The rising star of the spirits world is only for the brave.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The people who prefer spirits over other alcoholic categories like beer and wine make that claim because they enjoy biting strength and complex flavours and aromas that can take an entire evening to unravel. But in the face of China’s baijiu, even the steeliest nose and palate may falter. The country’s (in)famous firewater is the most consumed spirit in the world, but its pungent aroma and sharp character slowed its spread outside of the Middle Kingdom. Not anymore.

Baijiu’s origins are murky, with some estimates citing AD960 as the time that ancient distilled spirits started to resemble modern baijiu. But its past isn’t as exciting as its future. When Futurebrand Index 2018 released its global perception study on how future-proof the world’s top 100 prominent companies were, newcomer Kweichow Moutai came in second, after The Walt Disney Company. It also tied with Apple for first place on the list of companies that create products consumers would pay more for.

And, boy, are they willing to fork out the big bucks. An 80-year-old bottle made by Kweichow Moutai in 1940 was auctioned off last July for 1.97 million yuan (S$395,000). For comparison, an entire case of 1988 Domaine de la RomaneeConti, one of the most prestigious wines in the world, sold for £264,000 (S$460,000) last March.

Of course, there’s more to baijiu than the partially state-owned Kweichow Moutai brand. Just like whisky and wine, different provinces are known for different styles, and tweaking even one part of the baijiu-making process will yield wholly distinct results. You don’t have to be part of China’s elite to partake in this imposing drink; just keep your portions as humble as your demeanour and ready your senses for the adventure that awaits.


When Chengdu’s Quanxing Distillery unearthed ancient fermentation pits and production equipment from the Ming and Qing dynasties, it harvested the bacteria from those pits to make its premium Shui Jing Fang strong aroma baijiu. Forest Green uses charcoal and bamboo filtering to create a more delicate aroma and smoother taste.


According to the 2018 Brand Finance Spirits 50 report, Wu Liang Ye was the fastest-growing brand on the list, growing 161 per cent year-onyear to US$14.6 billion (S$19.8 billion). The baijiu gets its name from the five grains from which it’s distilled: proso millet, maize, glutinous rice, longgrain rice and wheat. It has a slightly sweet and fruity aftertaste.


Er guo tou is a style of baijiu that involves a second distillation. Its comparatively faster production times and cleaner taste make it cheaper to produce, and therefore it’s widely drunk in China. Hong Xing is one of the few distillers to make one that’s palatable by our standards, though the main reason it made the list is for cultural relevance – er guo tou is strongly associated with Beijing, where it originated.
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Luzhou Laojiao is one of the four oldest distilleries in China, with a history dating back to the Ming dynasty, thus earning the company China’s Tangible Cultural Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage awards. The Zi Sha edition is named for its traditionally styled, purple porcelain bottle. Fun fact: The Australian Open landed a partnership deal with the distillery last October, making it the largest Chinese sponsorship in the history of the tournament.


