Baijiu is helping build bridges, one glass at a time

By / Wine + Drinks / August 12th, 2017 / 4
Close up of sorghum in morning sun light.

What packs a whopping alcohol content ranging from 40 to 60 percent, is the world’s best-selling liquor by volume and was pivotal in breaking the ice between the American President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during tense Sino-American relations in the ’70s? Baijiu! Bai what? Pronounced “bye-jyoh,” China’s national spirit has an undeniable flavour and aroma with a history spanning more than 5,000 years.

Although baijiu, or “white alcohol,” is the world’s most consumed spirit, chances are many people outside of China have never heard of it. More than 99 percent of this pungent, spicy, savoury and often sweet traditional liquor is produced and consumed in China, where it has a billion-strong fan base. Hence, the clear spirit being the most consumed liquor globally.

Baijiu shows up on the table for all occasions. Businessmen will go head to head, trying to impress each other by seeing who can down more of the stuff. No birthday, wedding or Chinese New Year celebration would be complete without it. Friends and family toast each other with this Chinese firewater while wishing health and happiness for each other. Akin to vodka for the Russians, soju for the Koreans and whisky for the Scots, baijiu is a national symbol and a social lubricant for the Chinese.

During the Chinese Civil War, Chairman Mao Zedong and his Red Army used Moutai (the renowned sorghum-based baijiu brand) to sterilize their war wounds and calm their nerves. Following the Communist victory, the government declared Moutai to be China’s “national wine” and it became the official drink at state dinners. Consequently, Moutai became the most prestigious baijiu brand used by Chinese leaders to toast visiting dignitaries. Along with Richard Nixon getting glassy-eyed at the table dinner over Moutai, Britain’s Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher was served this intoxicating spirit after she agreed to return Hong Kong to China.

Government officials in China have been pounding back so much baijiu — and not the average hooch, but the expensive stuff (in 2013, the most expensive bottle of Moutai had a price tag of $327 USD — that President Xi Jinping implemented an austerity campaign in 2012 to clamp down on government officials’ abuse of public funds.

Since the shutdown of the pleasure palace, and introduction of nationwide anti-corruption measures, China’s baijiu producers have been experiencing a hangover, since the government’s annual consumption of the spirit contributed to as much as 35 percent of all baijiu sales in China. To add more insult to injury, the influence of Western culture is resulting in 18- to 25-year-olds choosing brandy and bourbon over baijiu. Millennials just aren’t as interested in baijiu as their elders once were, which will ultimately have a profound effect on the national spirit for years to come.

“Baijiu has potential in the Canadian market.”
Shu Guo from Hi-Bridge Consulting

Needless to say, baijiu producers have looking westward for a chance to recuperate some of their lost sales. Shu Guo, from Hi-Bridge Consulting, has been importing Chinese liquor, including baijiu, to Canada since 2005 and believes that the West is ready to give China’s national spirit an honest shot. Guo is hopeful that non-Chinese consumers will develop the same affinity for it as their Chinese counterparts. “As Canada is an immigrant society, baijiu has potential in the Canadian market,” explains Guo.

But can the unaccustomed be won over? There are a few stumbling blocks ahead. First, up until a few years ago, baijiu was only being sold in China. Thus, traditional names and conservative labels are designed to attract Chinese consumers. Not only is it tricky for non-Chinese to pronounce the names on the labels but it is also extremely challenging for them to remember those names. Baijiu bottles are thus in desperate need of a makeover to appeal to international audiences.

Second, Western palates aren’t used to a fermented spirit made with unfamiliar ingredients like sorghum (a cereal grain), glutinous rice, millet, wheat, corn and peas. Compared to Western spirits, baijiu has a distinct production method. With Scotch and other spirits, the conversion of grain to alcohol is a two-step process: the grains first go through a malting process (where they are steeped in water until the starches transform into fermentable sugars) and then they are fermented.

By contrast, when making China’s national spirit, fermenting carbohydrates into sugars and then into alcohol is only a one-step process. Unlike most liquor production, yeast is not used when making baijiu; instead, qu (pronounced “chew”) is the most crucial ingredient. This starter culture is formed from a brick of compressed grain containing airborne elements like mold, yeast, bacteria and even tiny insects. This solid-state fermentation is unique to baijiu production, allowing sugar conversion and fermentation to happen simultaneously. The wild yeasts and local air to which the qu is exposed are what gives the finished product a nuanced terroir. During production, water and qu are combined with a host of grains specific to the area of the country (namely, rice in the south and sorghum in the north). The mix is then left to ferment in everything from mud pits to clay jars, often buried underground. The final distilled product is stored in a variety of vessels and aged anywhere from six months to several years.

