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How Much Do You Know About The History Of Baijiu?

The history of Chinese Baijiu is incredibly rich, and it holds exceptional significance in Chinese cultural history. The complexity of the fermentation process for Baijiu is unparalleled among alcoholic beverages. Today, Baijiu has become the world’s best-selling spirit, with sales surpassing those of vodka. How much do you know about the history behind Baijiu? Let’s explore it through “Ten Famous Liquors That Changed the World.”

What is Baijiu?

Baijiu is made from one or more types of grains, typically including sorghum, rice, wheat, barley, and corn. Some Baijiu is also produced from cereals like millet and Job’s tears (a type of Chinese pearl barley) through the fermentation and distillation processes. The choice of raw materials depends on the distiller’s needs. The main types of Baijiu are light aroma, strong aroma, and sauce aroma (resembling soy sauce). These three types make up 60% to 70% of the total Baijiu market. The other nine types have their unique production methods. The starter culture (fermentation agent) is the soul of the spirit’s flavor. Various grains, such as wheat, barley, and peas, can be used to make the starter culture. First, the raw materials are crushed (mold embryos), briefly soaked, and then pressed into brick-like shapes. During the fermentation process, various microorganisms, including yeast strains, filamentous fungi, bacteria, and actinomycetes, are cultivated. Fermentation and distillation require many large ceramic jars, with aging periods ranging from a few months to several years. Under the influence of these microorganisms, the final result is a spirit with different flavors and textures.

Unique Grains

Sorghum belongs to the flowering plant family Poaceae, and there are approximately 25 flowering varieties of sorghum. The bicolor sorghum is the most significant one, cultivated extensively in Africa, the Americas, and the southern and central parts of Asia. It’s believed that sorghum cultivation began about 6,000 years ago in Egypt’s Nabta Playa, with numerous benefits and high agricultural value. Unlike other cereal crops, sorghum has high adaptability; it’s drought-resistant, flood-resistant, and heat-tolerant, with exceptional photosynthesis and water absorption capabilities. Some sorghum varieties have a short growth cycle, taking only about 75 days, allowing for three planting seasons per year. The economic value of sorghum is significant. Around 5,000 years ago, it was introduced to China through the African trade route but was not widely used for liquor production until about 4,000 years later. Since then, it became an essential ingredient in brewing the most popular Chinese Baijiu.

The Oldest Brewing Legend

Chinese history of alcohol consumption can be traced back to eight or nine thousand years ago. Early alcoholic beverages were made from rice, often mixed with honey and fruits. Archaeologists discovered evidence of alcohol in pottery jars from Yangshao culture sites in Anyang and Changzikou, dating back 3,000 years. These alcohols were mainly composed of rice, supplemented with herbal extracts and resins. This suggests that alcohol played an essential role in ancient Chinese society, deeply ingrained in the history and culture of the Chinese people, and numerous interesting stories and anecdotes revolve around it.

There’s a myth about the Chinese discovering the principle of fermentation that might make modern distillers uncomfortable. The origins of the history of fermentation seem to have begun much later than the legend implies. The most widely circulated story credits Du Kang, the fifth-generation monarch of the Xia Dynasty (around 2070 BC to 1600 BC), as the “founder of alcohol” in Chinese history. Legend has it that Du Kang, needing to focus on tending his sheep, stored grains in the hollow of a mulberry tree. When he returned after an extended period, he discovered a fragrant aroma emanating from the grains. Another version suggests that Du Kang had to store food in a hollow tree to care for his bedridden uncle. When he returned, he found the food had spoiled, but he decided to consume it out of necessity, and to his surprise, his uncle made a miraculous recovery. Due to this unexpected discovery of alcohol, Du Kang was later celebrated as the “Sage of Alcohol” and even revered as the “Ancestor of Alcohol” in some regions.

The Soul of Baijiu – Qu and Distillation

The Chinese pronunciation of “Qu” sounds similar to the English word “chew,” which is appropriate, as it is made by compressing selected grains or rice and allowing them to serve as hosts for various microorganisms after slight moisture and pressure treatment. This process includes a variety of yeast strains, molds, and bacteria. Qu might have originated from moldy grains. However, the development of its purpose led to a unique fermentation method in China. Qu breaks down starch into the sugars required for fermentation, which is more economical than using yeast alone for fermentation. Most grains contain maltose, which is necessary for transforming starch into sugar, making their economic value undeniable. This complex form of Qu was first used during the Han Dynasty (206–220), significantly enhancing fermentation efficiency and improving the taste of Baijiu.

