This fall, Nebraska farmers are expected to harvest 21.6 million bushels of sorghum, up 64% from last year. While sorghum is also experiencing a renaissance in the US, much of the surge in demand is coming from China. With genetically modified corn imports temporarily banned in China, growers in corn producing states like Nebraska turned to sorghum instead, which is under no such restrictions. Already being grown in Kansas, increasingly for export to China, the small grain is used in the country’s national liquor, a grain alcohol known as baijiu.
Baijiu has a rich cultural history, dating back a thousand years, to the Song and Yuan dynasties, when foreign distilling techniques were applied to Chinese sorghum winemaking. In more recent history, baijiu has been the drink of choice for businessmen, generals, and famously for statesmen like Premier Zhou Enlai and President Richard Nixon.
While demand for baijiu, and thus for sorghum from places like Nebraska from which to distill it, remains high, China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign has meant fewer celebratory banquets and fewer bottles of baijiu consumed. Consequently, China’s baijiu makers are increasingly marketing their products to American consumers. They enter a small but passionate domestic baijiu market pioneered by distillers and distributors including Bye Joe, Vinn, and Confucius Wisdom, already at work promoting and tweaking the notoriously strong spirit for American consumption.
As baijiu gains a foothold in the cocktail bars of New York and Portland, interaction between sorghum growers and baijiu distillers has grown. Cooperation between Chinese and American baijiu companies is epitomized in the establishment of World Baijiu Day, the brainchild of Beijing resident and blogger Jim Boyce. With Chinese and American companies participating in events at venues around the globe, World Baijiu Day reflects the growing demand for the distinctive spirit and the grain from which it is distilled.
Anna Scott Bell is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and an MA Candidate in Asian Studies at Georgetown University.