baijiu alcohol chinese
In 2018, 10.8 billion litres of baijiu were sold. | Frannie Jiranek/Thrillist
In 2018, 10.8 billion litres of baijiu were sold. | Frannie Jiranek/Thrillist

You've Probably Never Tried the World's Most Popular Liquor

The clear Chinese liquor sold 10.8 billion litres in 2018.

The world’s best-selling liquor is a drink you’ve probably never heard of, despite reaching overall sales of 10.6 billion dollars in 2018 (that’s billion with a B). It’s clear and has an aggressive, fragrant kick. It can be consumed straight and harsh or mixed into cocktails. Its name? Baijiu. Eat your heart out, whiskey. 

Baijiu has been around for thousands of years. The liquor hails from China, where variations are as diverse as China’s expansive regions. For the most part, baijiu is made from fermented grains, with sorghum -- a cereal grain that’s considered “Old World” -- as a prominent ingredient. The ABV percentage of baijiu is enough to warm drinkers from the inside out, falling between a wide range of 28-65%.

Different types of baijiu are classified depending on their flavor profiles. The four most common types are light aroma, strong aroma, sauce aroma, and rice aroma. The light aroma is exactly what it sounds like: an airy baijiu that is dry and only a little bit sweet, with vaguely floral notes. It’s ideal to sip on slowly if one can’t fathom the intensity of the strong aroma. Like its name, the strong aroma packs a punch. It’s described as tasting overtly fruity, and is often compared to pineapple and anise. Sauce aroma tastes to many like bean paste and soy sauce -- hence its name -- and rice aroma is the only baijiu distilled mostly from rice.

The aromas differ depending on ingredients, aging containers, and aging duration. For light versions, the blend is made from traditional sorghum but may also include barley and peas. The vessel of choice s built from stone. The strong baijiu is mostly made of sorghum, which gives the liquor it’s sweet and pungent flavor, and is left to ferment in mud pits. Sauce baijiu gets its bold characteristics from multiple fermentations and is also mostly made of sorghum, and -- as we’ve established -- rice aroma baijiu is made from, well, rice. Wood barrels and clay pots can also be swapped out for mud pits and stone vessels. 

There are additional types as well, such as sesame aroma (made with sesames) and “chi” or fat aroma, which includes pork fat during the aging process. While some may scoff at the idea of pork fat-infused liquor, the technique known as fat-washing is trending among the craft-cocktail set in the US. To the non-mustachioed, the technique flavors liquors with the rich and savory notes found in all types of fats: butter, flavored oils, and yes, bacon and pork grease. Curiously, the American palate has taken to liquor flavored with animal fats and oils. But still, for whatever reason, Western tastes haven't come around to baijiu. Why is that?

Some people believe the reason baijiu hasn’t taken off especially well in Western countries has to do with what some describe an abrasive flavor. Another reason could be the lack of access; baijiu isn’t carried at mainstream grocery stores, so unless consumers reside near a specialty liquor shop or Chinese grocer, baijiu may remain more elusive. The more popular brands, like Maotai, Guijing Gong Jiu, and Wuliangye, may be easier to seek out, while Brooklyn-based Ming River -- which is partnered with Sichuan-based Luzhou Laojiao distillery and distributes under its own label stateside -- is looking to make the ancient liquor more widespread in the US.

That said, China’s consumption of baijiu has been so strong -- pun intended -- that baijiu producers haven’t necessarily felt hastened to start expanding.

maotai chinese liquor baijiu
Maotai -- or Moutai -- is one of the most popular brands of baijiu. | Parinya Art/Shutterstock

Despite this, some restaurateurs in America want to share the experience of baijiu with their customers. “Baijiu pairs well with a lot of Chinese food -- especially the spicy Sichuan and Guizhou food where most of the baijiu distilleries are,” explained Andrew Chiu, the chef, bartender, and co-owner of downtown Los Angeles dig, Peking Tavern (it comes as no surprise that beloved Chinese condiment and spicy chili oil, Lao Gan Ma, is also from the Guizhou region). 

“[Baijiu is] typically consumed neat in tiny cups and sipped over the course of a meal. When there’s baijiu on the table, there’s usually a lot of toasting done among friends, coworkers, and especially business associates,” Chiu said. It’s something Chiu experienced himself working as an architect in China, and a memory that stuck with him. “As Chinese Americans, we all learned about baijiu when we did business [in China] in the ‘90s. Our indoctrination was so pleasant and memorable, we felt it had to be part of a Chinese gastropub concept that is Peking Tavern today.” 

At Peking Tavern, guests can sip on baijiu-based cocktails like the Liquid Jade, made with fresh celery juice, or the Wong Chiu Punch -- a fragrant drink that includes hibiscus. Chiu wanted to include baijiu in cocktails in order to “ease” Americans into the world of baijiu. “We realized that nobody in the country [was] making cocktails with baijiu. Most mixologists thought it was impossible, but [we] were determined and finally came up with several baijiu cocktails after much experimentation.” 

Across the country at New York City’s Michelin starred Cafe China, baijiu is served with a different approach: in shots. Xian Zhang, one half of the duo behind both Cafe China (and sister restaurant, China Blue), wanted to introduce customers to the spirit he’s had since he was 10 -- in a method that really magnifies the flavors. 

“In the US, baijiu has been a tough sell because it is so different from other spirits,” he stated, describing the smell as “scotch mixed with soy sauce and some burnt sugar, magnified 100 times.” Even so, he says the smell makes his mouth water while the burn is “unforgettable.”

“Baijiu is one of the oldest spirits in the world. The technique [has] been perfected over thousands of years.”

Zhang and Chiu aren’t the only people rooting for baijiu’s insurgence around the world. World Baijiu Day, an event and blog which was started nearly 5 years ago by Canadian wine enthusiast Jim Boyce, aims to promote the popular spirit by sharing recipes, news, and tips for restaurants from around the world that serve the baijiu. The official day of celebration falls on August 9th; the date, in Chinese, reads as “ba jiu.”

Though baijiu is still on the margins of US drinking trends, the groundwork is laid for one of the oldest spirits in the world to finally have its moment in the spotlight, likely helped along by its prominence in the buzzy new Awkwafina film The Farewell. It’s only a matter of time before this clear liquid makes its way to cocktail bars and into the hands mixologists looking to experiment with different liquors -- if they can get their hands on the beloved Chinese alcohol. Time to say gānbēi

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Kat Thompson is a food and drink writer at Thrillist. Her favorite cocktails are spicy and strong. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn