Baijiu is not a brand name, but instead a catchall term for a wide variety of Chinese spirits. There are four primary categories of baijiu: Strong Aroma, Sauce Aroma, Light Aroma and Rice Aroma. Within these definitions, however, there are a number of smaller sub-categories.
Which aroma of baijiu produced by a distillery largely depends on the ingredients used. Strong and Sauce Aroma baijiu, for example, will be produced by distilleries with easy access to corn and grains. Sweeter, more palatable baijiu, such as Light or Rice Aroma, will be created by distilleries without easy access to fresh crops.
Geography also plays a part in which baijiu is created, and where. Rice Aroma baijiu, for example, is exclusively produced in the south of China. This means that other parts of the country struggle to obtain this type of baijiu. The opposite is true of Light Aroma baijiu, which is native to the north of the country.
Strong Aroma baijiu, meanwhile, is closely linked with the Sichuan province. This is because such baijiu pairs very favourably with the local cuisine, which is very heavily spiced. Sauce Aroma baijiu is most commonly associated with Moutai, the nation’s most reputable baijiu brand, which is produced in the Guizhou province of southwest China.
Strong Aroma Baijiu
Strong Aroma baijiu is famed for its very potent taste. Not only does is this spirit have a distinctive scent, but it also has a very particular taste. This is because Strong Aroma baijiu is a very complex spirit. The ingredients typically involve sorghum alongside at least one other grain, but usually several. Anything unsuitable for use with the baijiu is recycled as food for livestock.
Closely associated with the regions of Sichuan, Jiangsu, Shandong and Anhui, Strong Aroma Baijiu blends fierce potency with a sweet, fruity taste. This makes it most impactful when paired with spicy foods. This is a relief for many baijiu drinkers, as Strong Aroma baijiu had a very high alcohol content. (See: Baijiu & Food Pairing)
Once it’s ready to ferment, Strong Aroma baijiu is fermented in pits beneath the earth. The baijiu may be left to blend here for decades, in the event of a highly prestigious spirit. The baijiu will also be left to age for at least two more years before being released for sale.
Due to the wide array of different ingredients and the lengthy fermentation process, Strong Aroma baijiu is typically considered to be one the upper-echelon Chinese spirits. This baijiu often retails at high prices, and is enjoyed at exclusive events and celebrations,
Light Aroma Baijiu
Light Aroma Baijiu is created from sorghum and big qu, which is then fermented in glass jars. Barley and peas are key ingredients of Light Aroma Baijiu, however. This gives the spirit a more floral and sweet taste. Light Aroma baijiu is very popular in northern China, especially Beijing.
It should be made clear is that although Light Aroma baijiu is fresher on the palate, it still have a very high alcohol content. A Light Aroma baijiu will rarely drop below 55% proof.
This baijiu takes are around six months to produce. As a result, it is a comparatively affordable brand of baijiu. The most popular brand of Light Aroma baijiu is Red Star, which is hugely popular in Beijing. Many blue collar employees in the Chinese capital can comfortable afford to enjoy this baijiu, which adds to its popularity.
Sauce Aroma Baijiu
Sauce Aroma Baijiu takes its name from the flavour. Most baijiu drinkers will associate with baijiu with the taste of soy sauce. This is not surprisingly to people that are familiar with Chinese condiments, as soy sauce is created using qu.
Suchuan and Guizhou are the territories most commonly linked with Sauce Aroma Baijiu. This aroma undergoes the most labour-intensive production process, undergoing multiple fermentations. It can take up to a year for this baijiu just to ferment.
Once this is complete, the distillation process will then undergo up to eight different cycles. Herbs and beans are also included in the distillation of Sauce Aroma baijiu, which creates a mellow taste sensation that lingers long on the tongue.
One name stands tall above all others when discussing Sauce Aroma baijiu – Moutai. As this is the brand of baijiu utilised by the Chinese ruling parties, many commentators consider Moutai to be the baijiu. Sauce Aroma can be a difficult baijiu for a novice to drink due to its strength. It does, however, provide arguably the quintessential baijiu experience.
