What Is Baijiu? The World's Most Consumed White Liquor
If you’re someone who knows his white liquor, then you’ve probably heard of a drink called Baijiu (think “bye Joe”). It’s widely considered as the most consumed drink in the world and accounts for a third of global spirit sales. But even 'mongst a flock of drunkards, as Shakespeare would say, Baijiu is somewhat of an obscure name.
Baijiu is China’s national alcoholic drink, one that encompasses all the nation’s traditional grain spirits. It’s a blend that looks as clear as mineral water and distilled from varying amounts of sorghum, wheat, rice, glutinous rice, and corn. How Baijiu is made depends largely on which Chinese region it’s coming from.
In this article, we’re going to give you everything you need to know about this ancient enigmatic drink from the land of the red dragon and why everyone seems to think it will soon engulf the rest of the world with its fiery flames.
If you type “white liquor” in Google Translate and look it up in Chinese, it will literally give you ‘Baijiu’. People from outside of China affectionately dub it as 'sorghum firewater” because of the flame-like sensation it gives you when you drink it.
Baijiu is not a product of modern mixology. It’s been around as early as the 14th century, so it could very well be the first distilled spirit. When China and the United States established a friendlier diplomatic relationship around the late 70s, Baijiu was introduced to American tongues for the first time, albeit very scarcely and in a non-commercial way. It was only legitimately marketed to non-Chinese sometime around the start of the past decade. And one would have to visit China to be able to drink Baijiu in large amounts.
If Baijiu is the most consumed drink in the world, why is it unheard of?
Well, that’s because the drink is largely popular in China. With a population north of 1 billion, Baijiu is easily ahead of the game in terms of consumption (which is still astounding considering the global popularity of whiskey, vodka, and beer). That’s the reason why you probably won’t see Baijiu on the menu at your local bar, except for that scholarly bartender who likes to impress everyone with his alcohol arsenal.
In fact, it’s so recherché that only a handful of people have heard of it, and even fewer have actually gotten to taste it. Raegan and Nixon liked it. So did Chaplin. But it’s so huge in China that it has become the country’s national drink — officially, not just by popular vote — just like what vodka is to the Russians. But what gives Baijiu its mythical status is more than just population numbers, though. The growing exposure it gets, especially in recent years, can be attributed to the quality of the drink itself.
Ingredients are typically grains, such as sorghum or rice, and it all depends on the aroma that you want the finished Baijiu to have. Strong Aroma Baijiu uses heavier and sturdier grains. Rice Aroma Baijiu, on the other hand, is made solely of rice. Once all the ingredients are sourced, they are loaded into a large still that is placed over a cauldron of boiling water. The ingredients are cooked through steaming which cleans and breaks them down into a soluble state.
Qu is the “flesh” that forms which is used for the saccharification of the Baijiu. There are two types - big Qu and small Qu.
Big Qu is made from grain which is most often sorghum but barley, peas, and the husks of grain can also be used. The ingredients are soaked in warm water to soften them up and then ground into a fine powder. After that, more water is added until the mixture becomes a fine paste that is then molded into the shape of bricks. These bricks of Qu are left to naturally dry in the sun for several months to allow natural and healthy bacteria to grow on it. This is a deliberate process as it gives the Qu a unique flavor. Upon completion, the bricks of Qu are crushed and ground down to powder.
Meanwhile, Small Qu is made from rice as opposed to grain, which is why Baijiu made from it has a lighter taste. Small Qu is left to cultivate for about a week before grounding it into a fine powder, making it significantly faster to produce compared to Big Qu.
In the west, sugar is a crucial component in the production of alcohol because yeast feeds upon it. However, none of the natural ingredients for making Baijiu contain sugar which makes Qu very important. Saccharification is the process of breaking down these ingredients into monosaccharide components to be able to produce alcohol. With Baijiu, the saccharification happens by adding powdered Qu and water to the core ingredients and left to mix to enable more microorganisms and bacteria to merge with the concoction. This process allows the starch found in grains or rice to turn into sugar. Once this is achieved, fermentation of the Baijiu can begin.