Hong Xing was founded the same year as the People’s Republic of China, which explains most of its products’ patriotic designs. If you prefer a less retro (or less Communist) aesthetic, the distillery also has editions in porcelain bottles. Zhen Chang is a light aroma style spirit made from barley, sorghum and peas and, according to the company, is made to be enjoyed in a convivial atmosphere.
Not wanting to let the Chinese hog all the fun, these Western distillers are trying their hand at making their own baijiu.
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Purists would sniff at Byejoe’s relatively weak 40 per cent ABV, but the Texasbased company’s aim is to make the fiery spirit more agreeable for its countrymen. Byejoe buys raw baijiu from northern China and sends it to South Carolinian distiller Terressentia for processing. The spirit then goes through a patented filtration process to lower its alcohol content. Its products include baijiu infused with ingredients like dragonfruit and Sichuan peppers. 
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The New Zealand distiller claims to be the first baijiu maker in the West and uses locally produced wheat and Australian sorghum to make its light aroma baijiu. Run by brothers Ben and Sam Lu, who moved to New Zealand from Taiwan in 1994, the distillery uses copper pot stills and spring water from the Southern Alps to create a spirit that is clean, balanced and a little spicy. 
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The selected grains are ground to release starch in order to increase the area that will interact with the yeasts and other microorganisms found in qu (see right). This step is critical, because too soft a grind will lead to ineffective saccharification, while overdoing it will influence the flavour of the spirit. The grains are then steamed to help the starch gelatinise.
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Qu is a fermentation starter and the two major categories are big qu and small qu. The key ingredients are wheat for the former and rice for the latter, though other cereals and even vegetables may be added. These are mixed with water, ground into a paste, pressed into bricks and stored at high temperatures to encourage the growth of yeasts and other moulds.
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Yeast needs sugar to turn into ethanol, which grains don’t have a lot of. This is why grain alcohols like beer have to undergo a separate process called saccharification to convert starches into sugar before undergoing fermentation. The beauty of qu is that it does both at the same time, resulting in a spirit that packs more punch and flavour. Powdered qu is sprinkled over the cooked grains, raked into a pile and shovelled into a fermentation vessel for at least a month.
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Most spirits are distilled from a liquid mash, but almost all baijiu is distilled from a solid or semi-solid form. The mash is carefully loaded into a traditional Chinese pot still. Because of its non-liquid state it must be slowly sprinkled around the still to avoid clumping and uneven heating. What’s interesting about using a solid mash is that it functions like a column still, where the alcohol vapours continuously condenses and redistills as they travel up the mash. This means that despite going through only a single distillation, the spirit can reach high ABV levels.
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Western spirits are aged in wooden casks to impart flavour, but baijiu is left in earthenware urns so that it will oxidise and mellow out. Lower-end brands will opt to mature their spirits in stainless steel tanks, but clay is generally preferred because its porosity allows the distillate to better interact with its environment. The ageing containers are stored in underground cellars, caves or any dark room for at least a year.


Baijiu styles are categorised by aroma. Here are the main ones to know.


Its lighter, sweeter flavour means rice aroma baijiu are the most accessible for those new to the spirit. Originating from and found almost exclusively in southern China, this type is made with long-grain rice and/or glutinous rice and has a clean aftertaste, making it comparable to Japanese shochu or even sake. It is aged in limestone caves and often infused with medicinal herbs, flowers or tea to give it a sweeter flavour. Lao Guilin and Guilin Sanhua Jiu are popular makers of rice aroma baijiu.


Don’t let the name fool you. Light aroma baijiu might be gentle on the nose but it is typically bottled at a high ABV – 60 per cent ABV is not uncommon in this category. Its main ingredient is sorghum and is traditionally fermented in ceramic jars and distilled in pits. Light aroma baijiu hails from the north, around the Beijing area, and is favoured for its mild, floral sweetness. There are two main sub-divisions: er guo tou from Beijing, and fenjiu from the Shangxi province. The differences lie in the type of qu used.


For a province known for fiery cuisine, it’s not surprising that strong aroma baijiu is most commonly associated with Sichuan. Because it is made with at least two different grains, this type of baijiu exhibits more complex flavours and aromas. Fragrant, well-balanced, and with an almost boundless finish, this style is the biggest category of baijiu by market share and volume and accounts for more than two thirds of all baijiu production. Big names in this category include Luzhou Laojiao, Shui Jing Fang, Jiangnanchun and Yanghe.

So named for having the umami-heavy characteristics of soya sauce, sauce-aroma baijiu is the most labour and resourceintensive style to make, thanks to the need for repeated fermentation. The payoff is a bold, highly fragrant spirit with layers of flavours to discover. It is likely a challenge for baijiu beginners. Unlike strong aroma baijiu, sauce aroma is made using only sorghum and is fermented in stone brick-lined pits instead of mud pits. Kweichow Moutai is synonymous with this style, and its Feitian is one of the most well-known examples of sauce aroma baijiu.