As a wine and spirit lover I have conducted a number of tastings for clients, cogitated over pairing selections for food and advised newly engaged couples on the ideal choice of beverage for their forthcoming nuptials. This has varied greatly, from luscious reds, to zingy and fresh white wines, to fabulous Gins and Whiskey’s When you are thinking about a great selection of spirits, it is highly likely that you are liable to consider those aforementioned choices, or perhaps an Armagnac, or Cognac – and given their popularity worldwide – they would be a fine choice.
You would also be forgiven for thinking that these spirits are the best selling in the world. Well, dear reader, you would be mistaken. The people of the great and vast country of China have spent centuries cultivating, developing, and selling a drink that has turned into the worlds top selling spirit. Baijiu. 5 Billion, yes 5 Billion, litres of the drink were sold in 2016 alone.
So, what do you need to know about this fascinating, yet unfamiliar spirit to many outside of China? Well, it has an aroma (See baijiu aromas) and character that is both unique – and even to the hardened spirit drinker – a true test of getting the right taste and variety that appeals and turns on your taste buds like nothing else you have ever tried in your life. The drink is believed to have emanated from as far back as circa AD960, through ancient Chinese dynasties, but in its current form, is believed to have been around since the infamous Ming dynasty. Meaning ‘clear liquor’ Baijiu is generally distilled from Sorghum Wheat, or other grains like Barley. Certain styles in South West China might use Rice as a constituent and, though clear, is more likely to resemble a dark spirit, like Whisky, especially in complexity and character. (See baijiu ingredients)
Though steeped in wonderful history, its future is even more interesting and exciting than its past. The development and rise of Baijiu brands, such as Kweichow Moutai, one of the most prominent in China, has seen this particular company come in second as a future proof business, just behind a famous film and TV production concern you may have heard of, called Walt Disney. This is serious business, and make no mistake, Baijiu is really going places as the Spirit to drink in the future.
One single 80 year old bottle of Baijiu, made by the aforementioned Kweichow Moutai brand, was auctioned for 1.97 Million Yuan ($395,000) in July 2018. To put that in perspective, a whole case of Domaine de la Romanee -Conti, one of the prestigious wines on the planet, went for a little more – at $460,000 – a few months earlier – bear in mind, this was a whole case and not a single bottle! (Read more on vintage baijiu auction price)
How Is Baijiu Made?
So, how is it made? Selected grains are ground to release starch in order to increase the area that will interact with the yeasts and other microorganisms in the fermentation process. This step is critical, because too soft a grind will lead to ineffective saccharification (the name given to the process of converting starch into sugar), while overdoing it will influence the flavour of the spirit. The grains are then steamed to help the starch become gelatinous in construction. (See more: How is baijiu made)
How does it smell on the nose? Well, Baijiu is mainly characterised in the following ways aroma wise.
1. Rice Aroma Baijiu – because it is light and sweet this is arguably the most accessible aroma to those of you new to the spirit. It is found mainly in Southern China and the ageing process takes place in limestone caves. An infusion of medicinal herb, tea or flowers helps to offer a sweeter flavour – and one that most in the west might be more familiar with.
2. Light Aroma Baijiu – It might be gentle by name and nature, but this is a powerful and strong liquor that will take no prisoners. Sorghum wheat is main ingredient and its normally distilled in ceramic jars and distilled in deep pits underground. It produces a drink that is floral on the nose and can be found mainly in Northern China.
3. Strong Aroma Baijiu – The south western China province of Sichuan is known for its fiery and mind blowing aromas and flavours in its food as well as being the home of giant Pandas. And boy this is an animal in its own right. So perhaps it is not surprising that this style of Baijiu is from this region. It is made with several variety of grains, giving this a long finish that is well balanced and fragrant. This style is biggest by market share, made in China and accounts for around 2/3rds of total Baijiu production each year.
4. Sauce Aroma Baijiu – This is most labour intensive and complicated style to make, due to the characteristics of soya sauce that requires repeated fermentation during it’s production process. Make no mistake, this is a bold, highly fragrant spirit with layers and layers of complexity. If you’re a beginner you might find entering the Baijiu arena here a challenge akin to understanding the Brexit process. It is made using only Sorghum and is fermented in stone, brick lined pits instead of the mud pits, typically used in the process to make Strong Baijiu.
So, that is the history, the smell, the taste, the process. You have managed to get hold a bottle of Baijiu and are on the road to a new adventure. How do the Chinese tend to drink this spirit? The nation has a number of important rituals and rules with regards the consumption of this liquor, so how should you imagine yourself drinking Baijiu in a bar in Beijing, or at a celebration in Chengdu? Immerse yourself in traditional serving etiquette to hold a truly authentic Baijiu party.
How To Drink Baijiu
1. Well, rule number one. Never fill your own glass unless you have a carafe on your table. Wait for someone to pour one for you.
2. Keep your companions flowing with drink, they know you’re loving their company – and all great parties keep the drink – and food on constant supply.
3. Rule three involves calmly tapping the table with one finger to say a silent thank you, if you’re given a refill. Tapping the table a number of times means that you’re having a great time with great people.
4. The toast is also an important part of any process involving the consumption of Baijiu. The Chinese believe that reaching below the level of the lead toasting glass is a way of acknowledgement of a persons superiority in terms of their ability to host such a gathering, or simply a way of saying they are better than you (even if that is not the case in your own mind!)
More: How to drink baijiu
Beware of the Ganbei!
No, this does not mean you’re being chased by a wild animal, but if you hear this being shouted could be just as dangerous! It means you should ‘down it’, don’t leave a single drop. If you fail in this task you may find yourself being given another full one to consume. Best to try and avoid a bad hangover, if you can.
Pairing Baijiu With Food
Okay, so you have the formalities in check and Baijiu expertise to really impress your friends about this rising star of the spirit drinking world. But, what about a dinner party. Does the challenge of pairing food with Baijiu sound like a good dose of fun? Like pairing food with wine, it is important to ensure it compliments the food and the food compliments the drink in equal measure. Generally speaking dishes that are particularly savoury or contain spice will work well with Baijiu.
Examples of this might be spiced cured meats alongside some savoury rice. Probably the best way to really enjoy great food with brilliant Baijiu is to pick a region of China, select food that is typical of the area and then serve Baijiu from that part of the country with your dishes. So as an example, a Sichuan style dish, like Beef stir fry, or Kung Pao Chicken, full of spice and intense juicy flavours would favour a strong style aroma Baijiu
On the other hand a light aroma style Baijiu should go better with food from the North East of China, like Peking Duck with Rice, Seafood dishes, typically saltier and rice heavy in serving style and accompaniment. (Read more: What food goes well with baijiu?)
Finally, the main thing is to explore world of Baijiu and savour it’s history and qualities. The alcohol content with some styles might blow your mind, but really galvanise your taste buds at the same time. Baijiu is the new kid on the block that is as old as the hills. That, in its self, is fascinating and different. There are so many style to choose from and many health benefits too. My next piece will discuss those in more detail. Meanwhile enjoy Baijiu if you can get hold of a bottle or two, and cheers, or Gānbēi, as they say in China.