During fermentation, Qu and water of the Baijiu are placed in a ceramic pot and left to ferment. Some Baijiu distillers leave their mixture to ferment naturally for months. Others like to periodically add more grain and Qu. Because different people have different methods, no two brands of Baijiu taste the same.
When the fermentation of the Baijiu is finished, the ingredients make a thick and mushy soup ready for the process of distillation.
The Baijiu mixture is poured into a still for boiling and steaming. The objective of this process is to capture the alcohol that has fermented within the concoction of grain or rice, Qu, and water. The vapors that arise from heating the mixture are captured and bottled by a device called a distillate. The vapors are then cooled off and left to turn to liquid which is considered the purest form of Baijiu. Any leftovers from the process are distilled again until all of them have been used.
Baijiu is left to age before it is consumed or released for sale. Six months is the minimum period for Baijiu to age because anything shorter than that is considered dangerous for consumption. High-end brands of Baijiu may even be left to age for as long as five years. The longer the aging period of Baijiu is, the more flavor the finished beverage will have.
Baijiu and vodka are both clear alcohol, so it’s not very surprising that people would categorize them as the same thing. Vodka cocktails are even used as a basis for creating recipes for Baijiu. However, aside from both being clear and distilled, there aren't many other similarities between the two.
Baijiu is regarded as more aromatic and “harmless” at first glance. But as every alcohol lover knows, look and smell are deceiving. In terms of alcohol content, Baijiu averages around 50-65% ABV (Alcohol By Volume), which won’t go unnoticed as it is significantly higher than vodka’s ABV of 40%. For reference, whiskey and rum also average around 40% ABV.
Baijiu is generally considered as a whole class of liquor. It’s quite hard to pin it down into a singular flavor because it has a variety of different brands, tastes, and scents. That’s why some people who have tasted Baijiu would easily pass judgment, not knowing other flavors might suit their taste better.
The four widely recognized flavor types are light aroma, strong aroma, rice aroma, and sauce aroma with each coming from different regions of China. And because Baijiu is generally paired with food, its different types tend to complement the cuisine specific to that area. With its rising fame, there has been a wide spectrum of evolved Baijiu flavors emerging through the years.
But in general, Baijiu is described as having a sweet, funky, fruity flavor with a little bit of nuttiness. Its strange and complex aroma is typically what captures one’s attention during its presentation.
While there are at least 12 recognized types of Baijiu, there are 4 major groups and the other types are mostly just combinations of these 4 groups. It’s important to remember that every single brand of Baijiu tastes different and this is due to the process of making them. Distinctions in flavor are attributed to the slightest differences in ingredients and other environmental factors.
In that regard, there has been no official or universally-accepted categorization of Baijiu the same way that different wines, whiskeys, and other spirits are classified. However, these 4 most common types should be able to help the curious in determining just what kind of Baijiu they want to drink.
Key ingredient: Sorghum, rice husks, Qu made from peas and barley
Alcohol content: 56-65% ABV
Popular brands: Red Star, Fénjiǔ
Mostly popular in the northern parts of China, the light aroma Baijiu is made from sorghum. Occasionally, they use Qu (a starting agent for fermentation) made from peas and barley. Light aroma Baijiu is one of the fastest to age among all types - typically less than 6 months. It is known for its lightweight quality and a faint hint of floral sweetness. Some describe it as having a dry, crisp flavor with a subtle taste of dried fruit.
Light aroma Baijiu is further divided into two types: erguotou and fenjiu. Producing erguotou, only involves a one-time process of steaming, fermenting, and distilling the sorghum grains. Whereas with fenjiu, fermented sorghum grains are added with new rice husks followed by another round of fermentation.
Light aroma Baijiu is mostly consumed by those who are not willing to spend more, as this type of Baijiu is relatively cheaper compared to other types because of its short production cycle.
