Baijiu: China’s “White Wine”
My first trip to China was an eye-opening one. One of my friends there asked me if I wanted to try some white wine, and because I absolutely love all types of wine, I enthusiastically said yes, anticipating a taste of a nice crisp fruity white wine.
What I got was totally unexpected and shocking even. My friend poured me a tiny glass of a crystal clear liquid that came out of a bottle that looked more like a vodka bottle than a wine bottle. “Bottoms up” she said, and down the hatch the “wine” went.
I coughed. I spluttered. I wheezed. Not because it was bad; au contraire – it would have been rather pleasant if I had been told that what I was consuming was actually a hard, distilled liquor that wasn’t wine at all. I later learned that the “buzz” I was feeling after only one sip was due to the beverage’s 60% alcohol by volume content. Sheesh! I’d never had such strong “wine” in my life!
What I had been given that day back in 2003 was what the Chinese call Baijiu and translate to “white wine”. Baijiu is actually a distilled liquor produced with sorghum; it can also be made with glutinous rice, wheat, barley, millet or even Job’s Tears. It is clear, and from its appearance it can be confused with other clear liquors such as vodka, gin, or unaged rum. However, the ABV is usually higher and is 40%-60%, meaning it can pack quite a punch.
Baijiu has been produced in China for at least 5000 years and still plays a very important role in modern culture. Important occasions are celebrated with alcohol; when a new home is purchased, when a marriage takes place, when a new business starts, or even if a child gets accepted into a prestigious school, friends will be invited over to partake in a baijiu drinking session. We could almost say that baijiu in China is used in the same way that champagne is used Western countries to celebrate big occasions.
How to Drink Baijiu
Baijiu is incredibly strong in the alcohol department and it is also very strong when it comes to aroma and flavor. Drinking it in the right way will make a difference; it will be much more enjoyable.
Baijiu is usually served at room temperature or warm in order to enjoy the fragrances. The liquor is then poured into very small porcelain cups or small glasses. Baijiu can be sold in sets that contain a ceramic bottle of the beverage and matching drinking cups; sometimes a small heater is also included in the set. Baijiu is usually consumed while eating food, but it can be taken on its own as well.
Baijiu is not a liquor that is easy to mix into cocktails due to its strong character; many bartenders in the business have attempted to invent several recipes with mixers that could highlight or complement the flavors of the Chinese “white wine”, but have failed. Baijiu is best when it’s just taken straight.
Baijiu ranges in price from a few cents for liquid in a baggie-type container to several thousand dollars for types that have been aged for many years. Well-known brands include Maotai jiu, Gaoliang jiu, and Erguotou.
Baijiu is generally categorized according to its fragrance. Here are the main types.
Sauce Fragrance: This type has a very bold smell which to an untrained western palate is like barnyard, solvent, and ammonia. Described by some as a cross between stinky tofu and Italian grappa, to connoisseurs it is considered very delicious and the best accompaniment to foods that are pickled and preserved. Maotai is one of the most popular “sauce fragrance” baijius in China.
Thick Fragrance: Also called Heavy Fragrance, these are sweet tasting, unctuous and rather mellow with an aroma that is gentle yet lingering. Wuliangye from Yibin is a thick fragrance baijiu.
Light Fragrance: This type of baijiu has a clean mouthfeel, and is more delicate, light, and dry in nature while still being mellow. Ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate provide the characteristic flavors of this version, and if one is interested in trying a light fragrance baijiu, the one to try is Fen jiu from Shanxi.
Rice Fragrance: These baijius, and the name implies, are made from rice. Clean and only slightly aromatic, a good brand to try is San Hua jiu from Guilin.
Honey Fragrance: Subtle in taste and sweet, this type of “white wine” has a honey-like aroma.
Layered Fragrance: This category contains baijiu that has a combination of Sauce, Heavy, and Light fragrances, and liquors classified as “layered “ can vary wildly in their mouthfeel, dryness, and fragrance. Xifeng jiu is a good example of a Layered Fragrance type of baijiu.
Types of Baijiu
After classification into one of the above fragrance categories, there are basically two types of Baijiu: unflavored and flavored. Here we will only deal with some of the subcategories of the unflavored types.
Fen jiu is the oldest type of baijiu that is still on the market. It is made from sorghum and has an ABV of up to 65%.
Erguotou is one of the least expensive versions on the market and is popular in China’s northeast. It is frequently associated with Beijing and is a favorite with blue-collar workers.
Maotai In production for over 200 years, Maotai won a gold medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Maotai was also served to U.S. President Richard Nixon during his visit to China.
Luzhou Laojiao The most popular “white wine” in the country, with a production history extending over 400 years. Experts say its unique flavor is due to the type of clay that is present in the soil.
Tweet It!: #BaijiuWine