The history of China is vast, dating back over 4,000 years. Throughout the thousands of years, the dynasties and kingdoms, wars and revolutions, one thing remained constant — China's production of and passion for Baijiu.
Similar to whiskey on a certain level, Baijiu is a grain-based distillate, whose principle base is sorghum. (Other grains can include rice, sticky rice, wheat and corn.) So what does Baijiu taste like? Probably unlike anything you've had before. Depending on the proportions used and choice of grains, each style of Baijiu tastes different. Take whiskey styles as an example: Whereas Scotch is often peaty, rye is spicy, and bourbon is sweet, Baijiu can run a similar gamut.
Indeed, much like saying "whiskey" can include everything from Irish whiskey to Scotch and bourbon to rye, saying Baijiu refers to an entire spirits category, not a single beverage. Thus, flavors can range from hay to citrus to raisins to the nuttiness of sherry; the combination is quite foreign to the Western palate. That, of course, is what makes the stuff so intriguing.
It also comes at a price. Bottles generally run 375 ml and can cost anywhere from $25 for the lower end bottlings to upwards of $150 for the ultra-premium Moutai-style of Baijiu. Internationally, Moutai is the second most popular spirit in the world after Johnny Walker (according to a recent spirits ranking). Another style holds the eighth most popular spot, signifying that this is a major spirits player.
Still, it's a spirit little known in the U.S.except among the Asian community — until now the only places you might find a bottle were wedged onto crowded shelves in an Asian market or shop. Recently, Baijiu has recently gained mass distribution and will slowly start becoming available to the everyday consumer.
To make Baijiu, the distillation process starts with washing, crushing and steaming the grains to which a locally cultured starter yeast is added to aid in fermentation. The yeast-grain mixture is placed in a fermentation pit, which has been dug into the ground. Once full, the pit is covered with mud, then sealed until airtight. After a curing period, the mash from the fermentation pit is removed and put in the distillation apparatus, which steams the grain, extracting the ethanol and sending it to a tank in liquid form. This liquid is then aged in 6-foot terra cotta jars. The remaining grain mash from the distillation process is then cooled on a bamboo A-frame structure and, once dry, is returned to the pit in which it fermented to form a base for the next batch of grain that is added.
As with everything in China, there's an etiquette that goes along with drinking Baiju. Glasses are roughly half an ounce in size, allowing the drinker to drink the spirit like water, not sipping it like wine or gulping it like a shot. In China, drinking is very much a part of the culture where it is considered impolite to refuse when a drink offered. Further, with Baiju, the younger person traditionally serves the older person. Also, it's polite to literally raise up the other person's glass up with one's hand to show respect. And, when you have finished, it's appropriate to show that your glass is empty. That's a lot of rules for one little drink.
Hakkasan in Beverly Hills is currently one of the few places in L.A. where you can sample Baijiu cocktails. (Peking Tavern in DTLA has quite a selection of baiju drinks as well.) Beverage director Tarita Noronha was intrigued by the unique flavor profile and sought to create cocktails that highlighted, rather than covered up, those funky elements. Her Baijiu We've Got It combines the Mianzhu Daqu Baijiu with hibiscus tea and Hum liqueur (a combination of hibiscus, kaffir lime, cardamom and ginger), then tops it off with ginger beer for a cooling, long drink that showcases Baijiu's singular flavor.
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In the political world, Baijiu is China's calling card. Indeed, it was served to President Nixon when he visited the country, and led Henry Kissinger to note, "If we drink enough Moutai, we can solve anything." It's worth a try.
Editor's note: This post has been changed since initial publication to add Peking Tavern information.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Her book "The 12 Bottle Bar," co-written with David Solmonson, was released on July 29. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.