Key ingredient: Sorghum, wheat Qu, other grains
Alcohol content: 45-58% ABV
Popular brands: Ming River, Jiànnánchūn, WuLiangYe
Strong aroma Baijiu is popular anywhere in China. Its prominence is particularly visible in the southwest Sichuan Province, eastern Anhui, and Shandong. It is often regarded as “traditional” Baijiu due to how it is produced, which is either a one-ingredient simple grain or a mixed grain involving distillation from different sources.
It typically takes 2 or 3 months to ferment a strong aroma Baijiu followed by a continuous process where almost three-quarters of the previous batch of mash is used in the next batch. In short, the product cycle doesn't stop during a particular stage; it is practically an endless loop.
Strong aroma Baijiu is known to have an extremely intricate yet aromatic flavor. Its smell reminds drinkers of tropical fruit that has aged beyond its peak ripeness. As soon as it enters your mouth, all of the flavors will come into play until it finally ends with a prolonged spicy, sometimes pungent aftertaste. The strong aroma variant is without contention the best-selling type of Baijiu, taking up 75% of the entire Baijiu market.
Key ingredient: Steamed rice, water, and rice-based Qu
Alcohol content: 30-40% ABV
Popular brands: Changleshao, Danmi, Sanhuajiu
Unlike most other types, rice aroma Baijiu’s raw ingredients and the microorganic culture that sparks its fermentation all come from rice rather than sorghum. It’s a relatively young Baijiu, fermented for a few days and distilled one or three times.
Rice aroma Baijiu is most common in southeastern China, particularly in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, where it is customary to pair it with steamed dumplings, seafood, and other dim sum dishes. People describe it as having a similar taste to vodka, with hints of flowers, honey, grass, and lemon. Some even highlight its resemblance to international counterparts - sake and soju.
Another distinction for this Baijiu type is the periodic use of continuous distillation. Rice is steamed, fermented, and distilled in continuous stills. Its mellowish quality makes it good at taking on the flavor of other food or drinks, making it a good base for brewed spirits and medicinal stimulants.
Key ingredient: Sorghum, herbs, beans, other grains
Alcohol content: 45-55% ABV
Popular brands: Kweichow Moutai, Laolangjiu 1956
The drink is known for its lingering fragrance which strikingly resembles soy sauce, among other different layers of smell and taste which include herbs and fermented beans. Sauce aroma originated from the Guizhou area in southwest China. Its primary ingredient is sorghum but can be incorporated with other grains as well.
This type of Baijiu is rather laborious and resource-exhaustive due to its multiple fermentation processes in subterranean pits lined with stone bricks. In most cases, the distillation process for sauce aroma Baijiu involves eight different cycles.
In China, a fancy bottle of sauce aroma Baijiu is often the go-to choice for impressing someone. Drinking this Baijiu type signifies taste and sophistication, tracing back to its historical significance when it became the drink of China’s ruling elite. Since the 1950s, sauce aroma Baijiu has been served to visiting dignitaries at state dinners and other monumental events.
Even though Baijiu is a social drink, the prescribed approach is to first try a few sips on your own, just as you would start your evening with a glass of wine in deep and philosophical solitude. Once you’ve gotten the hang of its flavor, you can then throw yourself into a Chinese banquet and drink it straight like scotch, round after round.
Baijiu is not treated as a standalone drink — at least according to its country of origin. Chinese tradition dictates that Baijiu be served during special occasions. It could be a simple dinner, sitting with your family around a Lazy Susan table. Drinking spirits with food isn’t a popular practice in most countries, but in China, most people will pair Baijiu with chicken or seafood. Pairing it with spicy red meat is not a good idea, as the strong flavors of the two will fight for your taste buds’ affection.
Virtuoso Baijiu drinkers would even pair Baijiu with a salad. The Baijiu’s slightly sweet and floral taste will serve as a perfect balance to the greenery. But for Baijiu starters, it is safer to go with food with more substance to neutralize its strength.
