Baijiu, the essentials | Kweichow-ld Fashioned

Baijiu is the most consumed alcohol on earth. What do you know about it?

For foreigners, it is a much dreaded rite of passage they are reluctantly coaxed into when visiting the Middle Kingdom, and the cause of many vicious hangovers the following mornings. But in its homeland, no celebration, wedding, important business meeting or official event would be complete without it. Baijiu, literally ‘white alcohol’, is the national drink of China, which makes it by default the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the world. 55 million cases of baijiu were produced in 2013; that roughly equates to a quarter of the world’s total production of spirits. Despite its status in China, this fiery spirit, often bottled between 50-60% ABV, lives in relative obscurity in the rest of the world: as David Wondrich puts it,

“Baijiu is the dark matter of the spirits world – it pervades everything but we don’t see it.” – David Wondrich

For now. Some predict it’s destined to become a household name, and multinational spirits conglomerates are eager to get a piece of that cake. Still, with its strong, pungent aroma, the road to get baijiu in the mainstream could be a long one, yet stranger things happened: vodka went from being a little-known blue-collar Eastern-European spirit one would sip in a pinch back in the 1920’s, to overtaking gin in the late 1960’s.

Apart from its high potency and unpleasant taste, which some people liken to paint thinner and chemical waste, what makes baijiu intimidating is that it is misunderstood. Baijiu isn’t a single spirit, but a whole family of distillates, as different from one another as Bourbon and Islay Single Malt, with much variation in terms of production, flavor and strength. Until recently, not a lot of information was available to Westerners to make any sense of it. That was until writer/editor Derek Sandhaus’ much-needed Baijiu, The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits (Viking, 2014). Sandhaus, an American expat who spent several years in Shanghai and Chengdu, documented his many experiences (and mishaps) with baijiu on his blog 300 Shots at Greatness. His ambition was to “drink 300 shots of baijiu or die trying,” starting in December 2012, with the hopes that the baijiu-hating foreigner he was could grow into a fan.

Baijiu, The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits
Baijiu, The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits – by Derek Sandhaus

What motivated Sandhaus to hit the bottles was more resignation than curiosity. “If you want to drink with the Chinese, you have to suffer baijiu… or learn to like it.” It is particularly true in a country where alcohol plays an important part in the local culture, and toasting during meals is a way to build relationships. Flashing a bottle of good baijiu at the table is a sign of status, and refusing a drink could be seen as not only as disrespectful, but as an attempt at making the host lose face. In 2009, a Shenzhen police officer who drank himself to death during a dinner with officials was ruled to have died “in the line of duty.” Even the former U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, had to go against his Mormon beliefs and empty his glass down the hatch.

Baijiu Production
Workers shovel stacks of red sorghum to be fermented on the floor into Baijiu, in the 600-year-old Quanxing distillery.

What is Baijiu?

Just like whiskey, baijiu is a grain alcohol, although made from grains more commonly found in Asia and Africa, such as sorghum, millet, rice, glutinous rice and Job’s tears. Wheat and corn are also common, and barley can be used in the fermentation process. Things get stranger during the fermentation: where Western spirits producers macerate the grain into a sugary broth (the wort) fermented with yeasts, baijiu is made through mostly dry fermentation using a combination of yeast and mold. The grains are roughly milled, mixed together if the distiller uses more than one type of grain, moistened just enough to make them clump together, then sprinkled with jiuqu, a fermentation starter made from barley, peas and rice, fermented to a paste and shaped into bricks or smaller balls inoculated with molds and bacteria. The grains are thrown in pits, or just shoveled into stacks on the floors of the distillery, and left to ferment for days, sometimes weeks.

Using jiuqu is a one-step process that allows distillers to produce alcohol directly from grains: molds convert the carbohydrates into sugars, which are in turn transformed directly into alcohol by the yeasts. During this solid-state fermentation, the piles of grains are generally covered with wheat husks to insulate them and support the heat generated by the molds and yeasts, which can reach up to 60° C. Once the ferment is ready, it’s shovelled into a Chinese pot still, where it’s exposed to water vapor very much like dim sum in a bamboo steamer. The alcohol is collected in a condenser, and the heads and tails are cut. Water is added. Most producers choose to age their products for at least 6 months to smooth the rougher edges. They will often use clay vessels.

