Essential Guide to Baijiu

Baijiu for beginners: what is baijiu, how is baijiu made, and more importantly, how does it taste and can it be used in cocktails. Here is our essential guide to baijiu, China’s national spirit.

Essential Guide to Baijiu

What is Baijiu

Baijiu (pronounced bye-joe) means white liquor, a high proof spirit distilled from grain, usually sorghum, rice, millet, wheat and corn fermented underground for several months. By sheer numbers, China’s national spirit is said to be the most consumed spirit in the world. The fiery liquor has been likened to Poitín and moonshine and has an alcohol content between 30% and 60% ABV.

How is Baijiu Made

Baijiu is a distilled spirit and the method of production varies according to the category of Baijiu and the brand.

At the heart of Baijiu is qu, a starter culture that is usually a brick of previously fermented grains and yeasts added to fresh grain and water to convert sugars and ferment at the same time. Fermentation takes place in underground pits or in ceramic jars stored underground. Once it has completed, the liquid is distilled then aged in underground ceramic pots from six months to a number of years.

Everything from the type of grain and water to the qu used and period of maturation contributes to the spirit’s unique aroma and flavour.

Some Baijiu is fermented dry in an open fermentation followed by closed fermentation period in stone pots. Some undergo multiple distillations and a blending of some of the tails to give the spirit a smoky and earthy character.

Styles of Baijiu

Baijiu is classified under four major styles based on aromatic profiles.

  1. Rice Aroma Baijiu is usually distilled from glutinous rice and is often compared to sake and soju but as a distilled spirit, it is much stronger in ABV. It has light floral notes, is sweeter in style with a mellow rice flavour and a hint of smoke which make it light and smooth on the palate.
  2. Light Aroma Baijiu is usually distilled from sorghum and fermented in ceramic jars. It has a mild and sweet flavour hence the term “light” but it is high in alcohol and is usually bottled at over 50% ABV. Popular brands include Ergoutou or Red Star.
  3. Strong Aroma Baijiu is made from multiple types of grain fermented in in earthen pits which results in pungent aromas, sweet overripe fruit notes and complex, fiery flavours. This is the most popular in China. Popular brands include Wuliangye and HKB.
  4. Sauce Aroma Baijiu is usually fermented from multiple grain in underground pits and undergoes multiple distillations. It has a savoury aromas, full-bodied umami flavour reminiscent to soy sauce, earthy mushrooms and funky blue cheese. Popular brands include Moutai or Maotai.

How Does Baijiu Taste

To the uninitiated, Baijui is an acquired taste, a fiery spirit with funky and musky aromas and flavours ranging from sweet and overripe tropical fruit, to berries, coffee, and umami flavours such as soy sauce, miso and blue cheese. The spirit is usually colourless and clear but it can sometimes have a dark yellow tinge.

How to Drink Baijiu

Baijiu is traditionally served neat, at room temperature or warm in tiny thimble-sized glasses or small tasting cups generally as an accompaniment to food. As China’s liquor of choice, Baiju is also served to seal business deals as well as in celebratory occasions. The potent spirit is usually enjoyed in company and it is considered impolite to refuse it when offered. Ganbei!

How to Use Baijiu in Cocktails

Baijiu is such a potent and aromatic spirits that no matter how you use it in cocktails, it is difficult to mask its pungency. One option is to  temper some of its strong flavours but selecting some of the lighter notes and enhancing them in a cocktail. Another option is to amplify its natural flavours, for example fruity notes can be enhanced with tropical fruit such as mango, lychee, pineapple, or use equally strong flavours such as potable bitters and spices to complement the spirit.

You can find inspiration for baijiu cocktails here and here.

Baijiu Holidays

Such is the importance to Baijiu that it has been given a drink holiday. World Baijiu Day falls on August 9 and furthermore, London has been hosting Baijui Cocktail Week for three years. In 2017, it will coincide with Chinese New Year and runs from 27th January to 12th February 2017.

Photo by Cocktails & Bars – © Copyright: All rights reserved.

Essential Guide to Baijiu was last modified: February 14th, 2017 by Corinne Mossati
Corinne Mossati

Corinne Mossati is the Founder/Editor of Cocktails & Bars and popular online magazine Gourmantic. She is named in the Australian Bartender Magazine Top 100 Most Influential List, is a member of The World’s 50 Best Bars Academy who judges the World’s 50 Best Bars. She has also judged the Australasian Whisky Awards and various national cocktail competitions. Read the full bio here.