Everything you could ever need to know about Baijiu
Meet Baijiu, the world’s most popular spirit
Words— Kate Dingwall
Take a wild guess at what the world’s most popular spirit is. Whiskey is a good guess; Jack Daniel’s alone moved 5.2 million cases over 2018. As is tequila; dive bars across America blaze through cases like hotcakes.
Chances are though, you’ve probably never heard of the world’s most popular spirit.
Baijiu (bye-jew) is a traditional Chinese liquor, noted to be the most consumed spirit in the entire world, surpassing tequila, rum, and the entire whiskey world. Doesn’t ring a bell? I’m not surprised. Only a small amount of the spirit ever leaves the country.
One of the reasons baijiu hasn’t moved westward may be its unpalatable reputation. Baijiu's flavour profiles, generally speaking, are perplexing. They can vary from flowery and delicate to uber-pungent with notes blue cheese.
That’s mainly because unlike most locale-driven spirits, like Scotch or Bourbon, there is no one to define or regulate Baijiu. The spirit can be made by anyone, from a farmer in his bathtub to the most pedigreed of distillers. It also comes at a range of price points. You can pick up a single-serving can for a few dollars, or blow hundreds of thousands of dollars (last year, a bottle of 80-year-old baijiu sold for $300,000).
What is Baijiu?
As the story goes, thousands of years ago (2100 to 1600 BCE to be specific), someone left cooked sorghum sitting in a hollow stump. Winter hit, and the concoction was forgotten, and by spring, it had fermented and turned into an early form of baijiu.
At its core, Baijiu is a grain spirit, usually made with sorghum or rice. Styles differ from here out - some recipes add rice, wheat, or corn. To start at the very beginning, all baijiu begins with qu — a yeast culture made from cured grains. Most of these grains are usually locally sourced so the flavours of the finished baijiu will vary from region to region as the climate changes.
Next, the distiller adds steamed grains to the qu, which initiates the sugar conversions and the fermentation process.
The next is a distillation process. Post distillation, a yellow, thick wine called huangjiu is left over. The huangjiu is filtered through a bamboo basket to separate alcohol from the mash, then aged in large terra cotta urns for a minimum of one year. This process leaves a spirit that usually sits at 70% alcohol, though most Baijiu you’ll find in North America is diluted down to around a fiery 50%.
How do you drink it?
Most baijiu falls into one of four categories: strong aroma, sauce aroma, light aroma, or rice aroma. Rice or light aroma baijiu is the most approachable to the unfamiliar palate. The former is more similar in taste to shochu, with delicate floral notes and a mild flavour. Light aroma baijiu has a bit more backbone - expect a taste more similar to a Junmai sake.
The strong aroma is the best-selling style of baijiu, but it’s also one of the most intimidating iterations. It’s a spicy, pungent drink - usually aged for years in earth pits to develop and deepen the flavours. Tasting notes of earthy cheese and pineapple pair perfectly with vibrant Sichuan cuisine.
Finally, there is the sauce aroma baijiu. The drink, traditional to the Guizhou province, is heavy on umami, with notes of soy sauce or blue cheese. It is not for the faint of heart.
While Baijiu is traditionally sipped on its own (no ice, room temperature), straight baijiu is incredibly divisive to the North American palate. North American bars serving up baijiu will mix the spirit into cocktails. That's a great place to wet your feet to baijiu — start with a cocktail, then maybe move on to rice or a light aroma baijiu.
Though if you’re in the company of the Chinese, you'll want to drink what’s in front of you — a guest is considered untrustworthy if they do not drink what is poured for them.