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Enter the Dragon: A Beginner's Guide to Baijiu, China's Firebreathing Elixir

 


Henry Kissinger once remarked, “if we drink enough Moutai, we can solve anything.

For the uninitiated, Moutai is one of the most popular and iconic brands of baijiu. Often referred to as the national spirit of China, Baijiu is a potent liquor that has been enjoyed for centuries.

Yet Baijiu still suffers from a PR problem amongst many Western and even non-Chinese Asian drinkers. It’s said to be some sort of “firewater” that would burn one’s throat. Many a foreigner shuddered at the thought of having to drink the moonshine to satisfy their Chinese business partners. But we have perhaps been judging Baijiu by the wrong standards.

In this beginner's guide, we'll demystify Baijiu, exploring what it is, how it's made, the different types available, and even some fun facts to impress your friends.


What is Baijiu?

Baijiu is… well, think of it as the Chinese answer to Haitian white rhum (clairin) or unaged mezcal. It is a colourless spirit intense in its aroma and flavours.

Interestingly, Baijiu was originally known as Shaojiu (燒酒), a term written with characters nearly identical to those of Japanese Shochu (焼酎) and Korean Soju (燒酒). Yet the 3 families of spirits have radically different taste profiles, production and history.

How is Baijiu made?

Baijiu is made by fermenting cooked Chinese great millet (高粱) along with starter yeast and microbes to create sugars and alcohol, before distilling the fermented grain mixture many times over.

 

Boiled great millet or sorghum resembles boiled barley.

Interestingly, while whiskies, rums, brandy, shochu and other spirits are distilled from an aqueous mixture of grain soup or filtered malt extract, Baijiu is distilled from a damp soil-like mixture of great millet grains. 

During distillation, hot steam is passed through the fermented grains, extracting flavour and aroma compounds, which are then condensed in a cooling tower. The distillate is then tasted for quality, blended, and aged in sealed ceramic jars for about 3 to 4 years to allow the alcohol to “breathe”.

 

The aged distillate is then tasted by master blenders and blended. At Moutai Distillery for instance, the blending process is particularly elaborate. Up to 200 batches of distillates get tasted and blended to create the desirable flavour and texture of Moutai.

The Four Basic Baijiu Aromas: And Which to Try!

There are 4 major flavour categories of Baijiu. In China, these 4 categories are referred to as the “Four Basic Aromas”.

New drinkers should look out for the Four Basic Aromas, and try a good Baijiu from each category. 

1.  Sauce Aroma (酱香) Baijiu

First, there is the Sauce Aroma (酱香) Baijiu. These Baijiu are some of the most complex, with sweet and umami notes reminiscent of Japanese teriyaki sauce, Chinese sweet sauce or soy sauce.

The famous Moutai (茅台) is widely regarded as the exemplar of Sauce Aroma Baijiu. How does it taste? It opens with fresh aromas of Chinese soy sauce, with a complex palate of ripe fruits, florals, cereal and yeast. This is followed by more notes of soy sauce.

Alternatively, Yipin Jingzhi (一品景芝) is one such producer. It prides itself for developing the “Sesame Aroma” (芝麻香) Baijiu – a sub-category of Sauce Aroma Baijiu. The mash is fermented at more intense temperatures and for a shorter duration. The result is a soy sauce note with muted notes of fruit, but tasty and distinctive notes of roasted sesame.

2.  Strong Aroma (浓香) Baijiu

Next, there’s the Strong Aroma (浓香) Baijiu, the most widely-sold Baijiu in China. Without a doubt, these Baijiu have the most intense flavour profiles, often having a robust body with potent notes of overripe tropical fruit (something of a banana or pink guava funk), and the spiciness of star anise and white pepper. 

The secret to the intensity and sweetness lies in the fermentation process. Strong Aroma Baijiu are made from grains fermented for several months at a time in massive earthen pits dug out of the ground.

Luzhou Laojiao (泸州老窖) is the most popular brand of Strong Aroma Baijiu. The distillery runs a fermentation pits that recycle fermented residue from prior fermentations to maintain a perpetual cycle of continues fermentation – this is believed to improve flavour complexity.

Another famous brand of Strong Aroma Baijiu is Wuliangye (五粮液), which is made using 5 types of grains – Chinese great millet, rice, glutinous rice, wheat and corn. This brand is known for its more pungent aroma with strong notes of fresh pineapples and a mild dryness towards the end.

3. Light Aroma (清香) Baijiu

The third big category is known as Light Aroma (清香) Baijiu. These Baijiu tend to be fruity, floral with light overtones of an industrial solvent-like aroma, and a light, sprightly profile. Light Aroma Baijiu tend to take a slightly shorter period of time to produce of about six months, making this a more affordable category of Baijiu for the general populace.

One of the most highly-rated brands in this category is Fenjiu (汾酒), which is produced in the cool mountainous regions of Shaanxi Province. This results in one of the purest and cleanest-tasting Baijiu with a sweet, mellow and refreshing taste.

3.  Rice Aroma (米香) Baijiu

Finally, there are the Rice Aroma (米香) Baijiu. While most other categories of Baijiu are distilled with a component of Chinese Great Millet, Rice Aroma Baijiu are distilled from long-grain rice or glutinous rice, before fermentation rice-based fermentation start (similar to koji used for Japanese Shochu). The distillation and aging process sometimes gives it a light yellow shade. Rice Aroma Baijiu are typically smooth and mildly sweet, somewhat reminiscent of Japanese Saké.

The most famous brand in this category is Sanhuajiu (三花酒) which is made in the beautiful mountainous region of Guilin. This brand of Baijiu is made with steamed rice, then infused with Chinese medicinal herbs. The result is a spirit with a mellow sweetness, notes of rice and a distinctively Chinese herbaceous aroma.

 

With joy, luck and a fiery shot of baijiu,

 

@CharsiuCharlie