It is a clear drink usually distilled from sorghum, although other grains may be used: baijiu in southern China often employs glutinous rice, while northern Chinese varieties may use wheat, barley, millet, or even Job's tears in place of sorghum. The jiuqu starter culture used in the production of baijiu mash is usually made of pulverized wheat grains.
Because of its clarity, baijiu can appear similar to several other East Asian liquors, but it generally has a significantly higher alcohol content than, for example, Japaneseshōchū (25%) or Koreansoju (20–45%). It is closer to vodka in strength and mouth-feel.
Chinese liquor, which has been made for over 5000 years , is characterized by a double semi-solid state fermentation using fungi as the main microbial starter for the saccharification. This is a typical feature of liquors produced in the Far East. Chinese baijiu is mainly brewed with grain except for a few kinds using fruit.
Chinese people have always celebrated important occasions with alcohol. They will invite their close friends to a drinking session when someone moves into a new house, marries, starts a new business, even when their children get into a good school. In ancient times, soldiers would celebrate by drinking baijiu after winning a battle. If a warrior fell in a battle, his fellows would scatter baijiu on the ground as part of a memorial ceremony. Today, people just play simple finger-guessing, depending on the volume of drink being consumed. A common phrase exchanged would be, “If we are good friends, then bottoms up; if not, then just take a sip”.
Chinese traditionally serve baijiu either warm or at room temperature in a small ceramic bottle. They then pour the baijiu into small cups. Baijiu may be purchased as a set of items consisting of bottles of baijiu, a small heater, and four to six small cups. The serving method and containers are similar to those used for sake and soju, though baijiu differs significantly. Baijiu is generally sold in glass or ceramic bottles and consumed in shot glasses, much like vodka. It is traditional to drink baijiu with food rather than on its own, though the latter is not uncommon.
In 2007, a report in Time magazine mentioned integrating baijiu into cocktails.
Low grades of baijiu can be quite inexpensive; a bottle of roughly 250 mL (8 Ounces) may be purchased for the same price as a can of beer. However, higher grades, which are often aged for many years, often have prices which are artificially manipulated due to the custom of gifting valuables. The highest grade of Wuliangye retails for CN¥ 26,800 (US$3,375). Some popular varieties of baijiu include Moutai, kaoliang, erguotou, Luzhou Laojiao, and Wuliangye.
Crockery jars of locally-made baijiu in a liquor store in Haikou, Hainan, China, with signs indicating alcoholic content and price per jin (500 grams)
Unlike huangjiu, which has a wide variety of classification methods, baijiu are grouped primarily by their fragrance. Baijiu has a distinctive smell and taste that is highly valued in Chinese culinary culture. Connoisseurs of the beverage focus especially on its fragrance.
"Sauce" fragrance (醬香, jiàngxiāng): A highly fragrant distilled liquor of bold character, named for its similarity in flavor to Chinese fermented bean pastes and soy sauces. To the Western palate, sauce fragrance baijiu can be quite challenging. It has large amounts of ester compounds, which in combination with the ethanol in the liquor, imparts a sharp solvent-like note. To the initiated, it is quite delicious and is considered the perfect complement for fine preserved and pickled foods (醬菜, jìangcài). This class is also referred to as "Mao-scented" (茅香), after the best known liquor of this class, Moutai.
Thick fragrance (濃香 or 瀘香, nóngxiāng or lúxīang): A class of distilled liquor that is sweet tasting, unctuous in texture, and mellow, with a gentle lasting fragrance contributed by the high levels of esters, primarily ethyl acetate. Most liquors of this class are made using Aspergillus type starters. An example of this type of liquor is Wuliangye from Yibin.
Light fragrance (清香 or 汾香, qīngxiāng or fēnxiāng): Delicate, dry, and light, with a delectable mellow and clean mouthfeel. The flavours of this distilled liquor is contributed primarily by ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate. An example of this kind of liquor is Fenjiu (汾酒, fénjiǔ) from Shanxi.
Rice fragrance (米香, mǐxiāng): The character of this class of liquor is exemplified by baijiu distilled from rice, such as Sanhuajiu (三花酒) from Guilin. This type of liquor has long history and is made using Rhizopus spp.-type starters (the Chinese "little starter"). It has a clean mouth-feel and is slightly aromatic aroma, dominated by ethyl lactate with lesser flavour contributions by ethyl acetate.
Honey fragrance (蜂香, fēngxiāng): A class of distilled liquor with the fragrance of honey. Liquors of this class are subtle in flavour and sweet in taste.
Layered fragrance (兼香 or 復香, jiānxiāng or fùxiāng): A class of distilled liquors that contain the characters of sauce-, thick-, and light-fragrance baijiu. As such, liquors of this class vary widely in their aroma, mouth-feel, and dryness. An example of this type of liquor is Xifengjiu from Fengxiang County in Shaanxi.
Types of baijiu
Yanghe (洋河, yánghé): Yanghe Daqu was first made in the Sui and Tang dynasties. It began to flourish in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and was presented as tribute to Qing royals. After the founding of the country, the famous liquor was able to be enjoyed by citizens across the nation. Carrying on millennia of traditional craftsmanship, Yanghe Daqu uses only the highest quality sorghum as a base, and only the best wheat, barley and peas as high-temperature fermenting agents.
