|Contents: 1) What Is Baijiu? 2) Baijiu History 3) How Is Baijiu Made? 4) Baijiu Ingredients 5) Types Of Baijiu 6) Baijiu Facts & FAQs 7) How To Drink Baijiu 8) Pairing Baijiu With Food 9) Baijiu Cocktails 10) Popular Baijiu Brands|
|Country of origin||China|
|Alcohol by volume||28-65%|
|“Baijiu” in Chinese characters||白酒|
|Literal meaning||“white (clear) alcohol”|
Types Of Baijiu
Sauce Aroma Baijiu
Sauce aroma baijiu is known for its very powerful taste but in fact, sauce aroma contains no soy sauce or even soy beans. Out of all the baijiu aromas, it uses the most basic ingredients, in this case sorghum. Once it is steamed and cooled, bricks of wheat (Qu) are added. The fermentation process takes place in subterranean pits lined with stone bricks. When the Qu is added, the mixture is then covered with a layer of mud and left to ferment for around a month. Like strong aroma baijiu, sauce originates from Sichuan province in South-West China.
Sauce Aroma Baijiu Distillation
Once the mud layer is removed the mash is taken out a layer at a time and distilled in is solid state. It is then removed from the still and mixed with more sorghum and Qu. Distillate is sprinkled on top at this point and it is then returned to the stone lined pit, covered with mud again and then repeated. In fact, this process is repeated for up to 8 times so the entire production takes around a year. What this does is give the process a distinctive acidic taste due to the amount of sorghum and repeated fermenting. It is also why this intensive process lends itself to some quite high prices for the best sauce aroma baijiu brands.
Once the baijiu is deemed ready, it is then further moved to earthenware jars and aged for 3 years; however some sauce aroma baijius can be aged for 20 or even 30 years. Once aged, it is finally diluted slightly with water, which brings the ABV down to around a mere 53%!
Strong Aroma Baijiu
The home of strong aroma baijiu is Sichuan and you can think of it as the Greek olive of olives. That is to say that much of the baijiu produced in other areas and for other aromas has alcohol from Sichuan as its base, in the way Greek olives often get exported to Italy or Spain to then be used as the basis for some of their olive oils (obviously not estate bottled or indigenous olives though).
Strong aroma baijiu actually has single grain and multi-grain varieties, much the same way I guess that whisky (Scotch at any rate) has the famous malt varieties and the blended whiskies. However with baijiu, some of the multi-grain strong aroma baijiu brands are also expensive, such as Wuliangye. Sorghum, corn, rice (both glutinous and long-grain), wheat and buckwheat are all ingredients. For example, Wuliangye uses buckwheat whereas Shuijingfang uses wheat.
At the baijiu fermentation stage, wheat-based bricks of Big Qu are added and the mixture is then put into fermentation mud pits. Usually it can be weeks or months for fermentation but because the pits are mud the bacteria, organisms and alcohol seeps into the walls of the pits which are believed to enhance the quality and flavour. For example, it can take years before a pit is good quality and 30 years before it is top end for producing great strong aroma Baijiu. A fascinating fact is that the mud pits used to make strong aroma baijiu can be very old; at Luzhou they have been in use since 1573! Shuinjingfang’s company actually uncovered Ming dynasty pits on their site and incorporated some of the bacteria into their operational pits. Astonishing to think how old some of the bacteria (crucial to the process) are, in making some strong aroma baijius. Another fascinating aspect only found in strong aroma baijiu is that spent grains are often then mixed with fresh grains so you actually have a sour mash which has continuity between batches and can be very old; sometimes centuries old!
Strong Aroma Baijiu Distillation
Once the mud layer is removed, the same process used in sauce aroma baijiu is used with strong aroma baijiu – taking the mash out a layer at a time, and then transferring to the still in a solid state where the steam is collected for the alcohol. Finally, the baijiu is put into earthenware jars for up to a year or sometimes several then the water is added to adjust the ABV strength. It results in a thick, “strong” aroma which gives it that distinction and although sauce aroma Kweichow Moutai is very expensive, most of the pricier baijius are actually strong aroma ones.
Light Aroma Baijiu
Light aroma Baijiu is produced in the north of the country (sauce and strong aroma is produced in the South-West). It is probably the most widely available Baijiu, mainly as it is quite simply easier to make than sauce or strong aroma and with production from the North-West to the North-East, it has a lot of area to produce from.
