Can you spot the celebrities at this Moutai baijiu event in Los Angeles? Photo via Twitter.
Can you spot the celebrities at this Moutai baijiu event in Los Angeles? Photo via Twitter.

Who wouldn’t like to be a star for a day? Two young American stuntmen were unexpectedly put in the spotlight after a Chinese liquor brand recently got carried away in a press statement after a night of free boozing.

Moutai, China’s leading maker of “baijiu” – a strong white liquor distilled from fermented sorghum – is aiming to export its infamous firewater to overseas markets, including the US.

To launch its Moutai World Fan Club, a new platform for baijiu enthusiasts, it organized a celebrity event at an Asian restaurant in Los Angeles last month.

Inviting celebrities to sponsored events is nothing new. You’ve seen it before: Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow, dressed up in tuxedo and evening gown, are casually mingling and cheek kissing with other superstars while posing for the cameras with dazzling white smiles, with company logos flashing in the background.

The Chinese liquor brand, owned by state-controlled Kweichow Moutai Company, proudly proclaimed in a statement that “the activity attracted many Hollywood stars” and that its alcohol “received high praise from Hollywood”. Social media posts boosted about how “local stars” made the event a success.

Reading through its statement, and scanning its social media, it was however hard to understand which stars and celebrities the company was referring to. It was actually hard to recognize any famous actor at all. After googling names mentioned in the press release, I eventually found guests connected to the movie industry: two young men who work as stuntmen and uncredited background extras.

I’m sure the guys were happy for an evening of free boozing, but I’m not convinced their comments qualify as “high praise from Hollywood”.

And in terms of media coverage, the event has received not one single news article (except this one) and its social media posts are more or less dead. Not the response one would expect from a glamorous happening with Hollywood stars.

In defense of the organizers, promoting baijiu abroad is a challenge.
The 1,000-year-old drink is the world’s most consumed form of liquor thanks to its popularity in China. But while Japan has been successful in promoting its Shochu and Mexico’s Tequila is to be found everywhere, baijiu has been struggling to attract consumers abroad.
The reason is its taste.

It tends to make a terrible first impression. It smells like fuel and tastes like nail polish remover. (Or was it the other way around?) The aftertaste is just as ghastly, at least for an untrained non-Chinese tongue.

Indeed, first time I had it I almost vomited.

It was partly my own fault. I had bought the cheapest bottle of the stuff I could find at a convenience store in Shenzhen and swigged it together with my brother in a hotel room. But also expensive brands that I tried later on, during dinners with Chinese businessmen and politicians, have made me shiver just by the smell of it.

A woman restocks shelves with baijiu. Photo: Reuters

Reviewers online almost compete in describing its distinctive taste.
“I’ve actually seen people taste it and judder their heads with surprised disgust, as if hoping to shake the memory loose”, journalist David Volodzko wrote in a piece for the Diplomat titled “Why Does Chinese Alcohol Taste So Awful?”

A reporter for Food & Wine wrote: “This is going to sound unappetizing, but there is definitely something rotten about it”.

“I thought it tasted like paint-thinner and felt like a liquid lobotomy,” Michael Pareles, manager at the U.S. Meat Export Federation in Beijing, told Reuters. “However, like many other things in China, I eventually grew to like it.”

Also at the Moutai World Fan Club party, participants seemed to grow a liking for the Chinese liquor as their glasses were refilled over and over again.

The statement explained: “Guests began to drink happily and more freely after their first careful tastes”, and that the night “quickly became a celebration and a series of heartfelt toasts as more and more people raised their glasses to exclaim ‘Ganbei!’, the traditional toast of China”.

Stunt performer Justin Eaton first felt the taste a bit strong. But after two or three drinks, the statement continued, he remarked that the taste became very smooth and not as strong as he had first imagined.

“I feel I’ve fallen into its unique taste,” he was quoted as saying.
Fellow stuntman and martial arts expert Travis Wong said it tasted “great”.

Their comments made me wonder whether the event coordinator is cleverer than I first thought. Perhaps it takes a real stuntman, unafraid of setting himself aflame, to enjoy this notorious firewater.