Erguotou (二锅头, èrguōtóu, lit. "head of the second pot") is a strong, clear distilled liquor. It is often inexpensive and thus particularly popular among blue-collar workers across northern and northeastern China. It is probably the most commonly-drunk baijiu in Beijing and is frequently associated with that city. Red Star (红星, Hóngxīng) is a popular brand.
Moutai (茅台, Máotái): this liquor has a production history of over 200 years, originally coming from the town of Maotai in Guizhou. It is made from wheat and sorghum with a unique distilling process that involves seven iterations of the brewing cycle. This liquor became known to the world after winning a gold medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, California. Mao Zedong served Moutai at state dinners during Richard Nixon's state visit to China, and Henry Kissinger once remarked to Deng Xiaoping that, "if we drink enough Maotai, we can solve anything". Alcohol content by volume: 54–55%.
Luzhou Laojiao (泸州老窖): Luzhou Laojiao is one of the most popular liquors within China, with history extending over 400 years. It is famed for the quality of its distillation along with its unique aroma and mouth-feel, the latter of which is due to the unique clay used within the brewing environment, which infuses the spirit with the taste it is so renowned for.
Kaoliang (高粱酒, gāoliángjiǔ): Kaoliang is an old spelling for the Chinese word for a specific type of sorghum. The liquor originates from Dazhigu (大直沽, located east of Tianjin), first appearing in the Ming Dynasty. Nowadays, Taiwan is a large producer of Kaoliang. Alcohol content by volume: 54–63%.
Daqujiu (大麴酒, Dàqūjiǔ): Originally from Sichuan, with 300 years of history. This liquor is made with sorghum and wheat and is fermented for a long time. Alcohol content by volume: 52%.
Shuangzhengjiu (雙蒸酒, shuāngzhēngjiǔ, lit. "double-distilled liquor") and Sanzhengjiu (三蒸酒, sānzhēngjiǔ, lit. "triple-distilled liquor"): two varieties of rice wine from the area of Jiujiang in Jiangxi, made by distilling twice and three times respectively. Alcohol content by volume: 32% and 38–39% respectively.
Wuliangye (五粮液, Wǔliángyè) is a strong, aged distilled liquor produced in the city of Yibin in southern Sichuan. Its factory includes a Liquor History Museum on its grounds. Wuliangye uses five grains (sorghum, rice, glutinous rice, corn, wheat) as its raw material, hence the name "Five-Grain Drink". The water which is used to brew Wuliangye is from the middle of Min River.
Jiugui or Sot (酒鬼, jiǔguǐ, lit. "drunk ghost" or "drunkard") is a clear distilled liquor made from spring water, sorghum, glutinous rice, and wheat. It is produced by the Hunan Jiugui Liquor Co., Ltd. in the town of Zhenwu near Jishou in the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in the western part of Hunan. It ranges from 38% to 54% alcohol by volume.
Mei Kuei Lu Chiew (玫瑰露酒, méiguīlujiǔ, lit. "rose essence liquor"): a variety of Kaoliang distilled with a special species of rose and crystal sugar. Alcohol content by volume: 54–55%.
Yuk Bing Siu Zau (玉冰燒酒, Yùbīng Shāojiǔ) or roulaoshao (肉醪燒, ròuláoshāo): a Cantonese rice liquor with over 100 years of history, made with steamed rice. After distillation, pork fat is stored with the liquor but removed before bottling. Its name probably derives from the brewing process: in Cantonese, "jade" (yuk) is a homophone of "meat", and bing means "ice", which describes the appearance of the pork fat floating in the liquor. Cantonese rice wine breweries prospered in the Northern Song Dynasty, when the Foshan area was exempted from alcohol tax. Alcohol content by volume: 30%.
Sanhuajiu (三花酒, Sānhuājiǔ, lit. "Three Flowers Liquor"):photo a rice liquor made in Guilin with allegedly over a thousand year history. It is famous for the fragrant herbal addition, and the use of spring water from Mount Xiang in the region. Alcohol content by volume: 55–57%.
Chu Yeh Ching (竹葉青酒, zhúyèqīnqjiǔ, lit. "bamboo-leaf green liquor"): this sweet liquor, produced in Shanxi, is fenjiu brewed with a dozen or more selected Chinese herbal medicines. One of the ingredients is bamboo leaves, which gives the liquor a yellowish-green color and its name. Its alcohol content ranges between 38 and 46% by volume.
To Mei Chiew (荼薇酒, túwéijiǔ) is a Cantonese liquor produced in Xiaolan Town near Zhongshan in Guangdong. It is made from rice wine, with added to mei flowers and crystal sugar syrup. Aged for more than one year. 30% alcohol by volume.
Pi Lu Chiew (碧綠酒, bìlǜjiǔ, lit. "jade green liquor"): From Wuhan, this liquor is infused with Chinese medicinal herbs and sugar.
Imperial Lotus White Chiew (御蓮白酒, Yàlián báijiǔ): This is a variety of Kaoliang infused with twenty medicinal herbs. It was first produced for the Chinese royal family in 1790.
Chajiu (茶酒, chájiǔ, lit. "tea liquor") is a product of fairly recent origin. It consists of Kaoliang flavored with tea leaves and hawthorn berries. It is usually a light reddish-brown in color (similar to oolong tea) and varieties made with oolong, green, and black tea are available. Chajiu is produced by several manufacturers, primarily in the Sichuan province. Although the strength differs according to the brand and variety, chajiu ranges between 8% and 28% alcohol by volume.