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.