What is Baijiu?
Widely popular in Asian culture, in the U.S. Baijiu is hard to recognize on a shelf. In western culture, it’s comparable to nontoxic gasoline, liquid razor blades or extra sharp funky aged cheese. Those are a lot of funky flavors that you might want nothing to do with, so how has it managed to have the top rank in worldwide sales?
First, let me clear up how to say it properly there are more than two ways: Baijiu can be pronounced either “bye Joe,” “bye Gio” or even “Bah-joo” works. Baijiu is typically made by mixing steamed sorghum grains, water, and a special fermentation agent called jiuqu which translates to “liquor starter.”
It is then aged in an underground pit or in a buried jar from anywhere to a month up to 30 years! The jiuqu is so sensitive to the surrounding environment of the area it is produced in, that any change in atmosphere or soil will affect the final product. Which is also why each region that makes baijiu is distinct. Typically the jiuqu is fermented sorghum, though other grains can be used as well.
All of this effort is worth it though, it’s incredibly strong. A standard bottle of baijiu can run anywhere in between 80 and 120 proof! Those are some strong razorblades!
Baijiu is one of the only liquors out there that can classify their variations as “fragrances.” These fragrances are then categorized by the spirit’s flavor. There are five different types of fragrances, honey fragrance, layered fragrance, light fragrance, rice fragrance, sauce fragrance, and strong or “thick” fragrance.
Rice fragrance is usually made with glutinous or long grain rice, this variety can sometimes include infusions of fruits, or tea leaves to give it medicinal purposes.
Sauce fragrance is named for its similarity in taste to soy sauce, and powerful fragrance.
Strong fragrance is the most popular type of baijiu and has a fiery flavor with a faint sweetness.
Western palates tend to favor the lighter and sweeter, but sauce fragrance, which is, admittedly, a tough one to get past for beginners, does pair well with pickled foods. There’s plenty of subcategories and different infusions depending on the brand, region, and production.
Each baijiu mixes differently in cocktails, though a lot of experts call it the most “unmixable spirit.” So how is this the most consumed liquor in the world?
Baijiu is associated with those in a high-class Chinese society, but it is not only for the elite. It’s beloved by the Chinese population, all 1.3 billion of them. Back in the 1950s, it was made their national beverage! There are over 14,000 distilleries producing baijiu to keep up with the demand.
Drinking culture is very important in China, and the ritual of drinking baijiu is typically an important part of building and maintaining relationships. Baijiu is usually served in tiny thimble-sized wine goblets and used in toasts many times over one meal or sitting. Should you ever find yourself at a table where baijiu is being served there are some instructions you’re going to want to abide by.
Before drinking guests raise their glasses and toast to "ganbei!” drinkers may attempt to bring their glass lower than yours, which you should also try to do to them to indicate humility. The baijiu should be downed in one gulp to which the glass is held upside down. This demonstrates you have finished the entire round! But don’t worry, if you are unable to finish drinking, then you can politely decline.
Keep in mind, drinking baijiu can bridge cultural gaps, and your hosts will be pleased with your willingness to drink it. In Chinese culture, the more a person gets drunk from being toasted by their company, the more, well for lack of better terms, opportunities are bestowed for them.
Most Westerners get lost in the complexity and variety of the flavors baijiu can have, and the spirit has not really taken off in the West, yet. Unless you’re trying to impress your bartender friends, you’re probably not going to see this drink stocked at your local bar or in anyone’s liquor cabinet.
A Brief History:
Given that Chinese culture is one of the most ancient societies in the world, it’s no shock that Baijiu has also been around for centuries. In 200 AD, the Han Dynasty used a fermenting agent called “qu.” to make what they called huangjiu or “yellow wine.”
Through the years the recipe changed its current form closely resembles the same one that was produced in the time of the Ming Dynasty. The only proof we found was, according to The Culture Trip, an ancient text from the Song dynasty dated 982 CE. The text talks about the method of distilling that uses wheat and barley with a similar approach to making baijiu. It wouldn’t be until the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) when baijiu was certainly widely consumed in China.
In the U.S. President Richard Nixon is to thank for bringing baijiu over to our side of the world. It During a visit in 1972 with Premier Zhou Enlai, second in command under Mao Zedong. Zhou told Nixon that Maotai baijiu, gained China international repute when a bottle of it was accidentally dropped at the 1915 World Expo.
The result was a strange and pungent smell that filled the entire venue. People came to see what it was, and word quickly spread about it. Chinese baijiu's created quite the startle at the event, taking the majority of the alcohol awards. Zhou went on to tell Nixon that the soldiers of the Red Army came to the town that produced Maotai during the arduous Long March, and their spirits were lifted by the drink. The soldiers then took cases of Maotai with them on their revolutionary endeavors.
Zhou once commented, “although alcohol is not good for your health, I dare say that Maotai liquor is healthy." Later, during Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's visit to the United States in 1979, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger agreed with him, saying, "I think if we drink enough Moutai we can solve anything." Too bad it didn’t help Nixon with anything.
The Maotai's strain is protected as a state secret. It has become part of China's intangible cultural heritage.
Even distillers take extreme measures to protect their own recipes for their different fragrances of baijiu.
It isn’t completely lost to culture in the US, there are baijiu inspired speakeasies opening up, and a few craft masters that have found different baijius make great cocktails. Which means our palates might become more trained to this liquor sooner than we think.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Chinese drinking culture as much as we did. Thanks for reading, and as always…