Back in the mid-1990’s, I had the good fortune to work at Oddbins. In 1995, labels were handwritten and the knowledge had to be retained as there was no database of notes to rely on! I recall this job as each Saturday we carried out a tasting.
One aspect involved educating our customers on whisky and occasionally other spirits like vodka, gin and rum. When showcasing a whisky, the selection was usually two differing categories such as Islay and Speyside. Allowing consumers to genuinely recognise the difference often helped perceptions of this fine spirit and aside from selling bottles, it was a fun education.
But the world’s biggest selling spirit is not a whisky or indeed any other spirit named above. Shifting over 10 billion bottles a year is a Chinese spirit called Baijiu, something that I’d never heard of 23 years ago.
- Sauce Aroma Baijiu
- Sauce Aroma Baijiu Food Accompaniment
- Strong Aroma Baijiu
- Strong Aroma Baijiu Food Accompaniment
- Light Aroma Baijiu
- Light Aroma Baijiu Food Accompaniment
- Rice Aroma Baijiu
- Rice Aroma Baijiu Food Accompaniment
- Other Baijiu Aromas
Sauce Aroma Baijiu
This was formerly known as Mao-aroma. Moutai arguably dominates this and indeed Kweichou Moutai overtook Diageo as the world’s most valuable drinks company. It is made predominantly from sorghum, going through 9 distillations and is categorized by age. Soy, sesame, fermented bean paste and umami (savoury) flavour are all common characteristics. From this classified aroma, the taste can evoke shitake mushrooms and a roast aftertaste. The distilled grain is used up to 8 times before being discarded. Sauce aroma sells the most but it really is an institution. Drinking this hallowed spirit is done with toasts, savouring the flavour despite its strong alcohol content (something that all Baijiu seems to have).
Sauce Aroma Baijiu Food Accompaniment
Best enjoyed with pickled or fine preserved foods, especially dishes from the Kweichou region. Outside of Chinese cuisine, both sauce and strong aroma Baijius work possibly better with buffalo wings and in general, meat dishes. The powerful palate balances with the fat of the meat and particularly meat that has a spice or pickle sauce (or rub).
Strong Aroma Baijiu
Made in mud pits, it originates from south-west China and unlike light and rice aromas, strong aroma can be made from multiple grains such as sorghum, wheat, corn, even rice. The character of strong aroma can be described as sweet or even fruity – think, pineapple, banana and anise. However, others might even veer towards solvent or paint thinner. Don’t let that put you off! Some brands have been compared to an Islay malt. This is a complex aroma and if it is enjoyed and savoured, then many of the complex characters will come through.
Strong Aroma Baijiu Food Accompaniment
As with sauce aroma, it is paired well with local dishes. In this case, Sichuan dishes. Outside of Chinese cuisine, spicy dishes work well, cutting through the strong fruity and assertive aroma well.
Light Aroma Baijiu
Made in clay pots, it is possibly the most accessible Baijiu aroma for a Western palate to start on. The grain is sorghum and is popular in northern China, Beijing and Hebei province. The aroma is clean with light fruit and chamomile characteristics. Where strong aroma might be fruity and fiery, light aroma can be a fist in a velvet glove, being usually bottled at over 50% alcohol volume! Because of the cleaner palate, light aroma is actually a very good ingredient for cocktails, managing to have its own characteristics but with less intensity than its strong and saucy cousins.
Light Aroma Baijiu Food Accompaniment
Think chicken and seafood. Even a citrus salad. Or Oysters. Lighter food dishes with flavours that marry well to the light, powerful and floral elements of light aroma Baijiu.
Rice Aroma Baijiu
Made in southern China (veer towards Hong Kong), rice aroma can be classified as a white or yellow spirit. Glutinous rice is used so the palate can be described as sweeter, mellow, aromatic, with a hint of smoke. It has been compared to sake. Rice aroma baijiu isn’t widely available outside of Southern China, unlike for example market leader Kweichou Matou (sauce).
Rice Aroma Baijiu Food Accompaniment
Ramen, tempura, mushrooms. With rice aroma, it is easier to enjoy as an aperitif. It can work well with a light meat dish such as steak or chicken sliced over noodles too.
Other Baijiu Aromas
There are some other unofficial aromas and many of them are almost self-descriptive but they are not regarded as one of the main aroma (categories) of Baijiu.
Some of them are:
- Phoenix aroma baijiu – similar to strong aroma but with an earthier finish
- Mixed aroma baijiu – a blend of two or more varieties. So it could be the blended whisky of Baijiu
- Sesame aroma baijiu – similar production technique to sauce aroma but with a charred, nutty flavour
- Chi or fat aroma baijiu – a rice based Baijiu but with the addition of pork fat during the ageing process
- Medicine aroma baijiu – a pungent aroma, made from two sorghum mashes, one wheat, one medicinal rice
- Extra-strong aroma baijiu – made from sorghum, glutinous rice, wheat and corn, fermented with big and medicinal small qu
- Special aroma baijiu – rice based Baijiu
- Laobaigan aroma baijiu – like light aroma and distilled at a very high alcohol volume
- Small-qu light aroma baijiu – sorghum, fermented with rice based small qu
That might give you a flavour (excuse the pun) of Baijiu and the amazing aromas it reveals itself through. As a beginner, it might be best to start with light aroma. As mentioned in our descriptions above, it is easier to become accustomed to but don’t discount the likes of strong or sauce aroma. Respect what they are and approach with an open mind, a curious palate and an interest in finding out what makes each aroma’s characteristic a little unique. In China, Baijiu is part of the culture. It is social but it is also a family occasion, a toast, a gift and a drink of choice.