Baijiu production is a laborious process but it is almost always handcrafted using traditional methods. There are thousands of distilleries and several “Mom and Pop” distillers across China, each with its own “secret” unique recipe. The smallest variations in ingredients and environment can lead to significant changes in the final product, consequently introducing flavours that the uninitiated may not understand.

Baijiu can be funky tasting to the foreign palate. Those who have tried baijiu identify it as a throat scorcher with nose-wrinkling aromas of soy sauce, blue cheese and sweaty socks. However, that is just one style (sauce aroma) among four that define baijiu.

The spirit is categorized based on its aromatic profile, with there being four main classification styles or “fragrances”: rice, light, strong and sauce (see sidebar for descriptions of each aroma). Depending on what style of baijiu you try, the diverse flavours are extreme, ranging from palatable to paint thinner.

Among Western expatriates and foreigners doing business in China, baijiu often seems like the hard kid to love. It has developed a bad reputation not only because of its fiery alcohol content and unusual taste but also because of the way the spirit is traditionally consumed, ganbei-style. The Chinese take toasting very seriously. The People’s tipple is served neat in shot-sized glasses and consumption always begins with a salute or tribute to show respect and build relations.

As with most things in China, there’s an etiquette associated with drinking baijiu, which consists of the following elaborate steps: 1) Embrace the concept of humility (a challenge in itself for many); 2) Show the utmost respect by gripping your shot glass using both hands, making eye contact with the host and everyone else, and, oh yes, not forgetting to smile; 3) After the toast, shout GANBEI!, which translates as “dry the glass” and, you guessed it, means “bottoms up”; 4) Consume the baijiu in one gulp (you better follow suit, or be forever labelled as the disrespectful wuss); 5) Turn your glass upside down to show that you have finished the entire glass, hence giving face to the person who made the toast; 6) Repeat steps one to five (it is very common for multiple shots to be drunk in quick succession, leaving you with no time to adapt to the flavour). Phewww! That’s a lot of rules for one little drink.

“When drinking baijiu, all disguises will be burned away with alcohol.”
James Ye of Premier Coasts Trading

Unfortunately, the ganbei-style of drinking baijiu is to blame for why many newbies quickly grow to hate baijiu. While Scotch is slowly savoured, forget any fancy ideas of relishing in the aromas of baijiu because, according to the Chinese, the spirit is not to be sipped. Moreover, having “face” is a crucial notion in China, and the association between that and drinking can make for a very unpleasant experience for the unversed. In China, the drunker a person becomes from drinking baijiu (or any other liquor), the more “face” has been bestowed upon them. Hence, it is very common for Chinese hosts to get their visitors as drunk as possible as a sign of honour and dignity. The Chinese are pleased when their guest shows mutual respect by bridging the cultural gap and drinking baijiu with them.

“It has been a rite for people in China, no matter if you are a businessman or a labourer, to drink baijiu when having dinner together. Influenced by ancient Chinese philosophers Lao Tzu and Confucius, Chinese people always behave in a moderate way by hiding their real character. But when drinking baijiu, all disguises will be burned away with alcohol. You will see the nature of the people sitting beside you. Is he is reliable or not?” explains Chinese spirit importer James Ye of Premier Coasts Trading.

Furthermore, baijiu can help break the ice, lubricate deals and build consensus when doing business in China. It can be quite the sight to see your Chinese associate act like you have known each other for years after a few stiff shots of baijiu. “When baijiu becomes a social tool, sales can be huge because of China’s enormous population,” Ye further explains. (Hint hint, wink wink, this is a useful tip for those doing business in China.)

Undoubtedly, foreigners who knock back successive shots of high-proof and lukewarm baijiu don’t often become fans of the spirit. Ye believes that for baijiu to succeed outside China, it needs to be made more accessible and presented in a less intimidating and creative way. “Baijiu is consumed straight up by Chinese people. Given the high alcohol content, sometimes it is a challenge for non-Chinese people to take in such a bold drink.” For rookies, Ye suggests diluting baijiu with ice or using it as a base spirit when making cocktails.

Doing so is heading in the right direction. To popularize baijiu among the inexperienced requires some imagination. In an effort to create a more stylish image, promoters have been rebranding China’s drink of choice to an entirely new audience: the craft cocktail scene.

Capital Spirits Bar has been pivotal in spreading the baijiu gospel. Opened by a group of expats living in Beijing, the world’s first cocktail bar dedicated to baijiu has created cocktails that appeal to a wider audience by highlighting and balancing the dominant flavours of the spirit instead of masking them. Cocktails may not be the traditional way to consume baijiu, but the avant-garde bar has made this old-school drink cool among foreigners and young Chinese — in China and around the globe. This new way of consuming baijiu has spread around the world with baijiu-based cocktails on bar menus from London to Los Angeles.

