It’s the best-selling distilled spirit in the world, and you’ve probably never heard of it. But it’s poised to make a splash in the US, and it’s time you learned about China’s favorite form of booze: baijiu.
Baijiu production dates back at least 1000 years, and many major brands have been in operation for centuries—the oldest still in business, Shui Jing Fang, started in 1408. Today, it’s ubiquitous at social gatherings in China, from wedding banquets and state dinners to karaoke bars and neighborhood dives. Statistics from 2009 peg baijiu as a $23 billion industry, representing more than half of the total Chinese alcohol market.
Baijiu is sometimes misidentified as “Chinese whiskey,” and like bourbon, rye and Scotch, it is made from grain, but the similarities end there. For starters, baijiu is made from sorghum, sometimes by itself and sometimes in combination other grains like wheat, corn and rice. And the production process is completely different, too. Where Western distilleries cook the grain in water to break down its starch before fermentation, baijiu grains ferment in solid form: They’re mixed with qu, a complex combination of yeasts and other microorganisms, and then buried in mud pits, where the qu turns starch into sugar and then sugar into alcohol. The fermented grain is transferred to a wooden still that looks something like a giant dim sum steamer, through which hot steam is pumped to extract the alcohol. What emerges is generally around 50 percent alcohol (that’s 100-proof), and often ages in clay jars before bottling. (Aging affects flavor, but not color—all baijiu is clear.)
The result is a spirit that tastes, well, unique. Baijiu is most definitely an acquired taste, and according to popular belief, one has to drink 300 shots over time to acquire the taste. (This “fact” inspired writer Derek Sandhaus’ excellent blog about baijiu, 300 Shots to Greatness.) It has a distinctive earthy funk that’s hard to compare to anything else, though it’s somewhat like a combination of chocolate and mushrooms.
In China, high-end baijiu is often given as a gift: If you want to close a business deal, impress your future in-laws or curry favor with a government official, an expensive bottle is one of the best ways to do it. But lately, the government has been cracking down on gift giving as a form of bribery, and baijiu sales have suffered. Which is a good thing for the adventurous American drinker, as baijiu-makers are looking to expand distribution in the West.
In fact, CNS Imports, the oldest and largest baijiu importer in the US (it’s been selling some 20 brands here since 1982), launched baijiuamerica.com earlier this year for just that purpose. You can find its products in 11 states right now, with more on the horizon. Currently, the best place to find baijiu is in Asian grocery stores and Chinatowns, but CNS is hoping to move into more “mainstream” liquor stores soon.
There’s even a brand designed expressly for the American palate. Byejoe, which launched last year and is available in 10 states, is made in China but, the brand says, “skillfully refined in the West using revolutionary patented technology.” Byejoe sells a bottling called Dragonfire flavored with dragonfruit, lychee and chiles, as well as a standard unflavored variety.
In its homeland, baijiu is usually drunk by the shot, out of tiny glasses that are refilled many times as guests toast with each other. But creative bartenders in both China and the US have started experimenting with cocktails, too. Baijiu tends to work nicely with things that are both sweet and tart, so berries and pomegranate are popular, as well as ginger beer. (A few places to sample a baijiu cocktail: Hakkasan and Peking Tavern in Los Angeles, M.Y. China in San Francisco, Little Sheep in Honolulu and—soon—The Baldwin Bar in Boston.)
Ready to dive in? Here are a few baijius to try.
Kweichow Moutai ($160 for 375 mL)
Might as well start at the top. This is China’s most prestigious (and most expensive) brand. It’s the one served at all state functions: Richard Nixon got tipsy on Moutai with Zhou Enlai during his famous 1972 trip to China, and Barack Obama toasted current Chinese president Xi Jinping with it when he visited the States last year. It’s a blend of up to 200 different spirits, giving it a huge amount of complexity, with lots of savory, nutty, mushroomy flavor.
Shui Jing Fang Wellbay ($100 for 375 mL)
Consider this the Johnnie Walker Blue Label of baijiu. It’s the finest bottling from China’s oldest extant distillery, which is more than 600 years old. (In fact, international drinks conglomerate Diageo, which also owns Johnnie Walker, is now majority owner of Shui Jing Fang.) It has a nice balance of earthiness and fruitiness, with notes of plums along with henna and umami.
Luzhou Laojiao Zisha ($80 for 375 mL)
Originating in 1573 during the Ming Dynasty, the Luzhou Laojiao distillery is known for its adherence to tradition, from old-school production methods to its matte porcelain bottles. This rich spirit is on the sweeter side, with strong chocolaty aromas and flavors, along with peach notes and a bit of peppery spice.
Byejoe Red ($28)
If you want to try experimenting with baijiu cocktails, go with this lower-cost bottling, which was designed to appeal to baijiu virgins. That signature aroma is still there if toned down a bit, and there’s a much lighter finish that doesn’t linger on the tongue. There’s a lot of fruit to be found on the palate, including apple, cherry and pineapple.