This baijiu post grew out of an interest in one of the world’s most popular spirits that I’d never heard of. I’m a bit of a spirit enthusiast and so on moving to China I was somewhat surprised to hear the statistics. This led to a bit more research and some tasting – initially against my nose’s better judgement, but eventually with a little more enthusiasm. The need to write it down arose out of necessity for a tasting I was supposed to be giving at The Hide Bar in London recently, although I’ve been meaning to put virtual pen to virtual paper for over two years…
So those statistics:
According to a Bloomberg report quoted extensively by Diageo in their 2010 investor report (“Outlook of the Chinese Wine Spirits Super Premium Market; McKinsey & Co.”, baijiu’s global market share in 2009 accounted for 31% of spirits world-wide. Putting that into perspective, vodka – the next largest category – accounted for 19%. In China, it accounted for 55% of alcohol sales by value of a market worth £25 billion (‘international’ spirits accounted for a mere 3%, and the much-publicised wine market only 7%).
Ok, so China is rapidly discovering the delights of Western spirits, and has a pretty healthy market for blended whisky and Cognac, but taking that same report, baijiu therefore represents £14 billion in annual sales in China, while Cognac manages a slender £0.3 billion (although that’s not to be sniffed at given that it’s shared by a relatively small number of Cognac brands that are widely available in China).
With that in mind, I was truly surprised to find how little information there was available in English on the subject of baijiu, and this is the start of an attempt to add to what’s out there. Most of what’s in this first post is readily available on Wikipedia or other easily searchable sources, but I hope to continue to write up more in the way of tasting notes, background into the spirit and something on the key brands and distilleries. I have been fortunate enough to do some work with Diageo and Moet Hennessy, and they have helped me with information about their brands, history and where to find some of the statistics – so initially I might dwell a little on their ‘super-premium’ spirits – but it’s as good a starting point as any, and perhaps represents most people’s first experience of baijiu in a business-context。
So, what is baijiu?
It literally translates as ‘white-alcohol’ – clear spirit, often distilled from fermented sorghum or maize, but also glutinous rice, wheat, barley or any other grain. These are often fermented in pits and are therefore heavily influenced by local yeasts and other microbial flora that contribute to the taste. One of the key marketing points for many brands is the local ‘terroir’ or historical yeast formulation that makes the flavour unique. In some cases the yeast culture that’s used to initiate fermentation is very complex and has been preserved for centuries. This culture can come in one of two forms: either large block form containing complex mixtures of yeasts (primarily Aspergillus species which produce amylase enzymes to convert starch to sugar to start fermentation), known as a major starter, or daqu大麴, or a smaller pellet form containing yeasts such as Rhizopus (minor starters, or 小麴). The former is generally used in large fermentation pits and results in a rich, complex and heavy baijiu (relatively speaking). The latter is generally used for fermentation in jars or steel tanks and results in a lighter, cleaner (and cheaper) spirit.
This is one method that can be used to classify baijiu – ‘major’ or ‘minor’ styles – heavy or light. However, traditional classification goes further than that. Given that a lot of the character of baijiu is found in the aroma, it is this that’s used to distinguish between styles.
At the lighter end of the spectrum are the qīng xiāng 清香 ‘light fragrance’ baijiu. These are more akin to vodkas (ok, not quite that light), with most of the flavours coming from ethanol without many congeners. From a bartending point of view, these are by far the easiest to mix, working well with citrus and white stone fruit.
At the opposite end of the scale are the ‘heavy fragrance‘ baijiu, or nóng xiāng 濃香. These are very pungent and initially quite off-putting to a Western palate, with flavours coming from the congeners – esters (such as ethyl acetate – think nail-varnish remover and pear-drops) – the lighter alcohols that Western distillers try to remove. Connoisseurs consider good examples (e.g. ShuiJingFang 水井坊, Wuliangye 五粮液 and Wenjun 文君) exceptional, with these esters forming complex layers of sweetness and fruit with savoury notes, similar to those you might find in an aged wine. This category of baijiu contains some of the most famous brands, popular as gifts and generally drunk as shots around the dinner table until the bottle is empty. They are much harder to mix as the flavour is so pronounced, and often their cost prohibits experimentation.
Next are the ‘sauce fragrance’ jiàng xiāng醬香 – again very pungent to the uninitiated, these have sweet, sour and umami aromas reminiscent of soy sauce (hence the name). The aromas come from a complex mix of esters and acetals, as found in grappa, marc and raki, but with additional hints of wet goat and fermented hay… Maotai, China’s most famous baijiu (government-owned), falls into this category. They can make a really interesting sour, or work with other sweet/sour/umami – sour plum, wasabi, or as hints of flavour in a martini.
The last two categories are less distinct, comprising those spirits that don’t neatly fall into the categories above. Rice fragrance mǐ xiāng 米香, is (obviously) distilled from rice, and traditionally uses a minor starter to give a clean, buttery light flavour more like Korean Sochu (flavours coming from ethyl lactate) – this works well in dairy drinks or with cacao and coffee. Finally the ‘compound aroma’ fù xiāng 復香 have characteristics of two or more of the others above and can vary widely. Sometimes an additional ‘honey fragrance’ category is also added, but I’m personally all for simplifying what is an already complicated classification system.
So those are the baijiu basics. Obviously there are many more learned people than I discussing baijiu in Chinese, and I am in no way professing to be an expert on the subject. I’ll attempt to glean a little more detail on production, marketing and history for future posts as well as adding some product tasting notes and background. If I’ve made any mistakes in the notes above, please feel free to let me know and I’ll continue to update it as a work in progress. Hopefully this can provide a little background for any other bartenders or drinks enthusiasts out there who feel that they ought to know a little more about the world’s most popular spirit!