By: Tod Stewart
That’s likely the answer you’ll get if you ask any spirits aficionado—and even a few distillers—what is the world’s most popular spirit. Though whiskey would have been a better guess, neither of these categories combined can hold a candle to one that you may never have heard of, namely, baijiu, China’s “white alcohol.”
You probably don’t see it advertised in North American magazines, on roadside billboards or as a sponsor of entertainment or sporting events. But baijiu’s lack of visibility in no way diminishes its incredible sales perfor-mance. A glance at the 2021 Brand Finance report on global spirits shows that baijiu brands captured the five top slots in terms of brand value. And though “popular” may mean different things to different people, most who make a living distilling would likely prefer high revenues over high visibility. The top baijiu brand—Kweichow Moutai—generated an eye-popping USD 45 million in sales in 2021. The next one down, Wuliang-ye, pulled in a modest $26 million or so. It’s not until you work your way to the sixth spot that you hit some-thing recognizable—Jack Daniel’s. Sales generated? Close to four million dollars in 2021. Nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but pretty much chump change compared to Moutai or Wuliangye.
One reason China’s national spirit flies under the radar of most Western hooch lovers is simple: About 99% of the volume distilled never leaves its homeland. Another is likely that, to the uninitiated, baijiu’s aromatic and flavor profile is decidedly alien, but we’ll get to that. Also, the stuff isn’t cheap, with the most coveted bottles selling for hundreds of dollars. A few go for well over 1,000 Canadian dollars.
In its homeland, baijiu flows like a river through birthdays, weddings, national celebrations and even diplomat-ic encounters. It was baijiu, after all, that helped thaw the ice during the somewhat tense Sino-American ne-gotiations of the 1970s. President Richard Nixon raised a glass, possibly two, in an historic toast with Chinese Primier Zhou Enlai in 1972. Margaret Thatcher was treated to a round of it upon conceding Hong Kong back to China. At one point, baijiu consumption by Chinese government officials got so out of hand that in 2012 President Xi Jinping ushered in austerity measures to prevent copious amounts of public funds from turning into copious expenditures on baijiu. In China today, baijiu enjoys a fanbase that runs into the hundreds of mil-lions who actively consume most of the billions of liters distilled every year, so why even bother with an ex-port market?
Okay, so it’s historic and popular, and expensive. But what the heck is it, exactly?
Pronounced “bye-jeeoh,” baijiu is a clear spirit distilled primarily from sorghum, a hearty, drought-resistant grain of African origin. What makes it particularly useful in spirit production is its easy gelatinization—a fancy term for the breakdown of starch into a paste when steamed. (It can also be particularly useful in generating triple-word scores in Scrabble). Rice, glutinous rice, wheat, millet, peas and corn can also find their way into the mix. These are not the ingredients most international distillers would even contemplate using, with the ex-ception of corn. But if the ingredients seem a bit unconventional, it’s the distillation and aging of the spirit that raise the most eyebrows.
The process that most of us are familiar with typically starts as a two-phase endeavor. For example, in whis-key making, grains are first subject to saccharification (another potentially winning Scrabble entry)—the con-version of starch to sugar. Yeast is then introduced to convert the sugar to alcohol before being distilled.
In baijiu production, this becomes a one-step operation thanks to the use of jiuqu or just qu (pronounced “chew”). Qu is an interesting little beast. For those who know the ins and outs of sake brewing, qu in baijiu making can be likened to koji in sake brewing—both are fermentation starters, and they both result in what is referred to as “solid-state” fermentation. There is plenty of scholarly material floating around the internet for those curious about the process (or are having trouble sleeping). Suffice to say that it incorporates a solid ra-ther than a liquid fermentation catalyst (solid-state fermentation vs. submerged fermentation). The “solid,” in this case, is qu.
Writer’s note: I should pause a moment here to say that what I’m describing next refers to grain-based “big qu.” There’s also a rice-based “little qu.” The ingredients differ, but the use of each and the end results are similar.
Qu typically starts its life as a paste made from clumps of moistened grain. When raised in the proper envi-ronment, these clumps attract wild yeasts, bacteria, and assorted microorganisms from the air. Fashioned into bricks, the qu—having generated considerable heat (up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit) during the microbe infestation period—are cooled for several weeks before sitting in storage for a few months to maximize flavor. In the baijiu fermentation process, ground grains are soaked, and crumbled qu added. The enzymes in the qu convert the grain’s starches to sugar. The yeast in the qu then converts the sugar into alcohol. The fermented grains are then distilled—a process that involves forcing steam through the grains and collecting the concen-trated alcohol. This process is repeated, with each batch stored separately. Aging typically takes place in clay pots, sometimes buried underground (fermentation often takes place in underground clay vessels as well). In the final process, various batches of aged baijiu are married together. In some cases, up to 200 different batches make the end product.
Okay, so what’s the result of all this toil? Upon their first nosing and sip, Baijiu newbies may wonder why so much time and effort went into creating something so, well, “unusual” (I’m refraining from using more descrip-tive language here). Baijiu is a complex spirit, no question there. The real question is whether or not you have any hope of warming to the sort of complexity baijiu offers.
First, it’s helpful to know that baijiu “styles” are defined aromatically and fall into four broad categories: light aroma, rice aroma, sauce aroma and strong aroma. These are pretty self-explanatory, but you probably won’t be able to figure out which is which by looking at the label, even if you can read Mandarin. Of these, the most popular—and probably the most challenging to the new-to-baijiu crowd—is the strong aroma variety. I’ve tried a few of these, including Wuliangye and Yanghe, and, personally, find them a bit tough to describe. Funky, fruity, fishy, earthy: To some, fascinating, maybe not so much to others.
I’ve also tried a few in the sauce aroma category, including the famed Kweichow Moutai. While I wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to get up early to secure a bottle, I’ll admit I found Moutai to be rather pleasant—in an “I have never tasted a spirit that even came close to something like this,” pleasant. With its penetrating soy sauce, herbs and fermented bean aromas and flavors, it’s a savory, slightly salty, and certainly distinctive tip-ple. For those into the umami-rich profile of nato, soy sauce, kimchi, miso and other fermented delicacies, sauce aroma baijiu might be your next thing.
A note of caution: Baijiu is potent stuff, typically bottled well over 40% ABV. The traditional Chinese way of toasting with it involves a rather complex ritual, culminating in the knocking back—or more accurately, re-peatedly knocking back—of thimble-sized glasses of the clear liquor amidst cries of “ganbei!” which trans-lates, somewhat loosely, as “bottoms up!”
On that note, I wish you ganbei and good luck in your exploration of a new adventure in the spirits world!