Don’t know what Baijiu is? Afraid of looking like uncultured swine to the mixologist behind the bar? You’re not alone— so here’s an introduction for you.
The national liquor of China, Baijiu (pronounced: “bye-joe”) is currently the world’s most consumed spirit, at around 38% of global spirit consumption. Nearly all of this consumption occurs in China, which is why so few in the West have heard of it. Baijiu can vary as much as whiskey, but it is essentially a strong, clear spirit distilled from fermented sorghum, rice and grain. It is not to be trifled with. Distilleries usually bottle it at 100-120 proof.
The spirit has recently gained some notoriety in America, namely for the reaction it elicits in first-time drinkers (see the reaction videos on YouTube for reference). There’s no doubting that it’s an acquired taste.
Some brands might smell like something drowned in your gas tank and taste like polyurethane, but others can be startlingly smooth and complex. One thing is certain; Baijiu does not taste like anything you’ve had before. Plus, 1.3 billion people have got to be on to something.
Many of Baijiu’s distinctive flavors stem from its unique method of production. Distillers ferment the grains in sealed mud pits, and often age the distilled product for many years in large terra cotta pots. Rather than pitching yeast into a stew of malted grain, as is done with Western alcohols, Baijiu makers use qu (pronounced: “chew”).
Qu are bricks of wet grains, sorghum and rice stored in hot, damp environments where they naturally gather yeast and other microorganisms from the air. Adding powdered qu and some water to the grain allows the malting and the fermenting to occur simultaneously- something you won’t often see in Western alcohol production.
Upon first sip many of you will find the stuff challenging, if you can find it at all. Some American liquor stores are finally beginning to sell Baijiu, though. HKB Hong Kong Baijiu may not be the boldest place for the uninitiated’s first taste, but it is fiery, fruity “entry point” Baijiu designed for Western palates. A bolder, more expensive option is Moutai, which the Prime Minister of China treated Richard Nixon to upon his visit to the country.
Though some of the hipper bars try to domesticate this drink by mixing it into cocktails, Baijiu is traditionally enjoyed in a shot glass. This stuff is the OG firewater— drink some and feel the hair growing on your chest.