hina’s national spirit is finding a home in unlikely places as bartenders continue to push the boundaries of cocktails as we know them. America’s bustling bar scene was the first place in the West baijiu found a following, with The New York Times claiming bartenders there are approaching the liquid with “the same sense of challenge they once brought to similarly aggressive spirits like overproof whiskey and mezcal.” Now, the unusual beverage is inspiring local mixologists, keen to discover new flavour profiles. WORDS ° Hannah Sparks
ICONIC TO A NATION
Despite holding a special place in China’s culture as its most popular beverage, baijiu’s pungent and strong character - with most bottled at 53% ABV - has meant it’s been slow to find a following in other markets. Its profile is unlike anything else, made from a combination of grains including sorghum, barley, maize, rice, wheat and even peas, depending on the distillery’s specifications. Using numerous ingredients results in a wider range of aromas and flavours than those found in most spirits, with baijiu described as anything from soy sauce, musk and fermenting grains, to mango, caramel and walnuts, or tobacco, grass and spice. The other factor that sets baijiu apart from other Asian spirits, such as sake, is its production process, one that still mimics the agricultural techniques that would have been used by distillers, or then farmers, thousands of years ago. Records suggest the production of baijiu began before the 2nd century BCE, during the Yuan dynasty.
In many ways, the processes used today by baijiu producers are symbolic of China’s culture. While it may be technologically progressive, its remains deeply traditional. Do not be mislead by the robots employed by baijiu brands to produce its counterfeit protected packaging or manage its human-free warehouse, because when it comes to the liquid, the techniques used are as ancient as it gets and considered a part of the country’s national heritage. Completed entirely by manual labour and basic tools, in a snapshot, baijiu is made by milling and mixing several grains, which are then placed in underground pits or pots with jiuqu, a fermentation agent, and a small amount of water. Interestingly, baijiu is the only spirit made from solid-state fermentation, which means the mixture ferments largely on its own, without much water. To picture it at this stage, imagine the roughage used to feed livestock. It’s a brown coloured, fibrous texture and is, in fact, what the mixture ends up as if it