Many materials can be used to make Qu. Because Qu can produce different flavors of spirits, many distillers prefer to make their Qu. While the variety of materials used to create Qu is vast, the basic forms of Qu are only two. The first is Xiang Qu, typically made from rice or glutinous rice. Xiang Qu is processed into spherical shapes, allowed to sit quietly to nurture various substances. Herbs are sometimes added to Xiang Qu, indicating its medicinal history. Xiang Qu can be used to brew both Baijiu and Huangjiu. The second is Da Qu, typically composed primarily of sorghum and mixed with grains like wheat, barley, or peas. After Da Qu is ground, moistened, pressed into large chunks, and allowed to sit for one to two months, it is dried, and the fungi and other microorganisms it contains are collected for Baijiu production.

Even though China had advanced fermentation materials at the time, the core technology of distillation was missing. When Qu was combined with distillation technology, a unique and potent spirit was miraculously born.

The cross-cultural exchange of wisdom between Greece, Egypt, and the Middle East drove the development of distillation techniques. In the 3rd century, alchemist Maria Hebraea worked in Hellenistic Alexandria, Egypt. Her scientific practices complemented her skill in crafting materials like glass and metallurgy. While most of her work remains irreproducible, later alchemists revered her ideas, acknowledging her contribution to the invention of distillation flasks. Although Maria’s distillation method did not involve alcohol, it continued and eventually became widespread. Arab scholars translated many documents on Egyptian distillation, further developing and applying this knowledge to alcohol production under the influence of the Islamic Renaissance.

Jabir Ibn Hayyan, a devout Muslim, was the first person to record how to separate alcohol around AD 815. The term “alcohol” is derived from the Arabic word “al-kuhl” (distilled liquid).

In the Tang Dynasty of China (618–907), some alcohol-loving poets wrote numerous poems praising the distillation techniques of the Chinese. Poet Bai Juyi (772–846) mentioned the consumption of “burnt spirits,” or “liquor produced through burning” in his poetry. Conservatively estimating, China’s Bai Juyi enjoyed such spirits just 26 years after Jabir Ibn Hayyan’s passing. In contrast, Europe’s Ramón Lull began developing distillation apparatus 400 years after Jabir’s time. A 400-year gap compared to 26 years is a significant difference. Around the 6th to 7th centuries AD, the Chinese produced primitive distilled spirits by freezing fermented beverages. In the poetry of these two drinkers, the process of distilling evolved into “burning alcohol,” although it’s difficult to definitively assert this based solely on their verses. “Burning alcohol” might refer to the distillation method used to produce high-proof spirits. The Silk Road, which dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), served as the route through which distillation knowledge entered China. Although distillation was present in China during that time, it had not yet become widespread. The popularity of distilled spirits on the Silk Road occurred during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and gained momentum starting from the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). According to Li Shizhen’s “Compendium of Materia Medica” in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), “Distilled spirits are not made in the ancient way; the method was first established during the Yuan Dynasty.” Distillation spirits started during the Yuan Dynasty.

The fusion of fermentation and distillation techniques created unique spirits. Baijiu became quite popular among farmers who couldn’t afford the high society’s choice of Huangjiu (fermented grain wine) and opted for this stronger and more affordable option. With the development of distillation technology, different provinces developed unique brewing methods, resulting in Baijiu with distinct characteristics. Variations in the types and quantities of grains used in distillation contributed to differences in the composition of Qu. People discovered that aging Baijiu in porous ceramic jars, just like wooden barrels, promoted the occurrence of oxidation, resulting in a smoother spirit. This is particularly important for high-proof spirits. The mixing of various spirits also became a hallmark of quality, with the best Baijiu resembling Cognac, composed of more than 50 different distillation batches. These flavors were spread and led to various regional characteristics.

Pictures and texts are excerpted from

[English] Written by Serge Lynch

[English] Illustration by Tom Maliniak

Translator: Shi Yaoyao

Format: 32 pages

Edition: 1st Edition December 2020

Original title: “How much do you know about the history of liquor?


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