Alcohol is at once a commodity and a chemical compound, a poison and an intoxicating source of pleasure. In early 20th century Shanghai, an epidemic of foreign and local wines laced with new forms of imported industrial alcohols (known colloquially as huojiu or "firewine") sparked widespread calls for regulation. Yet despite a raft of food and drug laws in many countries around the turn of the century, leading chemical experts disagreed on the exact effects of different toxins in various forms of alcohol. In short, it was not yet clear what trace substances could turn a drink into an inedible poison. Contextualizing Shanghai's case within a larger global quandary concerning the regulation of food and beverages, this paper uses the elusivity of any stable definition of huojiu in period sources to argue for the importance of local politics and commercial gain in constructing chemical testing regimes in China and elsewhere during the Republican era. The absence of scientific consensus led to fierce public debate concerning the best way to regulate alcohol to protect Chinese citizens. Some claimed only locally produced, time-tested Chinese forms of alcohol could be trusted; others argued that only standardized "hygienic" liquors produced industrially were suitable for the market; yet others looked to temperance movements in Russia, the US, and UK to argue that alcohol, just like opium, should be banned for the good of the nation.