If you’re looking to impress a visitor to your home, few things are more impactful than a wine cellar. Aged, fine vintages are a sign of class and sophistication – as well as being a great conversation starter. The times are a-changing, however. Whilst enthusiasm for wine and spirits such as whiskey will always be high, it’s just a matter of time before baijiu takes its place at the top table.
Not heard of baijiu? You’re in the majority – for now. This Chinese beverage has yet to make any real inroads into Western culture. This is sure to change soon though, as manufacturers of the spirit are launching a charm offensive to bring the drink into bars, restaurants and living rooms throughout the world.
It may take a while before baijiu comes the national beverage of any country other than China, as it’s something of an acquired taste. You’ll need an iron constitution to remain standing after your first few shots, as baijiu is hugely strong! Once you have mastered the method of consuming baijiu, however, you’ll be at the forefront of a brave new world.
You see, baijiu isn’t just a drink for Chinese nationals. It’s a way of life. Baijiu is consumed at state functions, and the right bottle can make a treasured collector’s item. Much like wine that can be dated to pivotal moments in history, well-aged baijiu can auction for eye-watering sums in China.
That’s right – auction. Christie’s in Shanghai hosted the first ever all-baijiu auction in 2018, dubbed Treasures of the Chishui River – Kweichow Moutai. It’s an undeniably attention-grabbing name, and some of the lots on offer certainly grabbed attendees by the throat.
Let’s break it down a little. There are a great many different brands of baijiu available in China, with every distillery using their own preferred techniques. The Christie’s auction focused on Moutai, which is arguably the country’s best-known brand of baijiu – and undeniably the most prestigious. It’s Moutai that is served at state banquets and functions throughout China, and it’s Moutai that can sell for substantial sums.
A curious drinker looking to bring a bottle of Moutai into the UK would be looking at spending an average of £288. Sure, that’s not chump change, but we’re not talking supermarket plonk here! Moutai is a very prestigious drink. If it’s good enough for state visitors to China, it’s certainly good enough for a dinner party in Stoke Newington.
Moutai also remains prestigious due to the celebrated region in which it’s distilled. Whilst there are countless baijiu brands throughout China, only those created in the Kweichow Moutai distillery can use this name. Moutai isn’t just a brand with a catchy and memorable name. It’s a seal of quality and reassurance of luxury born of the region it was created within, just like champagne.
In fact, this baijiu is used in a similar way to champagne in the west. If there’s an occasion to mark in China, whether that’s a birth, wedding or professional achievement, expect Moutai to flow.
This is why Moutai was chosen as the focal point of China’s first ever all-baijiu auction. Many collectible bottles were placed up for sale, in an auction hosted by two celebrated consignors. The top lot was undoubtedly a dozen bottles of Fei Tian Moutai, dating back to 1980. These bottles sold for a total of RMB660,000, which translates as around £74,000.
Despite this, a pair of individual bottles reaches similar sums by themselves. As we have mentioned, baijiu is measured in worth by its age – alongside other factors. This is why two vintages, dated back to 1957 and 1958, each sold for RMB600,000. That’s circa £67,000. It may seem like big bucks to drop on a single bottle of spirit, but that’s the baijiu market for you – Moutai is hugely collectible!
Despite this, the auction was not a record breaker. The world’s most expensive bottle of Baijiu was a 1935 Moutai brewed under the Lay Mau umbrella. Such baijiu bottles are extremely rare, as this distillery ceased to exist in 1953. Three disparate distilleries were merged into one to become the nation’s primary state-sponsored baijiu HQ at this point.
As a result, anything that pre-dates this era is a highly sought-after collectible. This bottle of baijiu sold for RMB 10.7 million (£1.4 million). Imagine how sickened you’d feel if you dropped that on the way out of the auction house. Even earlier in 2018, a single bottle raised RMB 1.97 million (£227,000).
In total, the Christie’s auction raised around RMB 25.5 million. That’s around £2.8 million. It may not sound like a bad day’s work for an auctioneer, but it was actually considered to be slightly disappointing, with an expectation that the next auction will raise a little more.
Don’t go thinking that the auctioneers were greedy, either. Even higher bids next time are a fair assumption. The baijiu collectors market is a huge business in China, estimated to be worth around RMB 30 billion (£3.5 billion) by 2020.
If you’re looking to muscle in on this action, you may need to crack open your piggy bank. All signs point to collectible baijiu becoming a failsafe nest egg in the future, especially when the drink does crack the western market.