Baijiu is a generic Chinese term for distilled alcoholic beverages that have been produced in China for thousands of years. It is one of the most commonly consumed liquors in the world and holds an important place in Chinese culture. This article explores the history, production methods, varieties and cultural significance of this iconic Chinese spirit.
Origins and history: The origins of baijiu can be traced back more than 2,000 years to the early Zhou Dynasty when distillation technology was first developed. Archeological evidence shows that rudimentary stills were being used by Chinese alchemists during this period to produce medicinal elixirs. Over time, liquor production became more refined and commercialized. By the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), baijiu was being produced on an industrial scale and had become a mainstream beverage rather than just a medicinal drink. The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) saw further advances in distillation technology which helped improve production efficiency and quality. Today, baijiu is China’s local spirit of choice and accounts for over 30% of the world’s distilled spirits market.
Production process: Baijiu is produced through a unique fermentation and distillation process using cereal grains like sorghum, wheat or rice along with water and koji mold. The process begins by steaming grains to promote germination which increases enzymes. The moistened grains are then inoculated with koji mold spores which help convert the grain starches into sugars. This mash is then fermented to produce alcohol before undergoing distillation. Multiple distillations are performed to increase the alcohol content and concentrate the flavors. Quality baijiu may go through distillation up to 10 times. The end result is a colorless liquid ranging between 30-60% alcohol by volume with complex aromas and flavors.
Varieties of baijiu: There are hundreds of regional varieties of Baijiu available across China due to variations in production methods, raw materials used and regional quirks. Some major varieties include:
– Maotai: Produced in Guizhou province, Maotai is China’s most famous baijiu known for its smooth aroma and taste. Sorghum is the main grain used along with qu water from the source of the Li river.
– Wuliangye: Another premium baijiu from Yibin, Sichuan, Wuliangye uses sorghum, glutinous and non-glutinous rice along with well water rich in minerals for a uniquely smooth and mellow flavor.
– Luzhou Laojiao: Hailing from Luzhou in Sichuan, this variety has the nickname “boss of Chinese baijiu” and is less smooth but has more personality due to the use of well water.
– Baiyunbian: Produced in northwest Yunnan province using glutinous rice along with spring water high in selenium content, this gives it an aromatic quality.
– Xifeng: Made in northwestern Shanxi province primarily from sorghum but also wheat, this has a crisp, dry flavor profile ideal for colder months.
Baijiu plays an important social and cultural role in Chinese society. It is traditionally served at important events like weddings, birthdays and business dinners where it is used to toast and foster good relationships. The gifting of high-end baijiu brands is also a way to show goodwill and status. Drinking together from small glasses is a bonding ritual in Chinese culture. Baijiu is so embedded that there are even Chinese idioms that reference it. While its high alcohol content means it is an acquired taste, baijiu endures as the national liquor of China closely intertwined with social and cultural customs.
With a history spanning centuries, baijiu remains China’s definitive distilled spirit. Incorporating unique production methods utilizing koji mold and multiple distillations, it produces tastes profoundly different from clear spirits elsewhere. Its regional varieties express diversity across China’s landscapes while a few iconic brands like Maotai and Wuliangye have become symbols of status and tradition. More than just a drink, baijiu holds significant cultural importance as a ritual beverage intrinsically tied to Chinese socialization and identity. Though an acquired taste, appreciation for baijiu’s rich legacy and role in Chinese life is growing internationally along with interest in the country’s food and culture.
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it