WWith drinkers becoming more accustomed to bold-flavored drinks like mezcal and amaro, it may be time to take a closer look at the Chinese spirit baijiu. Like these other categories, baijiu (pronounced “bye joe”) can be difficult at first glance, but the more you know, the easier it is to love it. At least that’s what happened to me.
Most of the category information I wrote below comes from the book Baijiu: the essential guide to Chinese spirits by Derek Sandhaus, as well as what I learned during a press trip to the Luzhou Laojiao distillery in Luzhou, China, where Ming Baijiu River is produced.
The term “baijiu” covers all Chinese distilled spirits, all of which are fermented with “qu”, a mixture of grains encrusted with yeast, mold and bacteria. If you’re familiar with sake, you know that koji is a mold that breaks down the complex carbohydrates in rice into fermentable sugars that are then fermented by yeast. Qu works the same way; everything is simply bound with yeast and spread into the grains all at once.
Like whiskey, baijiu is fermented and distilled from grains. The most commonly used grains are sorghum and rice, although corn, barley, wheat, and other grains are used depending on the category and brand.
The four main categories of Baijiu
There are four main categories of baijiu, called “flavors”, although it is simpler to think of them as follows: fashions spirits and ignore the notion of smell. These were originally regional styles of baijiu that became formalized over time. Thousands of small individuals distilleries were grouped into smaller ones, and the government created official styles generally based on each region’s dominant brand.
The baijiu sauce flavor category includes the best-selling and most famous brand Kweichow Moutai. It and other baijiu sauce flavors taste intensely like savory soy sauce (except unsalted), with rich umami notes in flavors of (in my opinion) savory mushrooms and dark game meats like venison. They are rich and intense.
The best-selling category of baijiu (about 75 percent of sales) is “strong aroma” baijiu. Baijiu brands with strong aroma include National Cellar 1573 and Ming River, both from parent company Luzhou Laojiao; Wuliangye; and Shui Jing Fang, which is partly owned by Diageo. To me, the strong aroma of baijiu often tastes like a combination of bright tropical fruits, mild, creamy cheeses, and earthy barnyard notes. It may seem wild at first, like something in the fermentation has gone horribly wrong, until you learn to understand that all the strong flavors are completely intentional and that each product is mixed to taste exactly the same .
“Light aroma” baijiu is known for its short production cycles with minimal aging periods. It has a light body with floral notes and the sweetness and flavor of dried fruits. Baijiu “rice flavoring” is distilled from fermented rice as you might guess, and is sometimes made in column stills. It has a light body like vodka, with notes of flowers and honey. There is a brand of baijiu rice flavoring, Winemade in Oregon.
Continuous fermentation and redistillation
Rather than fermenting and distilling a sweet liquid (as is the case for Scotch Whiskey and rum) or a slurry of mixed liquids and solids (as in bourbon), baijiu ferments then distills the moistened grain solids. The only other spirit I can think of that is fermented and distilled from a solid is grappa.
The grains for baijiu are steamed, mixed with qu, covered, and then placed in fermentation pits or pots. Depending on the style, fermentation can take several months to develop flavor. Then the moist, fermented grains to which the alcohol adheres are put into stills. The stills are built like bamboo steamboats: steam pumped beneath the grain solids helps lift the alcohol out of the grains, and it is collected and condensed as in a typical still.
Here’s where it gets even weirder: To achieve a strong flavor and baijiu sauce aroma, once the grain solids have been distilled, they are removed from the still and placed back into their fermentation pits or vessels to ferment at again, with some freshly steamed grains. which have not yet fermented, and that. additional. Fermentation tanks now contain previously fermented and unfermented grains.
In aroma baijiu sauce, this refermentation with the addition of fresh grains occurs several times over eight fermentation cycles; during the rest of the cycles, the same distilled grains are refermented and redistilled without the addition of unfermented grains. Once the grains are refermented and redistilled for eight cycles over a period of one year, the process is complete. The different distillations are aged separately in ceramic vessels and then mixed to make the final products.
In strong-flavored baijiu, previously distilled grains are mixed with freshly steamed grains during each fermentation cycle. In strong-flavored baijiu, the goal is to never stop the cycle of mixing some of the distilled grains from the last batch with the new grains, in the same fermentation pit as last time. And by never stopping, I really mean never. The continued use and total antiquity of the fermentation pit is considered a great point of pride and quality in baijiu.
The goal is to continue to reuse the same fermentation pits that accumulate bacteria in the walls, producing increasingly complex aromatic spirits with each cycle. There are non-exact parallels with sour brewing and vinasse used in Jamaican rum, as well as the use of wooden fermenters to make some spirits rather than sterile stainless steel fermenters.
The four original fermentation pits used for National Cellar 1573 brand baijiu have been in continuous use since 1573 (that’s 450 years!) depending on the brand. They also use many pits that are over 100 years old, and the oldest are considered the best for producing the most aromatic and intense flavors of baijiu.
Distilled baijiu is aged in non-reactive ceramic (sometimes stainless steel) vessels, and it is mixed between younger and older, increasingly less flavorful batches to create individual brands. The final product can range from a product with a fresh, light, fruity rice flavor to a tangy, meaty baijiu sauce flavor.
In its native country, baijiu is most commonly consumed with food, with drinkers taking small sips between bites, particularly when eating spicy Sichuan dishes. If you want to access the category, this is how I recommend you try it. And I recommend trying it. Baijiu is an incredible spirit.