Is baijiu just too “out there” to gain wide appeal?
A light, warm rain was falling as dignitaries, delegates and media descended on the Hilton Hotel Toronto/Markham Suites Conference Centre & Spa just northeast of Toronto. The Yanghe Distillery Co., one of China’s oldest, largest and most established spirit makers, had invited us to welcome something truly iconic to the Ontario market.
As the afternoon progressed, there were flashy presentations, flashy entertainers and speeches. Many, many speeches. I understood not a word of most of them since my familiarity with Mandarin is about equal to my familiarity with the product at the centre of all the attention, namely, baijiu. The reason for the festivities was that Ontario’s chief liquor purveyor, the LCBO, had ordered four of Yanghe’s baijius. Judging by the turnout for the event and the (apparent) earnestness of what was being said at the podium, this seemingly unremarkable act by a provincial liquor board was a Very Big Deal indeed.
I drove home with a few questions on my mind: Were baijiu distillers seriously looking to expand outside their own domestic market? And, if so, why wasn’t there a stronger non-Asian media presence in the room? (And why not at least a few speeches in English?) But mainly I wondered if most baijiu was just too “out there” to gain wide appeal.
The article “Baijiu is helping build bridges, one glass at a time“, published earlier this year, is a thorough story that gives the lowdown on baijiu – its production, classification, consumption and importance in Chinese culture. To give you the Coles Notes version, baijiu is a high-octane spirit that’s created in a rather complex manner from a variety of grains and other raw materials and then aged in earthenware containers until ready to bottle. The aroma and flavour of baijiu has been politely called “challenging,” which again made me wonder if there’s a global market for the stuff.
“Absolutely,” replied Derek Sandhaus when I posed him that the question. “Hundreds of millions of Chinese drink baijiu every day and love it, and we’re operating with the same hardware.”
Sandhaus literally wrote the book on baijiu, or at least the definitive English-language book on the subject, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.
The national drink of China is, by all accounts, one of the most popular spirits in the world based on the volume consumed (hundreds of millions of Chinese can’t be wrong). According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the country produced around 13 billion litres of the stuff last year. Billion. So why is it more-or-less off the radar outside the People’s Republic?
“The biggest obstacles to baijiu’s broader international acceptance, in my view, are accessibility (people don’t know what it is or how to drink it) and availability (people don’t know where to buy it),” Sandhaus opines.
James Ye, Sales Manager for Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fenjiu Distillery Co. Ltd. (it just rolls off the tongue) reports that his company is indeed making efforts to break into new markets.
“Our products have been exported to over 50 countries,” Ye says. “We design, produce and supply products to new markets based on the needs of the foreign buyers. We also modify our packaging, engage in sales, marketing, and promotional activities, advertise and participate in trade and consumer exhibitions.” Some of which is certainly paying off.
The availability of baijiu in Canada (or, at least from my perch in Ontario) seems to be gradually growing as beverage alcohol importers, like those in Ontario and BC, realize the sales potential locked up in this virtually untapped market. That being said, this untapped market is made up almost exclusively of those of Chinese descent, and while Sandhaus may be correct in stating that the Chinese share the same “hardware” as the rest of the earth’s population, this doesn’t necessarily mean similar tastes exist everywhere. We may all have the same instrument, but they are often tuned rather differently.
So how do the uninitiated get into this decidedly alien stuff? Well, first accept that it won’t be easy. Baijiu can be a pretty complex spirit.
“There are about 12 aromas to classify baijiu styles,” says Renmei Nie, Deputy General Manager of Guizhou Moutai Chiew I & E Co., Ltd., producer of the most famous baijiu brand. “The three main aroma styles are Sauce Aroma, Strong Aroma, and Light Aroma. Moutai represents the Strong Aroma, which also has the most complicated production process. The taste and aroma of Moutai are unique and complex; it has over 155 different flavours and aromas in every drop. Some of these include wheat, grain, soy sauce, malt beer, strawberries, mango, coconut, chocolate, caramel, smoke and more.”
