Baijiu is the drink of choice in China—and in turn the world’s most consumed spirit. It is by a long shot, too, with more than twice the amount of baijiu drunk every year compared with vodka in distant second.
Baijiu is a complex, intense drink and one that often poses a challenge to new drinkers, scared off by its high alcohol percentage, funky flavors, and the warnings of others who have had unhappy initial encounters (often with poor-quality baijiu, or pressed to overdrink in some social settings).
It’s safe to say that learning to like and understand baijiu is a journey for most. But it is a journey worth embarking on.
Why we should care?
If you’re in China, baijiu is an important part of social, familial, and business functions. It’s quite unavoidable. But if you’re a food geek, baijiu is completely unique to all other spirits, and it’s fascinating to ruminate about the creation of the liquor’s unexpected and potent flavors. After all, the world’s most consumed spirit must hold something in there, even if it takes a little effort to find.
How baijiu is made
More than a specific spirit, baijiu is actually a style of alcohol that can be made in multiple ways and from multiple ingredients. There is a huge diversity of liquors within the category of baijiu.
To somewhat oversimplify things, most spirits are made by converting grain (or fruit) into sugar. That sugar is turned into alcohol.
The first step is called saccharification, and the second is fermentation. In the second step, water is added to the sugary grains to create an environment in which yeast is best able to ferment the sugars and create alcohol.
Finally, to become a spirit, the alcohol must be distilled. In the case of baijiu, it happens by boiling the boozey slurry.
All baijiu, however, is made in a completely different way that uses solid-state fermentation and subsequently solid-state distillation.
A few thousand years ago, something called qu was developed in China. This is a block of dozens of kinds of wild yeast and bacteria that are able to perform the saccharification and fermentation of steamed grains in a single step, without the addition of water.
Not only is this a process unique to baijiu, but it has a significant effect on the flavors. While the wild yeasts perform their unquantifiable magic, one of the biggest differences may occur in the next step: solid-state distillation.
In this form, steam must be passed through the grains to capture the alcohol and transport it to the condenser where it becomes a liquid. In doing so, the grains get heated to a higher temperature than they ever would in liquid distillation. This allows the chemical compounds—and thus flavors—to come to life in a way they are in no other alcohols.
You literally distill new flavors out of the grains, and these can be funky, fruity, and sweet in unexpected ways.
Distillation = bai
The word baijiu itself often gets translated as white, or clear, liquor. Bai implies distillation, as opposed to other alcohols like huangjiu (yellow liquor) which are undistilled.
That’s why any liquor that’s solid-state fermented and distilled could be classified as a baijiu. But while baijiu can technically be made from any grain, you’ll find baijiu makers predominantly rely on sorghum, a grain that made its way from Africa to Asia more than 5,000 years ago.
Sorghum has a very high sugar content. It is cheaper than rice and not eaten as often as rice, so it became a natural choice for liquor making in ancient China. Sorghum itself has a unique sweet flavor that we are not used to seeing in other spirits.
Basic types of baijiu
There are over 60 official types of baijiu, categorized by their “aromas,” and many more if you include different types of homemade brews around the country.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the four main baijiu styles, each unique to a particular region of China, and representative of the terroir of that region.
This is the original baijiu and comes from southern Sichuan province. It is made from a combination of grains, relying predominantly on sorghum but also incorporating corn, wheat, rice, and sticky rice into the mash.
To get the stronger aroma, makers use a wheat-based qu that is fermented underground in mud pits for 90 to more than 100 days.
Two things make this type of baijiu particularly unique and fascinating. First, the mud pits become inhabited by the yeasts in the qu, which continue to grow and multiply over time.
Second, parts of the used grains from each batch are added back into the pit with fresh grains after each distillation, creating what is known as the “never-ending mash.” In Sichuan, you have pits that have been in continual use for hundreds of years (one particularly old one has been in use for 1,500 years).
These contain hundreds or thousands of live yeasts and bacteria that interact with each set of grains. New pits literally have no culture, and so a distillery’s history directly affects its quality and perceived value.
Notable brands: Wuliangye, Shede, and Jiannanchun
This type of baijiu comes from northeastern China and is made primarily out of sorghum, but with a barley or wheat bran qu, sometimes with the addition of peas. It is fermented in smaller, concrete or earthenware containers, and has a fermentation period of around 60 days at a time. It is known to have a more crisp and clear flavor, but still with deep funky undertones.
Notable brands: Fenjiu and Hongxing Erguotou
Sauce aroma has gained incredible popularity through the rise of Maotai since Zhou Enlai’s patronage made it the drink of choice for the Communist Party.
Maotai itself can be seen as a status symbol (because of its bottle price), but this style of baijiu has a very deep, complex umami flavor that is harder to dissect for the uninitiated.
It is made as well from sorghum, with a wheat-based qu in brick-lined pits, originally in northern Guizhou province. The fermentation period is approximately one month, and a batch is made each month for 9 or 10 months with some used grains being added back into the pits from the last batch each month.
The batches are aged separately and then combined together to create each year’s baijiu. It’s called “sauce aroma” because of its salty, umami soy sauce-like aftertaste and its oily soft finish.
This is a great example of the qu and solid-state distillation process creating bold and unexpected flavors from basically just sorghum.
Notable brands: Maotai, Langjiu
While so far it might just all seem like a lot of sorghum, the flavors and aromas of each style are immensely different. The rice aroma strays from the sorghum road, using—you guessed it—rice and making it very obviously different.
In the southeast of China, in areas like Guangxi, rice grows abundantly, and you use what is at hand to make what you can. As a result, the rice aroma is less common and mostly specific to the region.
This baijiu is made with a rice qu that ferments very quickly. It sits first in a small open jar, and then later in a bigger jar for around a week.
Rice aroma baijiu is much cleaner and simpler in taste, with a subtle toasty, rice cakey aroma.
Notable brands: Guilin Sanhua
Some tips for drinking
While there is no book of rules for drinking baijiu, there are a few best practices.
First, baijiu is always meant to be taken with food, and particularly food of the region in which it was produced. For example, the complex, sweet fruity and grainy flavors of strong aroma baijiu complement the spicy tingle of Sichuan food best.
Baijiu is really strong—it smells like alcohol—and that’s the reason why you don’t drink it out of a brandy snifter. We are often conditioned to smell a drink before tasting it, but the real aroma of baijiu comes up into the nose through the mouth.
Lastly, baijiu is never meant to be drunk alone. It is a social being and does well in its job getting people chatty.
Oh, and its 50-plus percent alcohol, so know your limits, drink responsibly, and enjoy.