Baijiu's award-winning spirit
Earlier this month, I was in Henan Province to attend the 2020 Spirits Selection. As the only international spirits selection judge presently in China, I was privileged to speak on behalf of all the judges at this prestigious event. In addition to the event, a highlight of my trip was visiting the world’s oldest winemaking archeological site in Jiahu Village. Microbes, not man, made the original alcohol, and early pre-humanoid mammals were the first to experience the intoxicating effects. Nonetheless, mankind eventually discovered the magic of turning simple sugars into alcohol.
On a freezing winter morning, I walked above and around the world’s oldest wine-related archeological site where the skeletal remains of a shaman priest were found with a ceramic jug containing traces of fermented liquids. The wine vessel was placed next to his skull to facilitate wine drinking in the afterlife.
Nine thousand years ago, in a small village along a tributary to the Yellow River; early Neolithic people fermented a mixture of rice, honey, hawthorn fruit and/or native wild grapes into wine. This primitive brew was concocted about the same time as the Jiahu villagers were learning to domesticate plants and animals. Intriguingly, the site also yielded the earliest playable musical instruments.
As a wine lover, visiting what may be the birthplace of wine was a poignant experience. Intellectually and emotionally stimulated by what I saw on this pilgrimage of sorts, all I needed was few cups of the local baijiu to mitigate the windy winter chill.
Getting a handle on where the first distilled spirits were made is a more nebulous endeavor. In the west, the Persian-born physician Avicenna (980-1037) is considered the inventor of distillation. However, most historians now believe that Avicenna merely refined a process that had existed for centuries. Distillation in China almost definitely pre-dated Avicenna’s time, perhaps back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) even further. Presently, there’s no consensus on the origin of distillation but one thing we can all agree on is that in the world of spirits, Chinese baijiu is number one.
In terms of value, culture and complexity of production, baijiu has few equals. Kweichow Moutai is by far and away the world’s most valuable liquor brand. It’s not even close. Yet in terms of internationalization, the story of baijiu is just beginning. Despite Moutai winning a gold medal in San Francisco in 1915 at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, capturing the palates outside of China has been a relatively slow endeavor for baijiu.
The phenomenal success of baijiu in the domestic market is one reason, but greater and more internationally savvy communications are needed for baijiu to reach its potential in lucrative global markets. However, based on my growing knowledge of the history, culture and taste attributes of baijiu and their increasing success in international spirits competitions, worldwide success is just a matter of time.
Today, baijiu styles are differentiated by ingredients, the yeast starter known as qu, method of fermentation and aroma types. The latter is the most common way to classify baijiu and there exist four major aroma styles. Sauce aroma-style baijiu feature an elaborate production method including multiple fermentations and commonly feature rich and elegant aromas and flavors with a satisfyingly long finish. The most famous examples come from Guizhou, Sichuan and Hunan provinces.
Strong aroma-baijiu typically are aromatic, refreshing and complex and the most representative examples are largely from Sichuan, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces. Light aroma-baijiu tends to be light, clean and elegant often with floral notes. Well-known brands are made in Shanxi Province and Beijing. Rice aroma-baijiu is usually sweet and mellow with production centers in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Guangdong Province. In addition to the big four, there are numerous additional sub aroma styles.
All baijiu styles merit attention, but as readers may have already guessed by the preamble of this column; my focus this week will be on an award-winning baijiu from Guizhou.
Kweichow Moutai Distillery Group Xijiu Company was founded in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as a modest liquor workshop. In 1952 Xijiu was established as a state-owned enterprise and in 1998 became part of the illustrious Moutai Group. Today, the 4,400-mu (293 hectares) distillery and production center employs nearly 8,000 people and is located in the middle reaches of the Chishui River in northern Guizhou Plateau. It’s an idyllic location with resplendently beautiful scenery.
The Junpin Xijiu was the 2020 Spirits Selection by CMB grand gold winner and is considered by baijiu enthusiasts as an ultra-premium spirit.
Brewed using the traditional process of solid-state fermentation of pure grain, using high-quality glutinous sorghum, wheat and water as raw materials, this is a heady 53 percent alcohol spirit that’s remarkably graceful with elegant aromas and flavors, a silky texture and an impressively long finish. Two additional premium Xijiu baijiu that deserve mention are the Aged 1988 Xijiu and the Gold Diamond Xijiu.
Other distinguished Guizhou baijiu that I tasted while in Henan include the most famous of them all as well as a trio of baijiu made by the relative newcomer Guizhou Renhuai Zhenguan Liquor.
For spirits lovers who haven’t fallen head over heels in love with baijiu, I respectfully suggest you learn about and taste more of the top brands.
If given the opportunity to visit the distilleries, go. A new and delicious spirits discovery awaits you.
Where to buy in Shanghai
Guizhou Jun Pin Xijiu
Guizhou Aged 1988 Xijiu
Guizhou Gold Diamond Xijiu
Guizhou Renhuai Zhenguan Li (blue)
Guizhou Renhuai Zhenguan Shu (gold)
Guizhou Renhuai Zhenguan Shi (black)