Rice Aroma Baijiu
Rice Aroma Baijiu is the lightest form of baijiu. As a result, Rice Aroma baijiu is often compared to Chinese wine and the Japanese spirit Saké. In fact, a Rice Aroma baijiu may be classed as a huangjiu as opposed to baijiu. This will depend on the shade of the finished spirit, as huang is the Chinese word for yellow.
This spirit is fast to produce, as it exclusively uses small qu. A typical Rice Aroma baijiu will complete fermentation in around a week, and age for up to a year. Due to the lesser strength and flavour, this form of baijiu is usually priced at the lower end of the range.
The most elaborate part of the process is the cleaning of the rice. This may be long grain rice, or sticky rice. This depends upon the preference of the distillery. The rice will be washed in warm water for over an hour, before being steamed and cooled. This is to ensure that the ingredients used in the baijiu are free of bacteria.
Sub-Categories of Baijiu
Outside of the four core groupings of baijiu, a number of sub-categories are available.
These forms of baijiu will only be known to enthusiasts. Any mainstream seller will stick to the four prime categories.
Phoenix Aroma Baijiu
This is a combination of Strong and Light Aroma baijiu. Phoenix aroma baijiu is made using sorghum, wheat, barley, and peas. Once fermentation is complete, beeswax, vegetable oil and pig blood is added to the recipe to create Phoenix Aroma baijiu.
Mixed Aroma Baijiu
As the name suggests, Mixed Aroma baijiu is a form of baijiu cocktail. Big qu will be made to create this spirit, as Sauce and Strong Aromas are the most dominant. However, the distillery will also include techniques more commonly associated with Rice and Light Aroma baijiu in the production.
Chi Aroma Baijiu
Chi Aroma baijiu follows the same production process as Rice Aroma, but adds pork fat to the mix. This gives the finished sprit a scent that many enthusiasts compare to bacon.
Sesame Aroma Baijiu
This baijiu follows the same production process as Sauce Aroma Baijiu, with one notable exception. Sesame Aroma baijiu ferments at very high temperatures for short, intense period of time, as opposed to being left alone for a prolonged period. Shangdong’s Jingzhi distillery specialises in Sesame Aroma baijiu, which has a strong, nutty taste.
Medicine Aroma Baijiu (aka Dong Aroma Baijiu)
This baijiu originates in Guizhou’s Dongjiu Distillery. This baijiu is fermented in two separate pits. The larger of these pits ferments the drink with big qu, while the second, smaller pit makes use of rice qu. The latter pit will also include a range of medicinal herbs and peach juice. The final product balances sweet and savoury flavours.
Extra Strong Aroma Baijiu
Extra Strong Aroma baijiu is arguably the most complex baijiu of all. This spirit is made in the Jiuguijui distillery of Hunan. The ingredients include big qu, small medicinal qu, rice and sorhum. The baijiu is then aged for at least three years. The smell is earthy and strong, while the taste is simultaneously sweet and spicy.
Special Aroma Baijiu
Special Aroma baijiu takes its name from its host distillery. The Sitir distillery, which is found in the Jiangxi province, translates as, “ Four Specials.” This baijiu is created from rice and big qu, The taste of this baijiu is tart and akin to citrus.
Laobaigan Aroma Baijiu
Laobaigan Aroma Baijiu follows the production steps of Light Aroma baijiu, but uses exclusively wheat as ingredients. This means no barley or peas. It is also only left to ferment for six months. The result is a very strong baijiu, typically with an alcohol content upward of 65%.
Small Qu Baijiu
Light Aroma Baijiu is created using sorghum, but blended with herbs for a lighter, floral taste. Small Qu Baijiu is a Light Aroma baijiu that is made with small qu. As a result, it is closer in taste to Rice Aroma than the Strong Aroma associated with big qu.