The people who prefer spirits over other alcoholic categories like beer and wine make that claim because they enjoy biting strength and complex flavours and aromas that can take an entire evening to unravel. But in the face of China’s baijiu, even the steeliest nose and palate may falter. The country’s (in)famous firewater is the most consumed spirit in the world, but its pungent aroma and sharp character slowed its spread outside of the Middle Kingdom. Not anymore.
Baijiu’s origins are murky, with some estimates citing AD960 as the time that ancient distilled spirits started to resemble modern baijiu. But its past isn’t as exciting as its future. When Futurebrand Index 2018 released its global perception study on how future-proof the world’s top 100 prominent companies were, newcomer Kweichow Moutai came in second, after The Walt Disney Company. It also tied with Apple for first place on the list of companies that create products consumers would pay more for.
And, boy, are they willing to fork out the big bucks. An 80-year-old bottle made by Kweichow Moutai in 1940 was auctioned off last July for 1.97 million yuan (S$395,000). For comparison, an entire case of 1988 Domaine de la Romanee- Conti, one of the most prestigious wines in the world, sold for £264,000 (S$460,000) last March.
Of course, there’s more to baijiu than the partially state-owned Kweichow Moutai brand. Just like whisky and wine, different provinces are known for different styles, and tweaking even one part of the baijiu-making process will yield wholly distinct results. You don’t have to be part of China’s elite to partake in this imposing drink; just keep your portions as humble as your demeanour and ready your senses for the adventure that awaits.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST
Not wanting to let the Chinese hog all the fun, these Western distillers are trying their hand at making their own baijiu.
HOW IT’S MADE
THE NOSE KNOWS
Baijiu styles are categorised by aroma. Here are the main ones to know.
Its lighter, sweeter flavour means rice aroma baijiu are the most accessible for those new to the spirit. Originating from and found almost exclusively in southern China, this type is made with long-grain rice and/or glutinous rice and has a clean aftertaste, making it comparable to Japanese shochu or even sake. It is aged in limestone caves and often infused with medicinal herbs, flowers or tea to give it a sweeter flavour. Lao Guilin and Guilin Sanhua Jiu are popular makers of rice aroma baijiu.
Don’t let the name fool you. Light aroma baijiu might be gentle on the nose but it is typically bottled at a high ABV – 60 per cent ABV is not uncommon in this category. Its main ingredient is sorghum and is traditionally fermented in ceramic jars and distilled in pits. Light aroma baijiu hails from the north, around the Beijing area, and is favoured for its mild, floral sweetness. There are two main sub-divisions: er guo tou from Beijing, and fenjiu from the Shangxi province. The differences lie in the type of qu used.
For a province known for fiery cuisine, it’s not surprising that strong aroma baijiu is most commonly associated with Sichuan. Because it is made with at least two different grains, this type of baijiu exhibits more complex flavours and aromas. Fragrant, well-balanced, and with an almost boundless finish, this style is the biggest category of baijiu by market share and volume and accounts for more than two thirds of all baijiu production. Big names in this category include Luzhou Laojiao, Shui Jing Fang, Jiangnanchun and Yanghe.
So named for having the umami-heavy characteristics of soya sauce, sauce-aroma baijiu is the most labour and resource-intensive style to make, thanks to the need for repeated fermentation. The payoff is a bold, highly fragrant spirit with layers of flavours to discover. It is likely a challenge for baijiu beginners. Unlike strong aroma baijiu, sauce aroma is made using only sorghum and is fermented in stone brick-lined pits instead of mud pits. Kweichow Moutai is synonymous with this style, and its Feitian is one of the most well-known examples of sauce aroma baijiu.