In the coming week (and every week after that, probably forever), there is going to be a vast quantity of the clear stuff sold and consumed across the country. It's not all cheap rot-gut. In fact, most of it is not. The world of baijiu is deep and varied, and really, if you live in China, you should at least know a little bit about it. Stop dismissing it.
In fact, "it" often doesn't have much in common with itself at all. There are four major categories of baijiu that are as distinct from each other as gin is from tequila. Sip a Maotai and a Fenjiu and you'd be surprised that they're even called the same thing. How did they end up being so dramatically different?
If only someone would write a semi-exhaustive article based on an exhaustive book about it!
This article owes a heavy debt to the book Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus of Ming River and DrinkBaijiu.com, who has been tirelessly campaigning to get foreigners to drink this underappreciated, oft-maligned spirit. Can't recommend it enough. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to find outside of the Amazon US store.
Basically Baijiu (白酒)
First thing to know is that "baijiu" is a very broad category, and even though it's clear, it's an aged spirit resembling whiskey more than other Asian white spirits like sake or shochu. It's not brown because it's aged in ceramic or clay urns, not wood.
The second thing to know is that it has a relatively short history compared to huangjiu, the other Chinese spirit. Huangjiu, (sometimes described as rice wine but actually made from just about anything you can ferment), has a history stretching back to the Neolithic, and might be the first recorded alcohol humans consumed.
Baijiu has a measly thousand-ish year pedigree. Distillation probably didn't enter China via the Middle East until sometime around the Song (960-1270) or Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Basically invented yesterday, by Chinese standards. That's a two-three hundred year window where it might've first arrived. The chronology might be so murky because it's the working man's drink, beloved of farmers and laborers. The aristocratic classes — the people who wrote history books — drank the more refined huangjiu.
Baijiu didn't really supplant huangjiu as China's official drink of choice until the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and it got a huge boost during the 70s under Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms.
Sales plummeted in the 2010s as the corruption crackdown saw fewer premium brands being bought as "gifts," but baijiu continues to sell in staggering volumes. In 2018, 10.8 billion liters of baijiu were sold, more than whiskey, vodka, gin and tequila combined. That's more than 10 liters per person in China. Per person! Don't give baijiu to a baby!
How It's Made
Although the equipment has changed, the process of creating baijiu is basically the same as it was back during the Ming Dynasty. Like most booze, it's made from a combination of water and grains. Sorghum is the most famous and the most widely used grain, but other ingredients can include rice, glutinous rice, wheat, corn, millet, and grain husks. Peas, for example, are an essential ingredient in the production of light-aroma baijiu.
However, all baijiu needs qu.
What's The Qu
The secret (not secret at all) defining element of Chinese liquor is jiu qu (酒曲) or just qu (曲). Qu is a solidified paste, made from crushed grains mixed with water, that has been matured in a humid environment to encourage bacterial and yeast growth. Kind of like sourdough bread starters, they're cultivated and matured, and old qu is often reused and mixed with new qu to maintain consistency.
"Western alcohol techniques, such as malting, involve sprouting grains to induce saccharification (conversion of starches to sugars) and yeast-induced fermentation (conversion of sugar to alcohol). Chinese winemakers use qu to perform both steps simultaneously." - Derek Sandhaus
Baijiu uses big qu and/or small qu. Big qu, used in sorghum baijiu, is made from wheat or barley formed into big bricks that are left to cultivate yeast and bacteria. Small qu, used in rice-based baijiu and huangjiu, is made of rice and other ingredients mashed into small balls or cakes. It sometimes includes herbs and other TCM ingredients, though that's become less popular.
The creation of baijiu is complex and involved, with each step imparting its own distinct characteristics, but generally, the process goes like this: grain is steamed or cooked until it turns to mush. That's the mash. Then it's air dried. It's then mixed with qu and left to ferment. A feature unique to Chinese alcohol is that the grain is fermented in a solid or semi-solid state, sometimes in pits (traditionally in the southwest), sometimes in jars (traditionally northeast).
After the fermentation is complete, the mash is distilled, usually in a pot still. The pure white spirit produced during the middle of the distillation process, the "heart", eventually makes its way into the bottles. The impure "head", produced in the beginning of distillation, is mostly discarded, but the intense "tail" can be either redistilled or added during blending to impart flavor. The white spirit is aged in clay or ceramic pots for anywhere from a few weeks to years for premium brands, before being blended to create the desired flavor. Water is added to decrease the alcohol by volume to usually between 36-65% ABV.
Then it's bottled and sold to old people.
Jokes! Sometimes it's sold to 30-something lifestyle journalists.
The Four Major Types of Baijiu
There are many, many types of baijiu; it almost defies categorization. Almost! Let's categorize. The modern (easiest?) way to sort them out is by smell, since geographical boundaries and production methods aren't a reliable differentiator. What a mixed up, topsy-turvy, crazy spirit! Baijiu rejects your labels, maaaan.
Strong aroma (nong xiang / 浓香)
Examples: Wuliangye (五粮液), Luzhou Laojiao (泸州老窖), Jinnanchun Jiu (剑南春酒)
Far and away the most popular baijiu, by production volume, the strong aroma variety usually has a hot, slightly sweet taste to it. It's fermented in earth pits and distilled from either one or multiple types of grains, and the production works cyclically, by mixing distilled mashes with new grain and qu, layered in sealed mud pits. It's most associated with Sichuan, where most of China's baijiu is produced, but also Anhui, Jiangsu and Shandong. The peppery, sweet and fruity Wuliangye and Luzhou Laojiao, both from Sichuan, are the most well-known brands in the category.