As we know, alcohol also plays a very important role in doing business with Chinese people. Expect to be taken to a restaurant with a bar when planning a business meeting with Chinese nationals. Even when talking business during lunch, you will see them consuming it as the spirit is believed to bring good fortune.
Most Chinese may be wary of westerners and a good way to break the ice is drinking Baijiu with them. The Chinese know that Baijiu is extremely strong by the standards of western alcohol, so they will use it to assess your character. If you can handle your Baijiu, to them it shows fortitude and you will be considered as part of the team.
There’s also this tradition where you’re supposed to toast before drinking. A drinker would clink his or her glass in the lowest position to indicate the greatest humility. Needless to say, you must never refuse a toast at a Chinese meal, as doing so is considered to be very disrespectful.
Drinking Baijiu with Chinese people is also a way of telling them you’re taking an interest in their culture. As we know, Baijiu doesn’t represent a single drink in China, just like wine or beer is in the west. Each region in China has its own variations of Baijiu with different aromas, alcohol content, and manufacturing processes. Naturally, any group of Chinese friends would be delighted if you show respect by knowing about their drink and actually man up and drink it.
Learn about the best Baijiu in the territory that you are in and discover the aroma as well as the ingredients they used to create it. If you intend to make a good impression, read up on some popular Chinese-language phrases that are often associated with drinking Baijiu.
There are a growing number of Baijiu brands being sold all over the world. According to the World’s Top 50 Spirits Ranking from the London-based consultancy Brand Finance, three Chinese Baijiu brands – Moutai, Wuliangye, and Yanghe – claimed the top 3 spots in the rankings from 2018 to 2020.
More than ever, there are signs that the love for Baijiu is starting to spread outside the “walls” of China, even though only 20,000 liters (5,200 gallons) are exported to the rest of the world to consume. In the United States, local stores have already begun to acknowledge Baijiu as one of the premier drinks around 5 years ago. In major cities, you can now see Baijiu in select liquor stores, typically next to sake or soju.
There are Baiju websites dedicated to helping you find the nearest shop that sells the drink based on your zip code. Some online stores can even deliver Baijiu right to your doorstep.
Baijiu also has finally cracked Europe in recent years. The first dedicated Baijiu bar in the continent opened in Liverpool in 2016 and many bars have followed suit since then. Furthermore, one of the most popular Baijiu brands, Moutai, aims to focus on the UK market as part of its international expansion into Europe.
Older people might remember that around 70 years ago, vodka was considered a strange exotic drink that nobody liked. Fast forward to today, people think of it as the least intimidating of all hard liquors in the world.
Baijiu is somehow destined to follow that same path but is not quite there yet. It’s a natural progression among drinks; people adapt to it and their palettes change eventually. It’s just a matter of getting used to something a bit weird at first compared to what we are accustomed to drinking.
As it turns out, some people can’t even imagine Baijiu being in a popular cocktail recipe, while other people consider it best when mixed nicely with other flavors and ingredients. If you want to play around with Baijiu cocktails, here are a few recipes to start with:
The first book on Baijiu written in English, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, was written by Derek Sandhaus. He spent time interviewing Baijiu connoisseurs, distillers, and even big names in the alcoholic beverage industry to talk about this one-of-a-kind drink and its potential to elevate its predominance.
“Most people taste Baijiu for the first time, the flavors are unfamiliar to them — it’s easy to write it off and assume there’s something wrong with the drink,” a line in the book says.
Even the legendary Anthony Bourdain, who once ventured to the Sichuan Province in China with his co-star Eric Ripert for the show Parts Unknown, tasted Baijiu and this is how he described it:
“You’re going to drink a little more than you like, and you can’t refuse.”
This magnificently encapsulates the world-renowned reputation of Chinese-style drinking, leading the way towards global popularity. Others already believe that Baijiu is in the same league as whisky, rum, and vodka.
If this is an indication, Baijiu is poised to take over the world. It won’t be a surprise if a couple of years from now, you and your buddies will be shouting “ganbei!” at your favorite bar before downing a nice teeny-tiny shot of Baijiu.