A Whole New World

IMG_1307.jpg

Last year, as part of the judging committee for the San Francisco Spirits Competition, we were served a flight of Chinese spirits that absolutely blew my mind. Dozens upon dozens of Baijiu glasses were placed in front of us, a liquor with which I had almost no familiarity, and I was taken on a rollercoaster ride of flavor. I was completely bowled over and intoxicated by what I tasted. While some of my colleagues were confused and slightly off put by the extreme variety of high proof hedonism before us, I felt like I had discovered a treasure trove of secrets. I imagined myself an explorer in a strange new land, uncovering a world of remarkable and complex flavors with each sip. It’s all I could talk about for the rest of the weekend.

When I finally got to see the list of the award winners, I was stymied in seeking to track down a bottle in the general market. Even the Chinese grocers around the Bay Area (at least the ones that I visited) had very little Baijiu in their selection, leaving me frustrated in my effort to learn more about the most consumed spirit in the world. Yes, you read that correctly. Baijiu is not only the most popular liquor in China, but also the entire planet due to the population of China alone as a country. There are more than 10,000 Baijiu distilleries in mainland China, and according to Derek Sandhaus’s fantastic book Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, an estimated 10 to 17 billion gallons are produced annually—more than double the amount of vodka made globally! In 2012, Baijiu accounted for two-thirds of ultra-premium spirits sales. That’s right: 66% of all the high-end hooch sold on Earth in 2012 was Chinese Baijiu. Are you intrigued yet?

Almost a year after my transformative experience in San Francisco, I am still far from a Baijiu expert, but this week something changed in my life. I discovered the gigantic Chinese markets of the San Gabriel Valley, packed with floor stacks of Baijiu as far as the eye can see. Are you ready for another mind-blowing statistic? San Gabriel is home to more Asian-Americans than Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago — and the Asian-American populations in 42 states, according to this report, and the amount of Chinese goods you can find throughout its neighborhoods is unbelievable. Thus, when I made a trip out to the grocers and retailers this past Wednesday, moving from one gigantic merchandiser to the next, I found more high-end Baijiu than I have ever seen in my life. I also purchased more high-end Baijiu than I have ever purchased in my life.

Again, I’m not a Baijiu expert, hence I’m not here to educate you about what Baijiu is. There are plenty of sites online where you can dig deeper, and—as I mentioned above—Derek’s book is a great reference if you’re curious. The five second explanation, however, is this: Baijiu literally means “white alcohol” and is made from grains fermented in a solid state. That means that, unlike whiskey where the sugary liquid from the corn or barley mash is what’s ultimately fermented and distilled, Baijiu is made from solid grains (usually sorghum, rice, and wheat) that are fermented with a substance called qu (pronounced “chew”) full of bacteria, molds, yeasts, and other airborne organisms. It’s then distilled in pot stills, and matured for months or even years in jars and clay vessels. But that’s such a half-ass explanation as to the incredible variance between various Baijiu spirits that I’m almost loath to include it. It’s so much more nuanced than what I’ve just written.

What does Baijiu taste like, you ask? Good question. What does food taste like? That’s how I would answer it. Baijiu can be salty, savory, sweet, fruity, spicy, tart, tangy, and soft, and everywhere and anywhere else in between. Let’s talk more specifically about the two most popular high-end Baijiu brands on the market: Kweichou Moutai’s Feitian and Wuliangye, the Hennessy and Remy of the Chinese spirit world respectively. Moutai is the ultimate luxury brand for Baijiu, and it’s the leading label in aspirational Chinese drinking. It’s what Mao drank, and other famous foreign leaders continued to drink (Nixon, Kissinger, Obama, etc.) when they visited China. On the nose, it’s full of roasted, fermented aromas like soy sauce and wet grains, and it’s bottled at 53% ABV, so it packs a punch. I’m going to knock your socks off yet again with another crazy factoid: a 200ml of Moutai will run you over $100. A 375ml around $180 or so. A full 750ml often well over $300. On the palate, it’s like nothing you’ve ever had. More robust and savory than any mezcal could ever be with a mushroomy, earthy finish that you couldn’t brush out of your mouth with a toothbrush if you wanted to. I’m obsessed with it.

Wuliangye, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different. With a mash of 36% sorghum, 22% rice, 18% glutenous rice, 16% wheat, and 8% corn, the name literally means “five grain liquid.” It’s the Hampden rum of the Baijiu world: unbelievably fruity on the nose, brimming with tropical aromas and a bright intensity that overpowers you immediately. If you poured me a glass to nose blindly, I probably would tell you it’s high-ester Jamaican rum. On the palate, however, it’s an entirely different animal. The fruit still comes on strong, but it’s quickly backed by a savory and tangy current of vegetal notes and scorched earth. Again, I’ve never had anything like it, yet I can’t stop thinking about it. Like Moutai, it’s not cheap. A 375ml bottle will run you at least $75, which means a full size bottle will clock in around $150.

Not ready to spend $175+ on 575 milliliters of exotic, clear Chinese spirits? I don’t blame you. I, however, handed over my hard-earned cash in an instant. I’ve only scratched the surface, and I’m dying to know more.

-David Driscoll,