A newbie wishing to explore this (more or less) uncharted drinking frontier is best to venture forth thusly: “I have found that most people who approach baijiu clean — with no past experience or preconceptions — generally enjoy at least one or two of the predominant styles,” Sandhaus confirms, adding that the relative assertiveness of the main styles should also be factored in.
“When I am introducing people to baijiu for the first time, I like to do a tasting of the four major styles in increasing complexity — rice aroma, light aroma, strong aroma, then sauce aroma — so they can see the category’s diversity,” he says. That’s fine. But the problem is knowing to what style a certain baijiu conforms. Even getting confirmation on that front can be tricky. To begin, are there three major styles or four (or 12)?
In any case, heeding the advice of Saundhaus, I cleared my mind as best I could and waded into uncharted flavours. If my notes sound like I don’t exactly know what I’m talking about, it’s because I don’t. There is no benchmark to reference. I tasted them all neat, at room temperature, and completely sober.
Fen Chiew, Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fenjiu Distillery Co. Ltd ($30)
Crystal clear and bottled at 53% ABV, this spirit shows a vaguely nutty, earthy, acetate nose that leads to a dry, dusky and hot, hot, hot palate. All said, somewhat medicinal and pretty aggressive, with a long, earthy/mineral finish.
Fen Chiew, Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fenjiu Distillery Co. Ltd ($55/500 ml)
Other than the more elaborate packaging and strength of 48% ABV, there’s not much to initially distinguish this Fen Chiew from the one above. Apparently, the difference has to do with the number of times this one has been distilled and how long it’s been aged. Certainly very different aromatically — not as volatile, with musky, earthy, vegetal, wet gravel aromas. The flavours are, well, pretty hard to describe. Funky and very dry, with hot, peppery, vegetal notes. Finish is persistent with vegetal/soy flavours.
Chu Yeh Ching Chiew, Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fenjiu Distillery Co. Ltd ($60/500 ml)
A modest 45% ABV for this very pale, straw-coloured number that lists bamboo leaves and sugar on the ingredients list. I can only surmise that this is a sort of flavoured version of what I’ve reviewed above. Earthy, soy sauce, miso and all things aromatically funky, meaty and mysteriously fermented. Viscous and sweetish, with beefy, vegetable soup and fermented soy notes. The finish is very long. And persistent. And, well, let’s just say it’s different. Very different.
Gujinggong Yuanjiang Liquor, Anhui Gujing Distillery Company Limited ($65/500 ml)
The packaging is kinda cute — a red bottle in an equally cute red and yellow bag. Aromatically, however, it goes in places where the average nose rarely wants to go. Can something be candied, meaty and fishy all at once? Sweet and savoury, it’s kind of like tasting Juicy Fruit gum and Bovril (combined with a 50% ABV spirit) at the same time.
Tianzhilan Celestial Blue, Jiangsu Yanghe Distillery Co. LTD. ($100/500 ml)
This spirit is bottled at either 42% or 52% ABV. But, as there is no indication on the attractive blue sample bottle I have, I’m not sure which version I tasted. Very forceful on the nose with a rather intriguing combination of grape bubblegum, steamed Brussels sprouts and nail polish remover. In the mouth, it’s fruity/earthy/funky/sweaty/vegetal/bovine/marine and just about the strangest thing I’ve ever tasted.
Mengzhilan Dream Blue M6, Jiangsu Yanghe Distillery Co. LTD. ($315/500 ml)
Ever wondered what a $315 per 500ml Chinese spirit tastes like? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway. Pretty similar (as far as my unaccustomed nose can tell) to the previous sample, it sports the same incongruent aromas of fruit, funk and fermented matter. It’s definitely earthier than the previous sample, not as overtly fruity and more complex. At 53% ABV, it’s surprisingly smooth — and incredibly persistent, with a finish that just does not let up. Which could be good or bad, depending on your personal tastes.