There are some similarities at the start of production; firstly, sorghum is used and once steamed and cooled, bricks of Qu are added. Some producers like to use peas (60% wheat, 40% peas) in their Qu and once the mixture of sorghum and Qu is put together, the mixture is put straight into earthenware pots. Water is actually added at this stage (different to sauce and strong where the water is added after fermentation) and instead of mud, the pots are covered with rice husks. Fermentation usually lasts a month and once the rice husks are removed, some baijiu brands such as Fenjiu add rice bran and then after distillation it is cooled before more Qu is added and fermentation takes place a second time.
Light aroma baijiu is not light! In fact, it is about 70% ABV at this point although many are diluted and it then drops to 60%, occasionally below but often over 60. It’s a popular category of Baijiu and as mentioned above, quite widely available so it tends to prove popular.
Rice Aroma Baijiu
So the first distinction with rice aroma baijiu is the use of rice and not sorghum as its base. Once steamed and cooled (3 times), small, rice-based Qu is added. So instead of wheat Qu this is made from rice flour, water and medicinal herbs. The number of herbs can vary – as much as 100 in some cases – but often it just uses 1. Guilin Sanhua only uses 1, probably the most famous rice aroma baijiu. Once the Qu is formed, it is crushed into small balls and added to the rice based sorghum and put into shallow, earthenware jars, meaning it has more similarity to light aroma baijiu in fermentation than sauce or strong aromas. A hole is dug to allow more air to flow through and it sits for just one day like this. This allows for the process of saccharification, which is separate compared to the other main aroma techniques. Water is then added and it is transferred to a larger jar to sit for a week, allowing the actual fermentation process to happen.
Rice Aroma Baijiu Distillation
Rice aroma baijiu is actually triple distilled which is apparently easier because rice aroma baijiu producers use modern vertical stills instead of traditional Chinese ones. And it should have bubbles when shaken! Ageing then takes place, usually over several years, in a contained space such as caves. As you can see, rice aroma baijiu really is based on rice! It is sometimes compared more to Japanese Sochu but is at heart still just another aroma of Baijiu.
Other Baijiu Aromas
Yes, there are other aromas of baijiu but they are hard to obtain and not nearly as common as the 4 main ones. Here are some of them we know about:
Phoenix Aroma Baijiu
From Shanxi province, Phoenix aroma baijiu has aspects of both light and strong aroma Baijiu. It is distilled from sorghum in earthenware pits with wheat, pea and barley Qu. However Phoenix aroma baijiu producers replace the mud lining in the pits every year with a 10 day fermentation period. Then it is aged in big rattan baskets filled with cloth sacks, hardened with vegetable oil, beeswax and pigs blood. So it is not vegan friendly! Fruity and grainy are two key characteristics.
Mixed Aroma Baijiu
A blend of two or more aroma varieties. So it could be the blended whisky of Baijiu. The most common blend is between sauce and strong aromas.
Sesame Aroma Baijiu
Similar production technique to sauce aroma but with a charred, nutty flavour. Sesame aroma baijiu is made with sorghum and wheat Qu added. It is fermented in a stone pit with a mud bottom, which might aid the flavour.
Chi Or Fat Aroma Baijiu
A rice based baijiu but with the addition of pork fat during the ageing process (do not recommend to a vegan). It has an oily body to it with bacon overtones apparently (we haven’t tried this one directly).
Medicine Aroma Baijiu
A pungent aroma, made from two sorghum mashes. In the larger pit Big Qu is added while the smaller pit uses rice Qu filled with white mud, peach juice and sealed with coal. Once both are fermented the two mashes are mixed together for distillation.
Extra-Strong Aroma Baijiu
Made from sorghum, glutinous rice, wheat and corn, fermented with big and medicinal small Qu. Aged at least 3 years with an earthy fragrance and sweet taste, mixed aroma baijiu uses 2 categories while extra-strong aroma baijiu uses 3.
Special Aroma Baijiu
Rice based baijiu made from rice and Big Qu in red bricks, joined with cement and sealed with mud. It is earthy, rich and sharp in flavour.
Laobaigan Aroma Baijiu
Like light aroma and distilled at a very high alcohol volume, it also uses wheat instead of barley and peas to make Qu. Bottled at over 65% it is very strong in ABV.
Small-Qu Light Aroma Baijiu
Sorghum, fermented with rice based small Qu.
So that’s a ‘flavour’ of what to expect from baijiu taste. Remember that unlike say a wine or whisky category, almost every single baijiu tastes different. Due to the small changes in making each one, it results in a more complex variation than other spirits. So each Baijiu really can be said to have a unique palate.