Baijiu Ready to Meet the World

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It’s the world’s biggest-selling spirit and very few people have even heard of it, Jim Boyce reports.

Baijiu is the hermit of the global spirits family. While siblings like gin, rum, vodka and whiskey are widely produced and praised, baijiu is isolated in China, despite having greater output than all of them.

How big is baijiu? Some 10 billion liters of this grain-based spirit, most of it more than 50 percent alcohol, are made each year. That’s a dozen 750 ml bottles for each of China’s billion-plus adults, enough to fill 4000 Olympic-sized pools, so much that you might say the nation is swimming in the stuff.

Baijiu, which translates to “white alcohol”, is unique in ways other than isolation, too, including production.

Baijiu can use one or multiple grains, including sorghum, wheat, rice and corn. But while most major global spirits do a distinct two-step shuffle from starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol, baijiu is “one and done”. Saccharification and fermentation happen simultaneously.

That process is kick-started by a stinky brick of aged grain called qu (sounds like “chew”). Qu includes yeasts, fungi and other funky stuff, and is crumbled and sprinkled over moist cooked grain.

Baijiu is also unique in using solid-state fermentation. With no water added, the post-fermentation result is a solid mass rather than the soupy to slurry ones associated with other major grain-based spirits.

Intriguingly, some baijiu uses multiple fermentation rounds, which can also involve adding fresh grain.

Moutai, which Brand Finance ranked as the world’s most valuable spirits label in 2018, states that it has eight such rounds. (Also of note, Brand Finance states that four of the world’s top five spirits labels are baijiu, with the only exception being Johnnie Walker. That just goes to show the scale of the China market.)

There are many other variables in making baijiu, including where fermentation occurs (from ceramic jars to brick-lined pits to centuries-old mud ones) and how long the distilled alcohol is stored (from months to years depending on the baijiu style and quality).

The result is that baijiu is no one-trick panda, but instead offers a wide range of styles, although many of the aromas and flavors will strike first-timers as unusual.

“Sauce aroma” baijiu, for example, is funky and complex: think soy sauce, sesame oil, mushrooms, and umami. “Strong aroma” baijiu has a rich intense fruitiness, a distinct sweetness, and can feel like a punch to the senses. And “light aroma” bajiu tends to be simpler, more neutral, a good, though still powerful, entry point for newcomers.

A flight of these three styles is an eye opener. Think of the contrasts in a flight of a silver rum, black rum and rhum agricole or, in wine terms, a fat buttery Chardonnay, crisp herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc and dry diesel-scented Riesling. To be honest, it’s hard to find equivalents.

The way baijiu is typically consumed is also an eye opener, not to mention a liver punisher. White spirit siblings like gin and vodka tend to be imbibed cold or in mixed drinks. Baijiu, in contrast, is downed as a series of room-temperature shots to the toast of ganbei (“dry glass”), all with heavy cultural significance.

Baijiu’s unique smell and taste already challenge open-minded newcomers. Intensify that experience with a dozen or more warm shots at someone else’s usually speedy pace and it doesn’t bode well for love at first taste. (Imagine doing the same with warm gin.) In fact, survivors of these ganbei sessions often end up loathing baijiu, much as they might reject all tequila after a reckless night or two of shots.

This situation has made baijiu a tough sell for those who stock the world’s booze shelves. Many who promote baijiu abroad, and to younger audiences in China, are stressing cocktails. This allows for flexibility in alcohol levels and in pairing familiar aromas and flavors with those of a given baijiu brand and style. Even so, after years of effort, and of baijiu being continuously tapped as the next big thing, market penetration is slow.

But slow progress is better than none. As a co-organizer of annual World Baijiu Day events, I have seen both Chinese and expatriates in Beijing enjoy baijiu cocktails as well as foods that include baijiu, from ice cream to chocolate to pizza with toppings flambéed in this spirit. I have also seen people go from loathing baijiu to appreciating it just by tasting a flight at their own pace. As with wine, beer and whiskey, the power of “compare and contrast” helps shatter the mantra of “they all taste the same”. It’s all a matter of getting baijiu into people’s mouths in ways they can appreciate.

Also offering hope is a trio of baijiu makers beyond China – one each in Canada, the United States and New Zealand –although they are a drop in the bucket compared to the reported 10,000 producers in the parent country.

Portland, Oregon-based distillery Vinn was started in 2009 by couple Phan Ly and Kim Trinh, who trace their ancestry to China and Vietnam. The family recipe is said to be seven generations old and their five children, all with the middle name Vinn, help run the operation. They use California brown rice to make a flagship baijiu at 40 percent alcohol, a family reserve at 53 percent and a honey version.

A bit further north, Dragon Mist is a fairly new brand produced near Vancouver, British Columbia, with local grain and glacial water. Started by Sherry Jiang, Dragon Mist distills its baijiu four times, ages it three years, and sells 40 percent and 56 percent versions.

Last, but certainly not least, is Taizi, founded by brothers Sam Lu and Ben Lu in Christchurch, New Zealand, after they found a 19th-century copper still. The Lus use Australian sorghum and New Zealand water for their spirit. Taizi packs a punch at 58 percent alcohol but is tasty and as worthy a starting point as any for a journey into the world of baijiu.

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