Western drinking culture is seen as a trendsetting, ahead of the curve industry, so it’s hard to imagine that the most widely consumed and highest-selling spirit in the world is largely unknown to most of us. Baijiu (pronounced bye-joe) amounts to roughly 30 percent of all spirits consumed worldwide, and it’s just starting to make its way into the bars and glasses of Europe and the Americas.
The traditional grain-based Chinese spirit holds a unique place behind the bar, offering a set of entirely new flavors plus a centuries-old tradition to back them up. Baijiu is thought to be as old as distillation in China itself, with uncertain but likely beginnings during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). Throughout the ages, the process has gone largely unchanged, adapting to different source materials as they became available. In this age of experimentation, bartenders across the globe cannot resist the challenge of coercing the umami rich, unctuously earthy and downright funky flavors of baijiu into intriguing cocktails to suit all tastes.
How Is Baijiu Made?
Baijiu production starts with one or more types of grain including rice, sorghum, corn and wheat. The grain is steamed, boiled or milled and mixed with water before the addition of qu. Qu is a potent dried mass of yeast and other microorganisms that converts the grain starches into sugar while also initiating fermentation, eliminating the need for malting. The mix of grains and qu is buried under mud, in concrete pits or earthen vessels, and fermented for 20-80 days, after which it is distilled, diluted to around 52% ABV, and aged anywhere from six months to 30 years. The final product is generally blended before bottling to ensure consistency across brands.
Baijiu Styles and Flavors
There are four basic styles of baijiu: rice (mild and light), light (dry and delicate), thick (big and sweet) and sauce (heavy and pungent). The styles correspond to different regions of China, where the traditional cuisine falls in line with the baijiu. For example, rice-style baijiu is common to southeastern China where the flavors of the food are often delicate and include raw fish, whereas sauce-style baijiu comes from an area where the food is more pungent. The flavors range from fruity to cheesy to mushroomy—some have fermentation notes that are described as “rotting fruit.” It is an acquired taste and one that requires initiation, to say the least.
How Do You Drink It?
Baijiu is traditionally enjoyed as a shot—or as many shots—throughout a meal, and is considered a digestive aid. It’s common for business meetings to include baijiu shots; the participants will try to toast one another on a lower level to show respect, which can lead people to go so low that they end up toasting each other on the floor. In most Western bars and restaurants that offer baijiu, it is common to see the potent, funky spirit worked into fruity cocktails, or served as a small shot to accompany food. While we can’t guarantee you’ll love it upon first sip, we do recommend you try the spirit at least once to experience its unique flavors. Who knows, maybe you’ll find your new favorite shot.