A breakdown of styles of Baijiu

The choice of grains, the jiuqu, the length of the fermentation, the choice of letting the grain ferment on the floor or in pits, the shape of those pits and how long the baijiu is clay aged – these decisions will impact dramatically the style and the flavor of the end product. The water used also imparts flavor, and several Chinese distilleries set up their operations next to famous water sources.

The main types of baijiu are sorted in “aromas”, the main four being light, strong, sauce and rice.

Just to make things more complicated, rice-aroma baijiu in often infused with fruits, flowers or Chinese traditional medicine. Regional styles have emerged, such as the light-aroma Fenjiu fermented in ceramic jars traditionally made in Northern China. Some excellent examples of light-aroma baijiu are also made in Taiwan.

The different types of baijiu are generally grouped under 4 different families according to their flavor profile, although there are also several other styles such as sesame or “phoenix”, often brand-specific, that fall in-between, or outside the main classic styles.

Classic styles of baijiu have been often associated with specific regions, mainly because of distinct local distilling techniques rather than terroir-specific peculiarities. Geographical lines have started to blur over the last few decades. The main ones are:

  • Strong aroma (Nong-Xiang): the most common baijiu, fiery, intense, sweet and fruity, traditionally from central and Eastern China (Sichuan, Anhui). Fermented in mud pits that inhibit the propagation of microorganisms, in a continuous “sour mash” where part of the previous ferment is mixed with fresh grains to ensure consistency. Made from sorghum, either on its own or mixed with rice and wheat. Brands include Wuliangye and Yunfeng
  • Light aroma (Qing-Xiang): second most common style, very high in alcohol, but lighter in flavor. Linked to Northern China and Taiwan, it comes in two styles: fenjiu / fenchiew (longer fermentation, longer ageing, complex) and erguotou (the spirit of Beijing, cheaper to produce and more plain). Both fermented in ceramic pots, and made from sorghum and rice husks, fermented with peas and barley jiuqu
  • Sauce aroma (Jiang-Xiang): savory, herbaceous aroma often compared to soy sauce, with a sour finish. Originates from central China (Sichuan, Guizhou), time and labor consuming, involving several cycles of distillations and fermentations in brick-lined pits. Made from sorghum. Distilleries include Moutai, Jinzhi and Rouhe.
  • Rice aroma (Mi-Xiang): made from rice and glutinous rice, often infused with fruits, herbs, or other Chinese medicine. The best and purest ones have a delicate floral, sake-like aroma. Associated to Southeast China (Guangdong). Cheaper ones may be distilled in a column still from mijiu, literally translating to “rice wine” made in China, the finest and most flavorful ones go through solid-state distillation.

Burning down the House

Of all baijiu brands, Kweichow Moutai is not only the most famous distillery in China, but one of the few foreigners will recognize. Moutai is a sauce-aroma baijiu, served to ambassadors, diplomats and world leaders by Chinese politicians. It’s forged a reputation of sophistication and power to match its 52% ABV. Kweichow Moutai was poured aplenty during Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic, and it without a doubt helped to break the ice between the two countries whose relations had been frozen for 25 years prior. And apparently it also nearly burned down the White House.

Nixon toasts with Baijiu
Nixon toasts Premier Zhou Enlai with Baijiu, 1972.

During a state dinner, Premier Zhou Enlai taught President Nixon the proper way to knock back servings of Moutai. Nixon told Enlai he heard Moutai was so strong one could light it on fire; Enlai obliged, poured some in a tea-cup and lit it up. Nixon was so impressed he decided he needed to bring two bottles back to Washington to show off his new party trick. Back home in the White House, he poured some Moutai into a bowl on the dining table and lit it up to show his wife, Pat, and his daughter, but the trick didn’t quite work out: soon enough the bowl got too hot and cracked, spilling flaming baijiu all over the tablecloth and setting off the alarms. The fire was quickly contained, but Nixon’s security staff mustn’t have been too impressed with the President.

