The ingredients of baijiu are hugely important. There are three main ingredients to any baijiu. These are water, jiuqu (酒曲, pron. joo-choo) and grain. An old Chinese proverb claims that, “Water is an alcohol’s blood, qu is its bones, and grains are its flesh.”
In addition to these core ingredients, many manufacturers infuse their baijiu with herbs. This adds new and distinct flavors and aromas to the spirit.
Water and Baijiu
The water used to make baijiu must be clean, and of high quality. Many distilleries draw water straight from a natural source, such as a stream. The Chishui River is often considered China’s purest water source.
Baijiu requires a delicate balance between soft and hard water. Soft water is preferred. This is because it binds the many and varied ingredients involved in baijiu.
Slightly harder water can also be used. The water found in Southwest China, for example, contains magnesium and calcium. This is why regions of Southwest China, such as Guizhou, remain synonymous with baijiu.
Vey hard water is avoided when making baijiu. This is because water that is too hard solidifies during the production process. This can break machinery. If the territory close to a baijiu distillery only grants access to very hard water, it will be purified before use in the creation of baijiu.
Water is used to steam the grains used in baijiu in the first stage of creation. Grains are then soaked in water as part of the fermentation process. This creates a sugary broth, which is known as wort. This wort will be around 60% water.
When the baijiu has completed the distillation process, more water if often added. This is to dilute the taste of the spirit. Baijiu has a famously high alcohol content. If not diluted, the baijiu would be even stronger.
Jiuqu and Baijiu
Jiuqu, often referred to as just qu, is pivotal to the production of baijiu. There are two forms of qu which can be used. These are Daqu (known as big qu) and Xiaqu (small qu). As the names suggest, the size and shape of the qu differs in each instance.
Qu is pivotal to baijiu as it serves two core purposes: saccharification and fermentation. In addition, qu is often what gives baijiu its unique aroma and taste. As a result, qu is sometimes referred to as the secret ingredient of baijiu.
Daqu is known as Big Qu because it is stored in the shape of 7lb bricks. These bricks are made by grinding grains, and mixing them with water. This creates a fine paste. This paste is then shaped, and stack in a warm, dry enclosed space. This is often underground, in a concrete pit. When a baijiu manufacturer settles upon a method of constructing qu, it is rarely changed. This ensures that every bottle of baijiu from the same brand enjoys a consistent taste.
The bricks of qu are left untouched for around two months. During this time, they solidify. Natural, healthy bacteria will also attach itself to the qu during this process.
When the qu bricks have been left long enough, they are ground into a fine powder. This is then used during the fermentation process of baijiu.
Xiaqu follows a different production process to Daqu. The most prominent difference is that small qu is constructed from rice, not larger grains. This gives small qu a lighter, more aromatic taste when used in baijiu.
This means that small qu cannot reach the size of large bricks. Instead, it is wrapped in small balls. From here, the phase of production mirrors that of big qu.
Grains and Baijiu
Grain is the most distinctive ingredient in baijiu. The grains used within baijiu are what gives the spirit its taste. Different distilleries and brands of baijiu use different grains, depending on what grows in the local territory.
There are five core grains are used in the production of baijiu.
Sorghum is the most common ingredient in baijiu. Sorghum is a crop that was first discovered in Africa. It has been grown in China for over 5,000 years, and 90% if the native crops are used to make baijiu. In times of high demand, sorghum is still imported from other territories.
Sorghum is very tough and bitter in its raw form. When used in baijiu, it is melted into a paste and distilled. This gives sorghum a nutty taste, and a distinct scent.
Wheat is mainly used when creating qu to mix with the baijiu. However, some manufacturers also use wheat in the spirit itself. This is because wheat is slightly lighter and sweeter than sorghum.
Although sorghum remains the most popular core grain in baijiu, wheat is a close second. A baijiu that utilises wheat will be much sweeter on the palate than a sorghum based baijiu, with a honey-like taste.
Rice and Sticky Rice
Baijiu was discovered as an evolution of Chinese rice wine. This means that rice remains an ingredient of many popular baijiu brands to this day.
Long grain rice, in particular, creates a light flavor. Manufacturers that market their baijiu as a medicinal aid also prefer the use of long grain rice. It contains considerably less fat than a sorghum based baijiu.
Rice aroma baijiu is often compared to the Japanese spirit Saké. Some western baijiu experts recommend rice aroma baijiu to a first-time drinker of the spirit due to this lightness.
Some baijiu distilleries also use glutinous, or sticky, rice on their products. This is because glutinous rice is even lighter than long grain rice. However, glutinous rice also clumps when heated. This makes it difficult to distill. Many distilleries will incorporate other grains to counteract this.
Corn is only typically used in strong aroma baijiu. It also has a high fat content, meaning that it is removed from the process before distillation.
If used, corn provides a unique taste and scent to baijiu. A corn-based baijiu will be both sweet and spicy on the palate. It will also have a very distinct scent.
Popular Infusions in Baijiu
Some manufacturers also infuse their baijiu with fruit or herbs. This is done to add flavour to the baijiu, and soften the strong taste. In addition, some manufacturers market baijiu as a health food. This necessitates the addition of popular Chinese medicinal herbs.
Infusion is usually the last phase of baijiu production, applied just prior to the ageing process. This could last any period of time from six months to several decades. The longer ingredients are left to infuse, the more distinct their flavour becomes in the bottled baijiu.