Everything You Need To Know About The World’s Most Popular Spirit
Ask a group of friends to name the world’s most consumed type of spirit and you’ll probably get a range of answers. The gin renaissance is in full effect and Scottish distilleries are expanding as quickly as they can, but with a total production close to 10 billion litres a year, baijiu dwarfs all the competition.
The Chinese drink is responsible for a third total global spirits sales, and if the annual production was poured into shot glasses the tower would reach to the moon. KweiChow Moutai, the company that makes Moutai baijiu, is the world’s most valuable liquor company with a valuation of over US$150 billion. And yet this spirit is barely known outside of China.
What exactly is it?
The name literally means “white liquor,” and with as many as 10,000 distilleries across China, there’s a huge variety within the category. Sorghum is the most common base for the spirit but other grains like rice, wheat or corn can also be used and most baijius are stronger than Western spirits, clocking in at between 50 per cent and 70 per cent alcohol.
Many distillers still use traditional methods that are very labour-intensive, and the spirit is often fermented in stone or brick pits, clay or even porcelain jars. Cheap varieties dominate the local market, but premium export products tend to distilled multiple times and aged for years. The most popular brand, Moutai, is distilled nine times and then aged for three years in ceramic pots.
What does it taste like?
Broadly speaking, baijiu is split into five categories: strong (rich fruity aromas and an earthy finish), light (a more delicate, floral nose), sauce (a salty, umami-rich flavour of soy sauce and mushrooms), rice (the mildest form of baijiu with subtle herbaceous flavours) and mixed (which can be any combination of the above).
Even within those categories, there’s a lot of variation. KweiChow Moutai Australia General Manager Alex Fang says that while they sell three varieties of Moutai in Australia, all falling into the sauce aroma category, “they all have completely different tastes. It’s like comparing Pinot to Shiraz or Cab Sav, it’s very complicated.”
A local retailer lists other varieties with “sweet cotton candy and hints of savoury soy beans on the nose followed by soy sauce, aniseed and a long dry finish” and another boasting a “light aroma with sweet peas, fermented grains and slightly lingering honey finish”.
Generally speaking, sauce aroma baijius are as polarising as heavily peated scotches and tend to be popular with afficionados. The more approachable light and rice aromas sit at the other end of the spectrum, and are a more accessible entry point.
Does anybody drink it outside of China?
Baijiu has a long history in China, and tradition states that its production goes back to the Song dynasty, more than a thousand years ago. As consumption grew, hundreds of local variants sprang up across the country.
But despite early attempts at exporting (Moutai won a gold medal at 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition), it’s only been in the last few decades that any significant quantities made their way overseas. But the response has been strong and Moutai is expecting that ten percent of sales will come from international markets by 2021.
The Moutai store on Sydney’s Sussex Street has conducted in-store tastings since 2003 and in that time Australian sales have increased to more than 100,000 bottles as local bars and restaurants show more interest in the spirit. When an 80-year old spirit is released soon, it’s expected to retail at about $50,000 a bottle and three of the ten bottles to make it out of China will come to Australia.
Another brand, Blue Harbour, is making a 100 per cent Australian baijiu that will be launched before Christmas this year in Australia and will hit the Chinese market in time for Chinese New Year.
How do I drink it?
Blue Harbour representative Javier Olavarria says that they have intentionally made their baijiu, which uses separately fermented sorghum, wheat, rice and barley, “more delicate” for the local market. And though he recommends drinking it “the Chinese way, so straight up,” he adds that “we will be developing cocktails in the future to promote it to western consumers.”
Because of its distinctive flavour, baijiu can’t simply be substituted into other drinks, but there is a range of websites devoted to cocktails making use of the spirit.
Looking in the other direction, Penfolds lot.518 is aimed primarily at the Chinese market. The limited edition blend of fortified shiraz and baijiu mellows out the spirit and Penfolds says the resulting hybrid lets the “floral and fruity notes of the Baijiu meet the bold signature style of our Fortified Shiraz.”
But however you choose to drink it, expect to see more of the world’s most popular spirit soon.
(Lead image: Moutai / supplied)
Published 10 June, 2019