Considering its popularity in Asia, baijiu — China's national spirit and the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the world — lives in relative obscurity. Pronounced "bye-jeeoh," this high-proof, grain-distilled alcohol is made in a variety of styles which are categorized based on the spirit's final aroma. Depending on production method and age, baijiu can cost anywhere from $1 to over $100,000, making it widely accessible to a range of imbibers.
And now this foreign spirit is making its way to the US. Peking Tavern, a hip Northern Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles mixes baijiu into a slew of cocktails, as does Korean eatery Drunken Dragon in Miami and New York's Asian fusion den Buddakan. In early March, Manhattan will also land Lumos, a new evening haunt specializing in baijiu.
With a history that spans back thousands of years, legend has it that the first baijiu was accidentally made from cooked sorghum seeds (still usually the spirit's base grain) that were left inside a hollow tree stump during the Xia Dynasty (2100 to 1600 BCE). The seeds were stored during the winter and by spring they had fermented into the first baijiu.
How it's made
The most important ingredient in baijiu production is qu, a starter culture made from a packed brick of grains that has been cured in a fermentation pit to develop yeast. The native yeasts and local air that the qu is exposed to are what imparts a nuanced terroir to the finished spirit depending on where it's made. To the qu, a distiller adds steamed grains, often sorghum.
With most Western alcohol production, say Scotch for example, the transition from grain to alcohol is a two step process whereby the grains are first malted (steeped in water until the starches convert to fermentable sugars) and then fermented. With baijiu, since the process involves adding qu and water to grains, the sugar conversion and fermentation both happen at the same time. And it's this step that distinguishes baijiu from most other spirits. The fermentation is usually carried out in a subterranean mud pit or inside a ceramic jar stored underground. Once fermentation is complete, a "yellow wine" or huangjiu remains. The huangjiu next goes through a distillation process that involves a giant bamboo contraption, which looks a lot like a larger version of a dim sum basket. The liquid is heated to separate the alcohol from the mash. The distilled baijiu is then aged in six foot terra cotta urns for at least a year or two (in some styles the grain mash leftover from this distillation process is not discarded, but dried and then added back to the fermentation pit, forming a base for the next batch of baijiu). The fully aged baijiu clocks in at about 70 percent alcohol or 140 proof, which is diluted to a slightly less deadly 106 proof before it hits the market.
Today, those who've become acquainted with the spirit outside of China most commonly associate baijiu with a fiery alcohol content and an unfavorable aroma somewhere between soy sauce and blue cheese. But that is just one (sauce aroma) of the four basic styles that define this nuanced spirit. The easiest way to understand baijiu classification is to know that the spirit, which is produced in various styles in different provinces, is classified based on the resulting aromatic profile.
Rice aroma: The gateway baijiu. Rice aroma baijiu has more in common with shochu than the more fiercely aromatic styles described below. Expect a floral, mild flavor, almost like rice, and an exceptional smoothness from triple distillation.
Light aroma: A popular style in Northern China and Taiwan, this baijiu is made from a rice and soghrum blend that displays some of the restrained aromas of sake. The feature that distinguishes light aroma baijiu from it's more pungent cousins is the ceramic jars in which it's fermented, which keep the spirit's aroma fairly neutral. Also, the qu used for this style is usually made with peas, as is the case with the famous Fenjiu, imparting a sweet, floral taste. Light aroma baijius are typically the least expensive to produce.
Strong aroma: The most ubiquitous and widely consumed style of baijiu is strong aroma. The spirit is spicy, fruity, and packs a serious aftertaste that pairs well with cuisine in the Sichuan region where it is produced. Strong aroma baijiu is fermented in earth pits with recycled mash, which help to develop the spirit's flavor over the years. Strong aroma baijiu is generally pricey. A bottle of the notoriously expensive Wuliangye recently sold for over $150,000 at auction.
Sauce aroma: From the adjacent Guizhou province, this baijiu style is full-bodied with a sharp taste (soy sauce, blue cheese, mushrooms) and is the most labor-intensive to produce. The spirit passes through up to eight rounds of subterranean fermentation and distillation and at least three years of aging, which is why it's more expensive. Moutai’s famous Feitian bottling can run you upwards of $400 a bottle.
How to drink baijiu
No ice needed. Baijiu is served room temperature or warm, often in half-ounce pours. The spirit is usually consumed in the company of others, and it's considered impolite to refuse when a drink offered. It's not customary to drink baijiu without food, likely because of the spirit's strength.