Alcoholic beverages have a long history in China. Any ethanol based drink is called Jiu (more facts here) and the most famous stuff comes from Shaoxing in Zhejiang province although I wasn’t that impressed with what the stuff I tried there, it was like drinking distilled dry leaves. However, the bottle with the red label that you buy in Chinese supermarkets for cooking generally comes from Shaoxing. My favourite brand that I’ve come across so far is Mao Tai, a rice wine of about 40%, from Renhuai in Guizhou.
Jiu is served in thimble size glasses. When drinking with Chinese friends it is traditional to toast one another and thank each other for favours done. If glasses actually touch, you should down all the contents in one whilst shouting ‘gambei’ (empty glass) and show each other the bottom of the upturned receptacle. If you want to avoid getting out of it too quickly then don’t touch glasses, which is what many Chinese women do, if they drink at all. It shows respect to your toastee to place your glass lower than theirs when toasting. Juniors should always pour for their seniors.
Most business deals end with a celebratory drinking party where it can be necessary to toast a lot of people over the course of the evening. Whilst helping to carry my manager out of a private restaurant room after such an event, he informed us that a friend of his had actually died of liver failure in similar circumstances. A salutary tale for anyone thinking of doing business in China!
Personally I’d stick with beer and Jiu as I’m not convince of the quality of the grape wine, although it is improving apparently. The best local tipple is Great Wall Red but I think it’s overpriced, over hyped and not very good. However, according to Ken Hom who I heard on the radio discussing this subject, it’s now becoming more common for wealthier Chinese to drink wine with their food. Wine imports are growing year on year and there is huge potential for the Chinese market in the future.