- What Is Baijiu?
- Baijui History
- Baijiu Ingredients
- Baijiu Brands – Styles
- Baijiu In Chinese Culture
- How To Drink Baijiu?
- Baijiu Taste
- Baijiu Cocktails
When asked to name the world’s bestselling alcoholic beverage, some may be surprised by the answer. Surely it will be a commonplace brand of beer, or maybe a liqueur such as a whiskey, rum or vodka? The correct response is actually baijiu, a Chinese drink that literally translates from the original language as white alcohol.
Shocked? You may well be. Despite making up 36% of sales throughout the global spirit trade, with purchases totalling an excess of £15billion, baijiu remains something of an enigma outside of China. This sense of mystery stems right down to how to pronounce the product; it’s Bye-Joe, not Bee-Joo.
Many western bars don’t stock baijiu unless the proprietor is particularly hip, and it’s certainly an acquired taste for a novice palate. This drink is nicknamed Firewater for a reason, after all. Over a billion Chinese enthusiasts can’t be wrong, however, and baijiu is slowly but surely making a splash outside its native territory. What is the history of this unique drink, and what appeal does it hold? Further reading on what is baijiu?
The earliest examples of baijiu started to emerge in the 13th Century, during China’s Yuan Dynasty, but really gained popularity during the Ming Dynasty. Wine was produced in China as far back as the Shang Dynasty. Alcohol was considered to be a luxury that denoted wealth and status, however, and not accessible to the peasant population. An average person would have no access to such opulence.
Like many pivotal inventions, the discovery of baijiu was a happy accident. According to legend, ancient Chinese civilizations would create wine from fruit, rice and honey. It is claimed that a civilian named Du Kang stored a bag of sorghum seeds in a hollowed out tree stump, fearing the impact of a harsh winter. When Du Kang returned to collect his bounty the following spring, he found that the seeds had fermented. This created a clear, diaphanous form of wine. Baijiu was born, and Chinese culture would never be the same again.
Baijiu spread in popularity like wildfire throughout China. Suddenly, everybody in the country was able to enjoy an alcoholic drink. While wine remained the reserve of palace banquets, baijiu was accessible to everybody. All it took was a handful of grains or rice, somewhere to store them, and a lot of patience. Further reading on baijiu history.
That remains the case to this day. Baijiu is created from wheat, rice, corn or sorghum. A typical bottle could be compiled of one, some or all of these ingredients. Rather than yeast, it’s fermented with jiuqu. Once the grains are fermented – which could take anything from a few days to 30 years – heat is applied through a distiller. This turns the liquid into steam, which is collected and allowed to cool off. Once it does so, baijiu is ready to be enjoyed. The result isn’t for the faint-hearted though, as the drink will have an alcohol proof content of at least 50%. It’s often considerably higher, meaning that somebody inexperienced in drinking baijiu may initially struggle. Further reading on baijiu ingredients.
Baijiu is similar to other alcohol drinks, in that it’s available in a variety of sizes and styles. Baijiu is also an umbrella term to describe a number of different beverages, just like rum or gin. A baijiu that has been allowed to age and ferment for longer will always be considered more luxurious and desirable, akin to a fine wine.
Perhaps unlike other spirits and liqueurs, however, baijiu is not judged and labelled by taste. This drink has a very distinct – some might say pungent – scent, and that’s how baijiu is classified.
Different Chinese territories enjoy and specialize in different aromas of baijiu, but the four most common throughout the nation are dubbed light aroma, strong aroma, rice aroma and sauce aroma.
Strong fragrance baijiu is arguably the most popular variation of the drink, particularly in eastern China. Head to the north of the country and you are more likely to encounter a light fragrance baijiu. This variation is often sweeter, with peas or barley to add a little flavour. If you have ever visited Beijing, you will likely have seen people enjoying bottles of Red Star. This is a very popular, and very affordable, brand of baijiu.
The south of China, particularly the Guizhou and Sichuan provinces, place greater emphasis on sauce aroma baijiu. This variation takes its name from the taste resemblance to soy sauce. Guangxi and Guangdon, meanwhile, are likely to serve rice fragrance baijiu. Sometimes blended with tealeaves, fruit or even medicinal herbs, this baijiu is fermented from long grain rice.
Further reading on baijiu brands – the best top ten.
Baijiu is omnipresent in China, including family meals, social occasions and celebrations. It is particularly prominent than when doing business with Chinese nationals, however. The drink is a hugely important part of Chinese culture, and a willingness to drink it will go a long way to build bridges. However, it’s not just a matter of drinking baijiu – there is also etiquette that should be observed when doing so. Further reading on baijiu in Chinese culture.
Baijiu is served in small, thimble-sized glasses akin to shots. When offered a glass of baijiu, accept it with grace and humility. You will be expected to clink your glass against that of your associate, and you’ll notice that the starting point will be very low. This is a mark of respect, as keeping the vessel low will demonstrate that you are humble.
Toast your associates with a cry of, “ganbei” (which translates as, “empty the glass”) and consume the entire shot in one. You will then be expected to turn your empty glass upside down, demonstrating that you have indeed drunk the whole thing. Further reading on how to drink baijiu?
It may take a little while to adapt to the taste of baijiu. If you really cannot face the idea of consuming such a potent beverage, you can decline and exchange it for water. Do so very carefully and respectfully, however. Baijiu is very important to the people of China, and declining to accept a shot could inadvertently cause offense. Further reading on baijiu taste.
Baijiu is slowly but surely making its mark throughout the rest of the world. Some bartenders use it as a base ingredient in cocktails, and others encourage customers to enjoy it as a single shot. Baijiu may require a steely demeanour, but the rewards for developing a taste for the drink are plentiful. It’s certainly a unique and fascinating element of worldwide food and drink culture. Further reading on baijiu cocktails.