Baijiu: Acquiring the taste

The most consumed white spirit on Earth isn’t vodka – it’s baijiu. And China’s vast industry is now a major draw for Western companies, as Charlie Benson discovers.

As a child, they say you’ll need to try coffee five or six times to acquire its taste. With beer, it might be nine or 10 occasions for the novice drinker. China’s indigenous spirit, baijiu, however, raises the bar somewhat. Try 300.

Although not a wholly scientific guideline, it illustrates the point that baijiu is not renowned for being immediately palatable. Yet, despite its reputation, the statistics for baijiu are staggering. Not only is it China’s most consumed spirit, but a greater quantity of baijiu is imbibed than any other spirit world-wide. In an industry now worth an estimated £25 billion annually, baijiu continues to prosper, yielding huge profits for the large premium brands.

It follows that in recent years China’s baijiu industry has attracted increasing attention from the world’s drinks giants. Most notably, the two largest – Diageo and Pernod Ricard – have both made considerable investments in the sector.

What is baijiu?

Baijiu (or báiji) directly translates as “white spirit”. It is a clear distilled spirit, typically 40-60% abv, although it has been frequently known to breach the upper end. It is normally distilled from sorghum or glutinous rice and nearly all baijiu has a highly distinctive aroma. The resulting flavour is highly valued in Chinese culinary culture, but is considered to be an acquired taste to most foreign palates.

Types of baijiu are normally classified by their aroma group. At the highly aromatic end of the scale, “sauce fragrance” includes very pungent baijius such as Maotai (China’s best-known brand), down to the “lightly fragranced” group that includes more neutrally flavoured brands such as Fen Jiu.

History and provenance

Baijiu’s production and consumption dates back thousands of years, according to some historical evidence. Its provincial home is Sichuan, in China’s south-west, where around 25% of all China’s baijiu is produced, and the location of top-tier brands including: Wu Liang Ye, Shui Jing Fang, Jian Nan Chun, Lang Jiu and Lu Zhou Lao Jiao.

All claim hundreds of years of history and often promote this as a key component in their marketing campaigns. Lu Zhou Lao Jiao’s premium product 1573, for example, takes its name from the year they say the distillery was founded – making it the oldest operating distillery in China.

There are many other centres of baijiu in China; Shandong province in the north-east is the second biggest producer with around 10% of the country’s output. Despite being the best-known brand, Maotai is a geographic anomaly, being positioned in Guizhou province, adjoining Sichuan.

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