Derek's Recommendation: "Wuliangye gets all the attention in the multi-grain strong-aroma segment, but for my money Jiannanchun Jiu (剑南春酒), from Jiannanchun, is as good as it gets. Also Ming River Sichuan Baijiu, by Luzhou Laojiao. If you thought I wasn't going to recommend my own company's baijiu, think again. My team worked with my favorite distillery to create a multi-functional baijiu equally at ease on banquet table and the bar back. When you leave the mainland, make this your go-to."
Light aroma (qing xiang / 清香)
Examples: Xinghuacun Fenjiu (杏花村汾酒), Redstar / Hongxing (红星)
Light aroma is the second biggest type by volume, and most often associated with northern China. There are two big categories. One is er guo tou (二锅头) which originated in Beijing and was made famous by cheap convenience store bottles. It takes its name from the "heart" or "second pot" (the "er guo") the spirit is drawn from. The other type is fenjiu (汾酒), named after Fenyang in Shanxi, a much more complex, herbal and even flowery spirit.
Both are made with sorghum and rice husks and big qu containing peas, and fermented in clay pots. You've probably run across Redstar or Hongxing (红星) at Lawson's. Yes! A night out with ruddy-faced gemen'r and a couple of bottles of Hongxing might not feel that way, but it's a light aroma.
The ABV is anything but light. It's sometimes bottled at 65%.
Derek's Recommendation: "Sometimes it's best not to overthink your baijiu choice. Laobai Fenjiu (老白汾酒), from Xinghuacun, is a damned good light aroma—floral and crisp—and you can find it just about anywhere for a reasonable price. Try it. Also Yushan Kaoliang (玉山高粱), from Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor. When it comes to light-aroma baijiu, wonderful things are happening across the strait. At 58% alcohol by volume, you expect this one to blow the doors off, but it's smooth and delicate and well worth your time."
Rice aroma (mi xiang / 米香)
Examples: Guilin Sanhua (桂林三花), Kiukiang (九江)
Rice aroma is almost a distinct category of liquor, produced similarly to huangjiu and distilled from rice or glutinous rice (or both) and small qu. It's aged in limestone caves, and often infused with medicinal herbs, flowers or fruits. It's famously associated with southern China: Guilin Sanhua's most premium spirits are aged in a two-story cellar inside the caves in Elephant Trunk Hill in the center of the city and can fetch top dollar. High quality rice aroma baijiu tastes sweet and crisp, similar to sake, usually doesn't smell like baijiu at all, and comes in around 45-50% ABV or less.
Derek's Recommendation: "Baijiu is not often thought of as a sipping drink, but Lao Guilin (老桂林), from Guilin Sanhua, is a strong argument in favor of savoring. Made with glutinous rice, this gives you the best of what mijiu has to offer with a smooth mouthfeel and a floral bouquet. Try Yubing Shao (玉冰烧), from Shiwan, too: centuries before hipsters made fat-washed whiskey a thing, the Chinese dropped pork fat in their rice baijiu with spectacularly delicious results. Technically a chi aroma (豉香) baijiu, but let's not split hairs."
Sauce Aroma (jiang xiang / 酱香)
Examples: Kweichow Moutai (贵州茅台), Langjiu (郎酒)
This is it. This is the one. This is the baijiu that arguably smells and tastes the baijiu-est. Named for its distinct, unmistakable aroma and its similarity in taste and smell to soy sauce, sauce aroma baijiu is the hardest to make, taking nine months, involving seven cycles of distillation and fermentation exposed to the air and in stone-lined pits, and blended from several spirits aged in ceramic urns. It's mostly associated with Sichuan and especially the town of Maotai in Guizhou, home of the most famous baijiu in the world, Zhou Enlai's favorite and the one that passed Nixon's lips in '72 — Kweichow Moutai. Sauce-aroma is complex, smoky and expensive.
Derek's Recommendation: "Just a little up the river from Kweichow Moutai is the famous distillery's little brother, Zhen Jiu, where they make Chuanqi Zhen Jiu (传奇珍酒). It's got all the same smoky-sweet umami complexity that the baijiu connoisseur craves, but its relative obscurity makes it much better value. Also try the Rouhe Five Year (柔和五年), from Beidacang: Geographically and spiritually, Heilongjiang feels lightyears away from Guizhou, but the so-called 'Moutai of the North' lives up to its name."
The Other Types
These are just the four major ways to slice up the world of baijiu. There are so many others, often limited to just a single brand. To name just a few:
Phoenix aroma, from Fengxiang in Shaanxi, combines strong- and light-aroma baijiu aged in rattan baskets.
Chi aroma, from Guangdong, includes fermented black beans and is identical to rice aroma except that it's infused with pork fat.
Extra-strong aroma is associated with Hunan's Jiuguijiu Distillery and is fermented with both big and small qu, giving it a spicy-sweet taste.
Laobaigan aroma comes from Hengshui Ruitian Distillery in Hebei and is a light aroma that uses wheat instead of barley and peas, and is bottled at 65% ABV, making it basically impossible to taste.
But Where Do I Buy It?
Well, Taobao, obviously.
But if you're looking for the buyer's experience, browsing shelves (or more realistically, glass cabinets) full of fancy, distinct bottles of elixirs, there's... actually not much for you. Though brands might have official outlets, (especially Kweichow Moutai), baijiu stores don't exist in Shanghai the way that wine or beer stores do. Despite dominating the country's drinking culture, baijiu is mostly found in supermarkets, on the back shelves in tobacco stores, and in the Chinese spirits section of general liquor stores like 1919.
If you feel like it, and your Chinese is pretty good, you could also check out the Maotai Cultural Experience Center. Don't let the wall of Kweichow Moutai bottles mislead you, they actually sell a brand from the same region called Tangjia, but they run tastings and classes.
Or, if you just want to try first, here're three places to get a taste. All the bottles in this article were shot at Healer or 1945 Chinese Tavern.