Baijiu (白酒) is distilled liquor made primarily in China using grains. When translated from Mandarin, the name baijiu means transparent (白, or bai) alcoholic drink (酒, or jiu). Whilst baijiu remains the most commonplace name for the beverage, it is also sometimes referred to as samshu, baigan (白干), or shaojiu (烧酒, aka fired liquor).
The discovery of baijiu has never been formally dated. However, it is believed that the drink can be traced to the 2nd Century BCE. Baijiu rose to prominence and popularity during the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Since then, baijiu has played a hugely important role in Chinese society and customs. ( See Drinking Baijiu – Chinese Customs & Traditions. As a result, baijiu has gained a reputation as the national drink of China. Baijiu is so popular in its native country that it accounts for 99.6% of all spirit sales in China.
To this day, baijiu is consumed throughout the country, often alongside meals. Baijiu also plays a pivotal role in business trading, and personal celebrations. This popularity makes baijiu the most popular alcohol in the world in terms of production volume. The National Statistics Bureau of China estimates that around 12.9 billion litres of baijiu are distilled each year. This is more than vodka and whiskey combined.
Baijiu is produced throughout China, with distilleries found all over the nation. Every territory produces their own, unique brand of baijiu, based upon cultural preferences of the area. The name baijiu refers to the transparent liquid, not the beverage itself.
The aroma of baijiu, in particular, is hugely important to Chinese nationals. The strong scent, however, can often be problematic for Westerners to cope with.
The importance of aroma means that baijiu is often divided into four sub-categories, which are defined by their scent and flavour.
Rice Aroma Baijiu
This baijiu is most commonly produced in southeast China. This baijiu takes its name from its ingredients, which are almost exclusively rice-based. Rice aroma baijiu is very light, floral and sweet to the taste.
Light Aroma Baijiu
This baijiu is found in the northeast of China. This spirit is called light aroma because it has a sweet, less forceful flavor than other baijiu. However, this baijiu also has a famously high alcohol content.
Strong Aroma Baijiu
This is the most popular baijiu in the world. In fact, it comprises two-thirds of all baijiu sales. Strong aroma baijiu is produced in Sichuan, in the southwest of China. It is widely accompanied to be the ideal accompaniment to spicy food. ( See: Baijiu & Food Pairing)
Sauce Aroma Baijiu
This baijiu incorporates soy sauce into its recipe, which leads to a strong, savoury taste. Distilled in the southwest of China, a popular example of a sauce aroma is Moutai. This hugely popular beverage was formerly considered the official baijiu of the Chinese government, and was served at all state functions. This led to the Kweichow Moutai baijiu distillery formerly enjoying governmental financial sponsorship.
Grains are also required to create baijiu. Which grain is used varies from distillery to distillery. Popular choices include:
This tough, nutty crop provides baijiu with a distinct aroma and nutty taste.
Rice gives baijiu a lighter taste, which is almost floral. Rice is usually used in light aroma baijiu.
A baijiu that utilises wheat will typically be sweeter in taste. Wheat-based baijiu is often compared to honeyed wine.
This ingredient creates a very unique taste in baijiu. Corn is equal parts sweet and spicy. This means that corn is a common ingredient in strong aroma baijiu.
Choosing the correct baijiu for any occasion is very important in Chinese society. Baijiu often accompanies meals, and every territory in the China has their own cuisine. Strong aroma baijiu, for example, is designed to counter the extremely spicy food native to the Sichuan region.
Baijiu is well known for having an extremely high alcohol content. This unique taste means that the spirit remains largely unknown outside of China. Opinion remains divided on the merits of baijiu in the Western world. Food and drink commentator David Wondrich described Moutai, arguably China’s most illustrious baijiu, as, “tasting like the bottom of Bluto Blutarsky’s laundry hamper.”
This opinion is not universal, however. Another noted food critic, Jordan Mackay, describes Moutai as, “the most naturally complex white spirit in the world.” Former US president Richard Nixon and his aide Henry Kissinger were also famously served Moutai at a state visit to China in 1972. This prompted Mr. Kissinger to quote, “I think if we drink enough Moutai we can solve anything.”
This could be considered an early example of agreements with Chinese nationals being sealed with the assistance of baijiu. To this day, any business arrangement conducted in China will be sealed with baijiu. Declining a drink of baijiu in China is considered to be very bad manners. (See: Baijiu Drinking Culture)
Baijiu is steadily gaining more recognition throughout the world. August 9th has been assigned World Baijiu Day, and the spirit is enjoyed throughout the world on this date. The drink remains an essential part of Chinese culture all year around, however. In fact, the Kweichow Moutai distiller arranges a University degree in the manufacture of baijiu. This course is designed to ensure that the immaculate standards of Moutai are upheld by future generations.
Baijiu is also considered collectible in China, especially aged bottles. The Shanghai division of Christie’s recently held the world’s first baijiu-only auction. Rare bottles of baijiu dated prior to the 1960s can sell for very substantial sums of money.