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Maotai – A spirit worthy of the red carpet

Steeped in revolution, used to sterilise wounds and cure ailments by Red Army soldiers, and popular enough to be gifted to foreign dignitaries – what gives this sorghum spirit its mystique?

Seasonality: Year-Round
Producer: Maotai
Classification: Spirit
ABV: 60%-35% (varies)
Country of Origin: China
Trivia: Apparently the process is so pungent, the entire town of Maotai reeks of fermenting sorghum
Availability Info: It’s not the easiest spirit to find in the United States (and that’s an understatement).

Of all the multitude of strong spirits offered by countries across the globe, Maotai (spelled Moutai by the company) certainly deserves a place standing among the greatest of renowned sippers and fine beverages. With such a long and storied history in the country of China, it has only recently been gaining international acclaim and a heftier price tag.

It is one of those enigmas of the world of bottled spirits where it’s not commonly referenced in many drinking circles across the U.S. It does however hold the claim of actually being a staunch member of the triumvirate of the world’s best known and popular liquors, sharing the fame with whiskey and cognac. What it all starts with is a popular grain I believe we’ve all heard of: sorghum.

Many species of sorghum flourish under the baking Sun in some of the world’s hotter climates, most particularly Central America, South Asia, and Africa. However, once you wade through the many species of this particular plant, the one must cultivated for grain and also conveniently for the production of alcoholic beverages, is sorghum bicolour.

This useful and hearty grain, where the production of this spicy liquor Maotao begins, happens to be the fifth most important cereal grain cultivated on the planet.

Maotai has its home of production in the town that shares its same name, Maotai, in the city of Renhuia in the Ginzhou Province of Southwest China. This spirit has a very pervading and distinctive, gentle aroma of soy sauce, being sometimes called ‘sauce-fragranced’.

Since it is distilled from fermented sorghum bicolour, the town of Maotai that produces it fortunately possesses the delicate balance of a perfect climate and locally grown sorghum to craft this popular spirit. This town is still the only location where the beverage has ever been made, and started its career in large scale production during the Era of the Qing Dynasty, being China’s first spirit to be produced on such a massive scale.

The fame of this colourfully-bottled fermented sorghum spirit is very well-established and has the esteem and awards to back it up.

Maotai’s roll down the red carpet of acclaim began when it picked up some notice and snagged a gold medal at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915.

The story continued as two years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it was named the national spirit of the country. It still holds the prestigious honour of being the only gift that Chinese embassies will bestow in foreign countries, and is exclusively poured during feasts attended by foreign heads of state and visiting distinguished guest of China.

Even Richard Nixon imbibed this special distillate when shared by Zhou En-lai during the State Banquet for the U.S. Presidential Visit to China in 1972.

The accolades and awards continued flooding in as since the Chinese Revolution, Maotai has garnered 20 domestic awards and 14 international awards, making it one of the most highly-acclaimed spirits in existence.

Producing over 30,000 tons as of 2011, selling in over 100 countries across the world, and with a brand name in China larger than Apple and Google, this sorghum drink certainly possesses quite a firm reputation. Even though Dan Rather once described it as “drinking liquid razor blades”, try it the traditional way, take 3 small shots in quick succession, and decide for yourself! (even though he couldn’t handle it, maybe you can…)

Written by Max Stein with RhoMania, “Helping people enjoy life more, one beverage at a time.”



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