Typically made from sorghum, Baijiu (pronounced bye-joe) is the number one selling alcohol in the world, and by a long shot. Around the world each year, more baijiu in China is sold than whiskey, vodka, gin, tequila, and rum, combined. And yet, it remains virtually unknown outside of Chinese drinking culture.
Baijiu holds prominence in myth, solemn rites and daily life, and is a common theme across the five-thousand-year history of China. For anyone who is traveling to understand a country’s history, customs, or food culture, baijiu checks every box and is a must-try for anyone visiting China.
Wine is categorized by the location the grapes are grown, tequila is categorized by its Agave content, and Baijiu too has its own taxonomy, and that’s through aroma. And much like France or Mexico, the Chinese government has played a role in regulating this, specifically around 13 aromatic categories.
The most popular, Nongxiang, or strong aroma, made up a whopping two-thirds of the 10.8 million liter baijiu market in 2018. Here’s what makes it different than other types of baijiu: by continuously fermenting the mash in mud pits, there’s chemical bonding between the initially high alcohol and acid content, which produces a lot of ester compounds. Esters are very fruity in their aromas. As a result, this type of baijiu smells very similar to pineapples, banana, and star anise. That alcohol and acid coupling reduces a lot of the acidity, creating a surprisingly pleasant, smooth drink to sip on, despite its 52% alcohol content.
The Chinese have been making alcohol for 9000 years, long before the creation of baijiu, or even the written language. Legend has it that thousands of years ago a man named Du Kang once stored sorghum grains in a tree. When he returned, he found it had been fermented by rainwater and gave off the most beautiful aroma. Pineapples originate from South America and Anise from the Middle East, so if this was the strong aroma baijiu, the ester aroma would have been completely new to the Chinese at the time. Today, the word “Du Kang” is used to describe exceptional baijiu.
Baijiu is made with rice, sorghum, and sometimes with other vegetables, grains, or beans. A fermentation starter made up of a mixture of yeast, fungi, and friendly bacteria is added to the grain mixture and left to sit anywhere from one to thirty months, making a mash. Recipes can include steaming, mashing, or being stepped on by barefoot Chinese women. Then the mash can ferment in mud pits, be buried underground in ceramic jars, or simply sit in glass bottles until it’s ready to be distilled and bottled.
Science time: alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. When distilling liquor, you heat the mash and liquids just enough to evaporate the alcohol and aromatic compounds, leaving behind the water. The result? A super-boozy and aromatic vapor, which is cooled back into a liquid. Many whiskeys, vodkas, and other liquors are distilled several times to pump up its alcohol content.
Big Chinese producers don’t use modern methods for distilling as you’d find in a large-scale whiskey or gin distillery for example. Sticking to traditional methods keeps the alcohol very strong. Unlike the distillation of other grainy alcohols, baijiu producers are heating the mash itself, rather than a liquid-mash combo. And yet even though baijiu is only distilled once, it reaches alcohol contents of over 70%.
By heating the mash itself, the vaporized alcohol has to work its way up through all the layers of grain before it can be collected at the top of the vessel. That means the alcohol has to vaporize and condense several times as it makes its way up through each grain of rice and sorghum, effectively re-distilling itself several times at a tiny, awesome scale.
After the baijiu is made, it is not ready for sale just yet. Baijiu will be put in containers and stored underground for a year, if not longer. It’s often infused with fresh fruits, or other ingredients before consumption. At the last stop on our Lost Plate Food Tour in Chengdu, guests try a 45% alcohol content strong-aroma baijiu and a plum baijiu (around 22% alcohol content).
On the Lost Plate Tour in Beijing, guests will have the opportunity to try a famous Baijiu named Er Guo Tou. It is typical sorghum-based alcohol, with a 50-55% alcohol content. The name “Er Guo Tou” literally translates to “second distillation” which means the liquor is acquired from the second distillation, whereas most baijiu is only distilled once, hence a high level of purity and very unique as most baijiu is distilled only once. It is one of the most commonly drunk baijiu in Beijing and thus has a deep association with China’s capital.
Leftover mash is used to feed livestock or even re-introduced to fermentation pits for a greater complexity and signature flavor. A good example is Luzhou Laojiao in Sichuan province. It is one of the largest distilleries in China and among the oldest still in operation, credited with inventing the strong-aroma type of baijiu centuries ago. Founded in 1573, Luzhou Laojiao uses regionally grown sorghum using a continuous mud pit fermentation method invented in 1425. They only consider a fermentation pit mature once it’s at least 30 years old, often using leftover mash from pit-generations past.
Martinis should have only odd numbers of olives. There’s a proper way to choose a glass for different beer types. You can offend people by how you drink whiskey. Baijiu has also evolved a set of rules and customs around; it isn’t just a drink, but a culture of drinking.
1. The Chinese only cheer with alcoholic beverages. Baijiu’s distinctive aroma is prized in China’s culinary culture and is extremely strong, so it’s often served with food and enjoyed over a meal. Cheering frequently is common, but only use your alcohol glass to do.
2. Cheer with two hands. Using two hands is a staple of courtesy in many Asian cultures from everything to cheers to exchanging money. It’s a gesture showing you’re not conducting bad-faith business behind your back; that you are engaging with two open hands and respect.
3. Where your glass touches theirs is symbolic of your relationship. The Chinese notice where the rim of your glass is in relative position to theirs. If you touch the lip of your glass below theirs, it means that you have respect for them. If they position the rim of their glass below yours, then it means they have respect for you. This can become a competitive sport when both sides equally respect each other, which can lead to a joyous friendship once the other party realizes you are well versed in the culture and maintain a low ego.
4. With tea or water, you should only pour till the glass is 70% full. This may not seem very courteous in Western culture, but in Chinese culture, this is a must. If you fill a cup of tea to the brim, you are telling your Chinese client you are finished speaking with them and are implicitly asking them to leave the table. Doing so is bad for business, bad for rapport, and bad for future dealings. Don’t give offense (or at least, not by accident.)
With a beer or hard liquor, it’s the opposite of tea. You should fill the glass 90-105% full, to demonstrate generosity and goodwill. It’s cool to overflow and spill just a little bit. Some people even attempt to show how much surface tension the beer or liquor will demonstrate before it overflows, similar to over-pouring sake into wooden boxes when served at traditional Japanese establishments. It’s a sign of generosity, and good times.
Another thing to note is that Chinese beer cups or liquor glasses are generally not very large. Some are as small as thimbles and some about the size of a double shot glass. They’re for sipping, not shooting, so take it easy.
Like all alcohol types, it’s usually an acquired taste. No matter what the aroma class of baijiu is, the novice drinker should follow the following easy steps when drinking:
Inhaling through the nose prevents any burning sort of sensation from affecting the nasal passages. Baijiu can range from 40%-65% alcohol content with the majority hovering in the 50-55% range, so drink responsibly. Ganbei!
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