Baijiu goes for the gold

Baijiu goes for the gold
The Oscars inspired a bar at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, to add gold powder to a special cocktail for its awards-viewing party later this month.

But experts have dismissed the idea that gold flakes will add flavor to the spirit or enhance its quality. Mike Peters and Dong Fangyu report.

What do curry, schnapps, bottled water, chocolate, hamburgers, soup, digestive capsules, bagels and lobsters have in common?

All of these edible items have been embellished with gold leaves or gold flakes in recent years, as marketers seek some extra sizzle for their products.

The latest to seek the shiny status is China's distilled white spirit, baijiu, which has seen its sales slide as the government pursues a policy against extravagance and corruption. Industry observers question whether regulators would approve of such a showy step in this climate, though it's a mystery that who has asked the government to approve glittery baijiu-and who might buy it.

Putting gold in alcoholic beverages is currently illegal in China, though such bottles have sporadically popped up on store shelves. In the West, a few gold-flake tipples have been market successes, particularly the cinnamon schnapps Goldschlager and the German herbal liqueur Goldwasser.

Dong Shuguo, the president of website Winechina.cn, a Chinese website, says: "I have seen some sparkling wines and dry white wines with golden flakes, such as Blue Nun. But they are all for decoration.

"Gold flakes will only make the bottle look elegant and pleasing to the eyes. They add nothing to the flavor," he says.

Blue Nun Gold, in fact, was not a luxury product but an effort to appeal to young female drinkers who "like to try something new".

Ignace Lecleir, general manager of the elegant Temple Restaurant Beijing, says that he can't recall any customer asking for a drink with such a golden touch. He is diplomatically noncommittal on the idea, though "it looks pretty ...", he muses with a slight shrug.

Beijing cocktail guru Leon Lee finishes that thought more adamantly: "Gold adds nothing to the value, only to the price, so I don't care for the idea," he says, dismissing it as a gimmick best suited for karaoke bars.

Like other critics of the idea, he says such liquors command a premium price despite containing a minuscule amount of gold.

Ruan Guangfeng, food-safety expert from China Food Information Center, says the proposal would limit the additions to 0.01g of gold per 500g of baijiu.

"The raw material of 99.99-per cent pure gold sells for more than 200 yuan a gram," he adds, "so the value of the gold flakes in one bottle of baijiu may be no more than 2 yuan".

The Beijing News reports that leading Chinese baijiu brands such as Moutai, Wuliangye, Luzhou Laojiao and Xifeng aren't talking about the proposal. However, a dealer who wished to remain anonymous tells China Daily there is no reason for such top brands to alter their formulas and jeopardize their reputations, even if the gold flake is tasteless.

If the proposal is approved, other dealers agree, it may be struggling smaller distillers that try to capitalise on the novelty.

Zhong Kai, associate research fellow with China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment, writes on a popular-science website, Guokr.com: "It's hard to say why it is necessary to add gold flakes, though it's proved to cause no harm within the safety limit and procedure."

Experts have dismissed most rumours about the safety of gold-enhanced liquors. Goldschlager was long-rumored to enter the bloodstream faster than plain schnapps because the gold flakes supposedly made small cuts in the drinker's throat and stomach lining. Experts say gold is too soft to make such cuts, and The Savory blog was quick to ridicule the get-drunk-faster theory as "just one step further from pulling up to a bar, cutting your hand open and pouring whisky into the wound".

The idea of gold-plated baijiu does have fans in some luxury hotels, however. Chocolates decorated with gold are still proffered by top pastry chefs, and gold flakes are likely to swirl in champagne glasses around the world this weekend for Valentine's Day. So why not put some glitter in baijiu?

That's the question embraced by the Taiwan-based biotech firm Gold Nanotech Inc, which announced in late January that it had received notification of compliance from the European Union's food additive regulator for its gold-flake product, which it sells to makers of cosmetics, food and beverages. The certification not only means more credibility in Europe, where most of its customers are based, but in India and China, where it sees most of its growth potential.

"In China, they want to see that other countries have recognised your product first," company president Alex Chen told the trade publication Biotech East. "I believe that the China market will eventually make up more than 80 per cent of GNT's business in Asia."

Most of the blogosphere, however, has yet to be convinced.

"Gold just passes straight through the body," a netizen identified as ToastMe wrote last week. "Why pay extra just to have sparkly poop the next morning?"

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