff retail for the equivalent of 60 U.S. cents and are fixtures at smoky restaurant lunches attended by boisterous Chinese males.

While Erguotou’s sickly-sweet taste and wicked kick may be familiar to business travelers to China, it has yet to catch on overseas. Erguotou already exports to more than 10 countries and regions, but foreign sales account for just a tiny fraction of Red Star’s $64 million in annual sales, Zhang said.

“Even when it’s sold overseas, most of it gets drunk by Chinese people,” Zhang said.

Superior Erguotou is a gussied-up version of the ordinary drink, blended to be smoother and sold in a fancy porcelain bottle to suit the Chinese taste for giving expensive liquor as a gift.

Zhang said she didn’t have detailed information on U.S. marketing plans. Superior Erguotou sells for $22 wholesale in China.