Baijiu: The world's largest spirit category
In my motherland (Italy), early February would be the right time for a child to decide on their carnival outfit: pirate, fairy, Medieval knight, princess... all depends on personal preferences. Elsewhere in the world, for some 1.4+ billion people it's the time to gear up to celebrate the New Year. Chinese New Year, to be precise, which in 2021 falls on 12th February.
This time I'm joining the celebrations, with a deep dive into China's national spirit, Baijiu.
Westerners are usually stunned by the fact that Baijiu (pronounced bye-jo), a drink hardly anyone who’s not a drinks geek has ever heard of, is in fact the world’s largest spirits category by volume. It's in fact larger than whisky, vodka and gin combined, according to distribution firm Cheng International. You'll be pardoned if you haven't come across Baijiu before though, as 99% of it is drunk within China's borders. As the country's population nears 1.5 billion souls, such a huge volume of production doesn’t sound that incredible after all.
Baijiu is, for the most part, a clear spirit and it’s made across the entire country from a wide variety of grains, including rice, wheat, corn and millet, but with sorghum being the most common raw ingredient. Baijiu's alcoholic strength ranges from 40% to 60% abv and comes in an array of regional styles. That being said, four major Baijiu groups can be identified based on their flavour profiles:
Rice-aroma Baijiu, a mild-flavoured rice distillate;
Light-aroma Baijiu, normally made from sorghum;
Strong-aroma Baijiu, China’s most popular style, made from sorghum and other grains;
Sauce-aroma Baijiu, whose flavour reminds of, you guessed it, soy sauce.
Although the production process varies depending on the style, it always starts by grinding the grains and soaking them in hot water. This mash is cooked then cooled and loaded into earthen jars or mud pits for fermentation.
The fermentation is initiated by the inoculation of a grain-based culture of microorganisms called daqu, which converts the starches into alcohol (which means that there is no need for malting as it's instead necessary in beer or whisky production).
The daqu starter culture can be made out of different ingredients (wheat, barley, peas) and is manually shaped into bricks. These are stored for six to eight weeks in a humidity- and temperature-controlled environment and ground before mixing with the mash.
After the inoculation, earthen jars are covered by a stone slab and sealed with fresh grain or corn husks to keep the liquid away from the oxygen while mud pits are cover with, well... mud (see picture above).
The fermentation may last from about a month for a light-aroma Baijiu, up to three for strong-aroma expressions, or even eight for sauce-aromas. Fermentation temperatures tend to sit between 18°-21°C.
At the end of the fermentation process, the liquid is distilled in pot stills then rested in large jars (porcelain, terracotta) for anything from about one year up to 50 years. These jars allow the liquid to breath and mature but lend no colour, which is why most Baijiu is a white spirit. Some Baijius are flavoured or infused with herbs, such as bamboo leaves, resulting in a tea-like pale-gold or greenish liquid.
“With [its] 6,000 years of history”, Fenjiu claims to be the oldest Chinese Baijiu brand, and it’s now one of the most popular on the international market. Fenjiu’s many expressions, including its flavoured ones, are made by the Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fen Chiew group in the Shanxi province, in northern China, using organic sorghum and water from the Gouzhuang spring.
These spirits are classed as light-aroma Baijius and show a flavour profile that can easily appeal to a Western palate. Of the wide range I’ve been able to taste, the one below really stood out.
Qing Hua 30yo 53%
The nose is easthery yet delicate. Marmalade, pear and sweet spices (nutmeg, cinnamon and star anise) lead to coconut and bitter almonds. On the palate it’s very saline, umami and savoury, full bodied, creamy and very, very long. The finish is minty but turns into wildflower honey as the spirit lingers on the palate. A top class sipping spirit.
Fen Chiew 10yo 45%
This one is much fresher, with the nose verging towards citrus fruits, jasmine flowers and a certain umami savouriness. There are also some nutty notes and an almost woody, toasty character.
On the palate it reveals some tropical fruit, a bit of melon, some banana and a marked balsamic flavour. The finish shows some pepperiness and a touch of honey yet it’s not as long as the 30yo. Still, great to sip when the drink isn’t the star of the conversation.
Xin Li He Fen 48%
A “dialled-down” herbaceous and mildly spicy Baijiu that can work well in cocktails. To try as a replacement for tequila or even pisco.
Zhu Ye Qing Jiu Bamboo 30yo 45%
This is a liquor made by infusing a 30yo Baijiu with bamboo leaves for 21 days, which give the liquid an appealing gold-greenish tinge. In terms of flavours, if you’ve ever had an Italian centerbe then you know what to expect. If you haven’t, think wild herbs, sandalwood, honey, bitter almonds and a touch of dried fruits. To be frank, this is a bit too sweet for my linking, but it’s nevertheless enjoyable if consumed on the rocks.
Ming River, a strong-aroma Baijiu brand founded by entrepreneurs Bill Isler, Derek Sanfhous and Matthias Heger, sits at the opposite end of the aromatic scale. The spirit is produced at the Luzhou Laojiao Distillery, which claims to be the oldest continually operating distillery in China, since 1573.
The Ming River brand consists of one single expression, made entirely from sorghum, which ferments with the daqu culture for two to three months in mud pits. It’s distilled in a traditional Chinese pot still and rested for a minimum of two to three years before being bottled at a strength of 45% abv.
The nose is pretty funky and takes a little to familiarise with. There are overripe apple and pear aromas, followed by rose and green pepper and sweet spices in the background. The palate is creamy and full. The first sip is star anise on steroids, but then opens up to a more gentle minty herbaceousness, lemon zest and pear.
It’s certainly a very distinctive distillate, and could be challenging even for those who are accustomed to drinking a wide range of spirits. Yet it's this element that makes it so fascinating, like hearing Stravinskij for the first time after a life of Mozart sonatas.
Some of the sources used for this article are listed below, however do feel free to get in touch if you like to have more.
Xiao-Wei Zheng and Bei-Zhong Han, Baijiu (白酒), Chinese liquor: History, classification and manufacture, Journal of Ethnic Foods, Volume 3, Issue 1, March 2016, pp. 19-25.
Chinese distilled spirit finally granted "Chinese Baijiu" as its official English terminology, Global Times, 12 Jan 2021.
Interview with Qiqi Chen, Managing Director at Cheng International Co. Ltd, January 2021.