With an alcohol content sometimes as high as 70 percent, baijiu is clearly not for the faint-hearted. Yet, the 5,000-year-old spirit is China’s national drink. Bottles of the heady, strong liquor can be found at nearly any event in China — government banquets, weddings, business meetings, and even birthday parties.
“[Chinese people] can’t do without baijiu. It’s something we can’t live without,” says Shao Jiayan, a master blender at Jiangji Distillery in Chongqing, who produces one of China’s most popular brands, Jiangxiaobai.
What is baijiu?
Baijiu is a distilled spirit known for being transparent and either slightly yellow or colorless. It is made from grains, most commonly sorghum, a type of cereal.
“The thing about baijiu is that any traditional distilled spirit that's made in China is called baijiu,” says Derek Sandhaus, the co-founder of Ming River Sichuan Baijiu, a brand he co-created with one of China’s oldest distilleries, Luzhou Laojiao. Sandhaus’ company mostly markets his baijiu to overseas buyers.
“The way people should probably think about baijiu is that it's basically just the Chinese word for liquor,” he says.
But baijiu can typically be classified under four categories: Light, strong, sauce aroma, and rice aroma.
A light-style baijiu usually comes from northeast China. It is traditionally fermented in stone jars or mud pits that are dug out of the ground. With a shorter production cycle, this category of baijiu is typically cheaper. Jiangji Distillery’s Jiangxiaobai is a type of light-style baijiu.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is strong aroma baijiu, which is closely linked with the Sichuan Province. It tastes funky, pungent and pairs well with the spicy numbing flavors of the region's cuisine. It is the most popular type of baijiu in China in terms of market share and volume, making up more than 70 percent of the country’s baijiu market, according to Sandhaus’ estimates. Luzhou Laojiao, Wuliangye and Jiannanchun are among the most well-known brands that make strong aroma baijiu.
Sauce aroma baijiu contains the savory, umami-like flavor found in soy sauce, along with caramel, coffee, and chocolate-like notes. It is synonymous with the town of Maotai, where the famous Kweichow Moutai baijiu is made. “I don't think it's like anything that can be found outside of China,” Sandhaus says. Langjiu and Guotai are some of the other brands that make sauce aroma baijiu.
Rice aroma baijiu comes from southeastern China. It is distilled from rice and tastes mellow and mild compared to the other types of baijiu. Sandhaus likens the taste to Japanese sake, vodka, or Korean soju. Guilin Sanhua and JiuJiang are some of the most famous rice aroma baijiu makers in China.
The Liquor Golden Triangle
Although there are baijiu producers all across China, the most famous makers are in an area called the liquor golden triangle, which joins three cities in southwestern China — Luzhou, Yibin and Zunyi.
This area has more distilleries than any other part of the country, and hosts some of China’s most famous baijiu brands, including Kweichow Moutai and Luzhou Laojiao.
“It’s due to the region’s temperature and atmospheric climate. The sufficient sunlight, abundant water, and the abundant nutrients in the soil allows us to grow the best quality red sorghum there is to make baijiu,” says Shao.
Inside a baijiu factory
There are three ingredients that go in every single baijiu: Grains, water and a special ingredient called qu (曲), which is the microorganism cultures that are harvested on the surface of the grains.
“This is a technique that the Chinese invented somewhere between 3,000 and 1,000 BC, whereby if you mix grains together with water and then let them dry out in a controlled environment, you will absorb whatever microorganisms live in the air and then you can mix those microorganisms together with fresh grains to start fermentation,” Sandhaus explains.
This process of fermentation converts starch into sugars, and then converts sugars into alcohol.
After sprinkling the qu onto the raw sorghum, the grains are steamed to create a mash. The sorghum mash is then left to ferment for several months in the mud pits.
“They use the pit over and over again. So the same mash will have fresh sorghum fed into it after every cycle of fermentation. It's almost like a sourdough starter where they condition the mash over time with a fermentation pit,” Sandhaus points out.
Once ready, the baijiu is distilled and left to age in huge jars. At this point, a master blender will make adjustments to the young baijiu and it goes through a round of quality checks before it gets bottled.
“We smell the aroma. Does its natural aroma seem refined? Is it what we want? Then, we taste the baijiu. A good baijiu should have a smooth sensation when you drink it. It should taste clean and refreshing,” says Shao.