The intoxicating spirit may be finding a home abroad. The Western world is slowly starting to embrace baijiu with a growing number of foreign brands. Some producers outsource the spirit from China and rebrand it to attract international markets, such as ByeJoe in the United States and HKB in Hong Kong, while others are producing their versions of baijiu using local ingredients, such as Vinn Distillery in Portland, Oregon, and Canada’s own Dragon Mist Distillery.

Despite hard-to-pronounce Chinese brand names, a strange taste and a frenzy-based drinking culture, whatever the roadblock, don’t be too quick to judge baijiu. Remember the first time you had a peaty Scotch like Lagavulin, and it tasted like you were sucking on a burnt campfire log? Or when you knocked back a vigorously bitter swig of minty Fernet Branca? Likely you didn’t love them the first time either. The trick to appreciating the world’s most consumed liquor is embracing its outlandish flavours, either ganbei-style or in a cocktail. Having already grasped the concept of quinoa whisky and spelt vodka, and grown to love smoky mezcal, why not give baijiu a try? Just as American diplomat Henry Kissinger said to China’s leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979, “If we drink enough Maotai, we can solve anything.” It’s worth a try.

The Four “Fragrances” of Baijiu

Rice Aroma

A style produced and mainly found in Southern China. The gateway baijiu is made from rice. Hence, it is more similar in taste (but stronger in alcohol strength) to Japanese sake or Korean sochu than other bolder and more potent styles of baijiu. Baijiu aficionados should give it a shot. If you are still skeptical about its mildness and mellowness, try it infused with a snake! Try Guilin Sanhua Jiu (sans snake).

Light Aroma

A sorghum-driven style that is popular in Taiwan and Northern China. The spirit is fermented in ceramic jars, keeping the aroma fairly neutral and making it the perfect style for newbies. The qu used in this style is usually made with peas, exhibiting sweet and floral notes. Although this style may have a “light” aroma, the alcohol content is far from it. Some light aroma baijius are 56 percent ABV. Check out Fenjiu, Er Guo Tou 50 years or Chu Yeh Ching.

Strong Aroma

The most ubiquitous and widely consumed style in China originates from the Sichuan province. The spirit is fermented in earth pits with recycled mash, which is responsible for the pungent, robust and spicy flavours developed over the aging process. Strong aroma baijius are pricier than their light aroma cousins. In 2012, a bottle of 1960 Wuliangye sold for over $150,000 USD at a liquor auction fair in Hangzhou. If you don’t have that kind of cash, try Red Star Erguotou. It is one of the most prominent baijius in Beijing and can be found almost everywhere in China. Red Star is the baijiu for the people, a brand produced by the working class for the working class.

Sauce Aroma

If you are feeling saucy, this is the style of baijiu to try out. Sauce aroma baijius are produced in the southwestern region of China and are the funkiest and most complex of them all. Savoury herbs, soy sauce, sweaty socks, blue cheese, mushrooms — really anything with umami notes. This style is a tough one to get past for baijiu beginners. However, it pairs well with pickled snacks. It may come as a sigh of relief to know that no soybeans or soy sauce are used in the production method. In fact, it uses only sorghum, which is steamed and cooled, but it goes through eight rounds of fermentation and distillation, with a minimum of three years of aging. This full-bodied baijiu is the most labour intensive to produce, explaining why it will set you back a few hundred dollars for the most famous and priciest brands, such as Moutai. If you aren’t will to part with some serious cash, try out the slightly cheaper alternative Wu Liang Te Qu, which sells for a little under $100.

Not ready to drink Baijiu ganbei-style like the Chinese? Then these cocktail recipes (provided by Baijiu exporter Shu Guo from Hi-Bridge Consulting) are the perfect way to ease your taste buds into exotic and unfamiliar territory.

The Red Sorghum

5 ml lemon juice
30 ml light aroma baijiu like Fen Chiew
80 ml tomato juice
Dash of salt
Dash of pepper

Add all the ingredients to a tall glass filled with ice. Mix well with a cocktail stir rod.

A Feast in the Bamboo Forest

This concoction calls for Chu Yeh Ching Chiew, a light aroma baijiu made from sorghum, barley, peas, bamboo leaves and 11 different kinds of indigenous Chinese herbs. This baijiu has a delicate, floral nose with hints of anise and dried apricots.

75 ml Chu Yeh Ching Chiew
25 ml lemon juice
25 ml simple syrup
Soda water

Add the baijiu, lemon juice and simple syrup to an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake the contents, then pour into a chilled glass. Top off with soda water and garnish with a cherry.


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