Historically alcohol has been attributed to the advancement of human culture, fuelling the development of art, religion, politics, philosophy and language. Alcohol is one of the most controversial by-products of civilisation; it is one of the most universally produced substances throughout history and China, not unlike the rest of the world, has been influenced and shaped by the liquid.
China and its people have been brewing and distilling alcohol for thousands of years.
In fact, it has been revealed that China were making a type of wine from materials such as rice, honey and fruit over nine thousand years ago. Evidence of the drink was found in Jiahu during an archaeological dig and as a result the drink is now regarded as the world’s oldest known alcoholic beverage.
China’s national liquor is called Baijiu, a clear, potent, spirit, with a typical percentage of 40 to 60 percent, which is distilled from fermented grain (See: How Is Baijiu Made), usually sorghum. (See: Baijiu Ingredients) It originates from the Ming Dynasty, making it a culturally and historically important alcoholic incarnation.
Baijiu is featured at every festive occasion in China, from weddings to business banquets. It is very popular during big celebrations and is used as a toasting drink. (See: Drinking Baijiu – Chinese Customs & Traditions)
The exact origins of Baijiu are slightly shrouded in mystery and it has been asserted that it was developed from an ancient form of alcohol that was enhanced by the discovery of distilling. During the Tang Dynasty a spirit known as Shaojiu was very popular, and it has been speculated that Shaojiu’s distillation process and ingredients are similar to the drink we know today as Baijiu.
Baijiu is threaded throughout Chinese art and literature, and features prominently in folk legends. One of the most popular legends is the legend of Du Kang:
The Legend of Du Kang
Du Kang lived during the Zhou Dynasty and was exiled, alongside his uncle, following their families suspected role in a plot to overthrow the king, Zhou Nan Wang. They retreated to a forest to live out the rest of their days, but were discovered by a landowner who took them and forced them to work for him.
Du Kang’s uncle quickly falls ill due to malnourishment, and as a result the boy decides to save his rations of sorghum by hiding it within a the hole of a nearby tree. Weeks go by and when Du Kang returns to the tree to extract the grain he discovers the sorghum has mixed with rainwater and fermented, the ingredients had unknowingly transformed into the spirit we are familiar with today. – and so, Baijiu was accidentally born.
Baijiu is the number one spirit of the Chinese people.
Initially the spirit was favoured by the everyday working man, whilst Huangju remained a popular choice with the aristocracy. As the spirit began to spread throughout China it also began to evolve, and so several different distinct spirits were created. Each city and village seemed to have their own recipe and technique.
As China began to push for modernisation and globalisation, there came a change in the way things were done and through the development of new technologies and the modernisation of the production of spirits the spirit became popular throughout China because of its improved quality and consistency.
Today, Baijiu is a traditional spirit of China, and as such is the best selling liquor in the world, but it is little known beyond it.
So what else is there to know about baijiu?
- It’s strong – as mentioned before it is around 40 to 60 percent alcohol. And according to Chinese tradition the spirit is to be served at room temperature from small cups or glasses alongside food, so it isn’t something you would be drinking by the bottle.
- Various classifications – (See: Types Of Baijiu) just like gin or tequila, Baijiu has different classes. Generally speaking there are six popular classifications and they are defined by ‘fragrances’, which are a nod to the spirits flavouring: honey, layered, light, rice, sauce and thick. It has been noted that Western palates prefer the lighter and sweeter classes, especially if you are just starting out on your adventure!
- Where to begin? – as this spirit is so strong it is best to start gently! Although shots of the drink are popular, it can also be enjoyed as part of a cocktail too.
- If it’s so strong, how will I enjoy it? – as mentioned above this is a versatile spirit and can be enjoyed multiple ways. Baijiu has a unique first taste as it is an unfamiliar flavour for most, but it’s something different and new. And the more you sip, the more you enjoy its uniqueness. It has a fully bodied, rich flavour, and just like tasting handcrafted bourbon, you should aim to savour its complexity.
- Top Drink of 2019 – The International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2018 announced the key drinks trends of the year, and Baijiu was close to the top of the list. We should be looking for the spirit alongside top-end whiskies and cognacs in the near future and bartenders in the UK and US are beginning to incorporate the spirit into cocktails too.