Drink Baijiu and Get an Authentic Taste of Chinese Culture
China consumes more spirits than any other country in the world. In the thirstiest nation on Earth, the hard liquor of choice is baijiu, also known as shaojiu. The name literally means white alcohol, referencing the clear liquid that is a strong distilled spirit, generally containing 40 to 60% ABV. The liquor is pronounced similarly to (Bye-Joe) and can be found in every corner of China. As a result, the consumption of baijiu dominates the Chinese liquor industry.
A Little History
Baijiu has been made and consumed for over 5000 years in China. As the communist party became well established in China, guests at lavish Chinese banquets (often thrown by members of the communist party) were encouraged to “gan bei” a term which roughly translates to empty the glass.
We have other related terms such as “bottoms up.” This tradition came as a surprise to the U.S. president who helped open China to the West.
In winter of 1972 president Richard Nixon sat at an extravagant dinner held in Beijing’s Great Hall of People, surrounded by many of China’s elite, on the eve of a momentous change in the world. Nixon was encouraged by Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao’s number one man, who told him to gan bei the powerful baijiu in his cup. Instead, Nixon timidly sipped the fiery booze, walking a fine line by trying not to insult his hosts while not getting too plastered to continue his negotiations. Nixon’s caginess proved fruitful for the United States and China, eventually opening China up to the Occident.
Nixon learned several valuable lessons during this historic trip to China. Perhaps the most important lesson the former president learned: No tippler’s trip to China is complete without tasting baijiu.
When drinking baijiu, you are drinking the history of Chinese distillation, distilling the culture itself. Baijiu has been produced and consumed in China for millennia and continues to play a central role in Chinese drinking culture.
How Baijiu is Made
Baijiu, like most alcohol, is made through the brewing and distillation of grains. Sorghum is usually the grain of choice, but different grains are used in various parts of China. In southern China glutinous rice is sometimes used, while in northern China varieties are made with wheat, barley, and millet.
The fermented grain is heated with a special distiller until the liquid turns to steam. The steam is then collected and cooled. Making this colorless and fragrant liquor, we call Baijiu.
Depending on the grains and method used to make Baijiu, it is typically classified based on its fragrance which includes:
- Sauce Fragrance
This classification is used to describe the incredibly fragrant class of Baijiu’s, which has quite literally a taste similar to sauces like soy sauce. It is best paired with preserved of pickled food dishes. Although this taste may be hard to digest for foreigners, one of China’s most famous Baijiu, Moutai, falls into this classification.
- Strong Fragrance
A sweet, rich, but gentle fragrance made by the high ethyl acetate content in this class of Baijiu. It’s known for it’s mellow, but lasting fragrance. Brands that fall into this classification include Wuliangye and Liuilingzui
- Light Fragrance
Baijiu of this class is dry, delicate, and light. Leaving the drinker with a clean and mellow mouthfeel. An example of a light fragrance Baijiu is Fenjiu from Shanxi.
- Rice Fragrance
As the name would suggest, this class of Baijiu is made from distilled rice. It is slightly aromatic but still gives a clean mouthfeel. This type of Baijiu has a long history, and a brand of Baijiu in this class is the Sanhuajiu from Guilin.
- Phoenix Fragrance
This class of Baijiu is fermented in pits and aged in rattan containers, giving it a fruity and earthy aroma. Xifengjiu from Shaanxi is a Baijiu in this class
- Mixed Fragrance
This last type is used to describe Baijiu that is a mixture of the other types. Baijiu in this class varies in their dryness, taste, and aroma.
Types of Baijiu
The term baijiu can be confusing because it is a general term that is approximately translated as “white alcohol” or “white liquor” and in some cases “schnapps.”
Perhaps the most notable form of liquor referred to as baijiu is Maotai, a strong and rich spirit that is usually between 100 and 110 proof. Many consider Maotai to be the ultimate baijiu drinking experience.
Another popular baijiu is Shuijingfang which was a precursor to Maotai. Shuijingfang’s roots date back five thousand years, in a system that used particular microbes to create a drink that beverage scholar, Li Zhengping, prizes for its “smooth texture, unique aroma, elegant flavor and a pleasant lingering aftertaste.”
#3 Wuliang YeWuliang
Wuliang Ye (also known as “Five Grain Liquor”) is appreciated for its unique combination of regular rice, glutinous rice, corn, wheat, and sorghum. The liquor was taken from the waters of the Jinsha and Min Rivers, which flow together in the ancient city of Yibin in the Sichuan province. The modern day Wuliangye Group is a distiller that is still based in Yibin but offers a number of concoctions based on the old Wuliang Ye recipe that fit most budgets. These include Wuliang Deity, Wuliang Spring, and Wuliang Pure liquor.
#4 Luzhou Laojiao
In addition to Wuliana Ye, there is also Luzhou Laojiao, which is a fragrant liquor that is clear as water. Its origins date back to the Three Kingdoms Period.
How Baijiu is drank
Traditionally, baijiu is typically served at room temperature or warm in a ceramic bottle. It is then poured into small cups to drink. Similar to vodka, baijiu is sold in glass or ceramic bottles and consumed in shot-like glasses. It is traditionally drunk at dinner and important events, rarely on its own. Baiju is often sold as a set with a few bottles, a small heater, and a set of small cups for serving.
Learning to Enjoy Baijiu
As you can tell the history of baijiu runs deep in China. So where do you start as a traveler who is looking to try baijiu for the first time? You could spend hundreds of dollars for a high-end bottle of Maotai. But you would be best advised to follow this tip given to me by a liquor store owner, who was from the Shandong Province, which can save you a lot of time and money. He told me to purchase Er Guo Tou, which is one of the most popular types of baijiu in China. Favored by the working man, Er Guo Tou is relatively cheap and it is authentic. This is the perfect starting point because baijiu is generally an acquired taste and it is a better experience (and far cheaper) to start on the low-end with Er Guo Tou and work your way up to the good stuff.
If you cannot wait to go to China to get started on your baijiu journey, I recommend trying Hong-Kong Baijiu (HKB), which boasts being “the world’s gateway to baijiu.” At 86 proof this small-batch baijiu is smoother and lower in alcohol content than the average Chinese baijiu. It is readily available in most major North American cities and can be easily purchased online. HKB’s delicate flavor lends itself well to cocktails and drinking straight, making it a natural point of departure for those curious about the liquor.
So whether you are drinking HKB at home with friends or you are having your first taste of Er Guo Tou at a haunt in Beijing, raise a glass of baijiu and toast to the rich history of distillation and inebriation in China. Gan Bei!
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He has written for The Permaculture Research Institute and Uisio among other prominent outlets.
He is the author of Death: An Exploration (2016). For more visit his official website: www.lorenmayshark.com