In 2013, the Chinese government started to crackdown on its officials’ lavish spending after a series of corruption scandals. The move took luxury brands by surprise, and especially baijiu distillers, who had enjoyed years of steady growth selling ultra-premium spirits to officials happy to pass the tab to taxpayers. It hit Kweichow Moutai particularly hard: Bloomberg reported that in 2015 “China’s military and the government account for only about 10 percent of Moutai sales, down from 30 percent two years ago.”

Diageo got hit even harder with their baijiu venture. In 1998, the ruins of an 600-year-old distillery were discovered underneath Chengdu’s Quanxing Distillery during factory renovations, showing furnaces and fermentation pits at various depths stacked on top of one another going back to 1408. Two years later, Quanxing released the ultra-premium Shui Jing Fang baijiu, made from an ancient strain of jiuqu bacteria found living still in one of those buried pits. With a story like that, it was only a matter of time before a multinational comes knocking, and it did in 2010 when Diageo bought a 53% stake of the Shui Jing line for $US 385 millions (1.8 billion RMB). Unfortunately for Diageo, the crackdown of “gifting” means sales have gone down and its investment has now lost two-thirds of its value.

A move towards the mainstream

The silver lining is that baijiu prices have deflated quite significantly these past two years, which means it is more affordable now than it has been in years. This comes at a critical time for the Chinese distilling industry, who has to fight for the first time to win the hearts and minds of a younger generation of Chinese drinkers seduced by Cognac, Scotch and premium vodkas. The Chinese market is also flooded with counterfeit baijiu, and producers have to find new markets abroad to keep up the same levels of sales, and to strengthen the reputation of their brands at home, threatened by the moonshine masquerading as a legitimate premium spirit.

Still, multinationals seem to be confident about the future of baijiu. New products directed at Americans are appearing on the market, such as ByeJoe, a light-aroma spirit with a very unfortunate name, made in China, but bottled in the Texas at a tamer 40% abv (flavored versions also exist). And Goldman Sachs also predicts happier days for Kweichow Moutai: after two years of decline, sales were up again earlier this year, regardless of the current economic situation in China. Affluent Chinese are starting to see the sorghum liquor as something to sip among friends, not just to buy the favor of powerful officials.

Baijiu Shelf
Derek Sandhaus covers 98 different Baijiu in his book, Baijiu: The Essential Guide. Image credit: Angela Tchou

300 shots later

It took Sandhaus about 6 months of heavy drinking to go from hating baijiu, to feeling indifferent about it, to loving it, and according to his blog, he really started to appreciate it as a sipping drink 200 shots into his challenge. Patience paid off: after too many bottoms-ups of cheap, high-ester hooch, Sandhaus finally got to try Luzhou Laojiao’s flagship 1573, a premium brand of strong-aroma baijiu from the Sichuan Province known for its earthen fermenting pits. It was the first baijiu he really enjoyed, and the beginning of a passion. Over the next three years, his blog filled up with baijiu tasting notes, dissertations about different styles, or explanations on how various types of jiuqu are made, and Sandhaus turned into a self-taught reference on Chinese spirits.

His book, concise but informative, gathers all that information in a slim 200-page tome. With how little we know about baijiu, the book could have easily been twice as thick, but Baijiu: The Essential Guide is nevertheless a great stab at documenting it. In the second half of the book, 98 bottles of baijiu are reviewed and explained with tasting notes, as well as a handful of huangjiu (“yellow wine”), the ancestor of baijiu, made exactly the same way, minus the distillation, such as Shaoxing wine. All the most famous distilleries are represented, from Red Star to Wuliangye, and a lot of lesser-known brands are also showcased, such as Kiukiang, a rice baijiu aged with pork fat. If you’re looking to expand your imbibing horizons and are willing to risk a couple of headaches in the process, grab a copy of Sandhaus’ book. Buy a couple of bottles of baijiu. Keep an open mind, and it’ll quickly grow on you. It’s a spirit craft bartenders ought to familiarize with sooner or later.

Baijiu Old Fashioned
Kweichow-ld Fashioned, by Martin Corriveau

Kweichow-ld Fashioned, by Martin Corriveau

2 oz Kweichow Moutai

2 dashes Scrappy’s Orange Bitters

1 sugar cube

Muddle the sugar with the bitters, add the baijiu and stir with ice. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass over ice and garnish with a broad grapefruit peel

 

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