What is baijiu?
Baijiu (pronounced bye-j’yo) means “white spirits” in Mandarin. It is a diverse drinks category that includes all traditional Chinese grain spirits. Most baijiu is distilled from sorghum, but it can also be made from other crops. The techniques deployed in baijiu production vary greatly by region and style, and different styles of baijiu can be as distinct as whiskey is to tequila.
The secret ingredient in baijiu is qu (pronounced “chew”), a naturally harvested culture of airborne yeasts and other microorganisms. It makes the taste and scent of every baijiu highly specific to the place it was created. Qu also allows Chinese distillers to ferment and distill grains in a solid state, which creates incredible complexity of flavor.
Baijiu is the world’s most popular liquor by volume. China’s National Statistics Bureau estimates that the country produces about 12.9 billion liters (3.4B gal) of baijiu annually. Put another way, there is more baijiu produced each year than the combined total of vodka and whisky—numbers two and three, respectively. Baijiu and Western spirits, broadly defined, are fundamentally different alcohols, which makes Chinese spirits an exciting new addition to the international spirits world.
What are the different styles of baijiu?
In all there are about a dozen distinctive regional styles of baijiu, but four styles make up the bulk of the market: strong aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma, and rice aroma.
Light-aroma baijiu is most popular in northern China. It is made from sorghum and sometimes uses qu made from barley and peas. It is fermented in stone pots or pits, and it is best known for short production cycles with minimal aging periods. It has a light body with floral notes and the mellow sweetness of dried fruit.
Strong-aroma baijiu is popular throughout China, but most closely associated with Sichuan Province. It uses wheat qu and continuous fermentation in earthen pits. It is distilled from sorghum, sometimes in combination with other grains. It is notable for a robust body with notes of tropical fruit, anise and pepper.
Sauce-aroma baijiu, as in soy sauce, comes from Guizhou Province and is made from sorghum fermented in pits lined with stone bricks. Its mash is fermented and distilled eight times in the course of a year. The flavor is rich and umami, with notes of mushroom, caramel and bitter herbs.
Rice-aroma baijiu is associated with southeastern China, particularly Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. It is distilled from rice fermented with rice-based small qu. Unique to this category is the occasional use of continuous distillation. It has a light body similar to vodka, with notes of flowers and honey.
Learn more about baijiu at DrinkBaijiu.com