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What is Baijiu?

What is Baijiu?

Baijiu is the world’s most popular liquor category. Literally “white spirits,” it is a term that encompasses all distilled alcohol made in the traditional Chinese style. It is usually distilled from sorghum, but can also be made from rice, wheat, corn and other grains. The style and ingredients employed in production vary greatly by region, but there are four principle styles—strong aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma, and rice aroma—in addition to several minor categories and sub-categories. All baijiu is fermented in a solid or semi-solid state using naturally harvested yeast cultures, called qu (pronounced “chew”). Also unique to baijiu is the use of solid-state steam distillation. Baijiu is traditionally consumed neat at banquets and other festive occasions alongside food and friends.


What Makes Baijiu Unique?

Baijiu is unlike any other spirit. Its essence is its qu: a dried clump of mashed grains filled with naturally harvested yeasts and microorganisms. Recipes for qu are unique to each distillery and are closely guarded trade secrets. Qu allows distillers to perform what is called “solid-state fermentation.” Whereas liquid fermentation is a two-step process in which a grain’s starches are converted into sugars before fermentation, solid-state fermentation simplifies the process into a single step. Combining steamed grains with qu initiates the process, which is usually finished earthen pits or ceramic jars. Baijiu is steam distilled in batches, and each batch of distillate is aged separately—in terracotta or stainless steel—before they are blended into a distinctive finished product. Making baijiu is a labor-intensive process that relies on traditional techniques passed down from one generation to the next for centuries.

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History of Baijiu
Top Types of Baijiu

History of Baijiu

The Chinese has been crafting alcoholic beverages longer than anyone else on the planet—for more than seven thousand years—but they were relatively late to the distillation game. During the 13th century the Mongolian hordes of Genghis Khan conquered the Middle East, from where it is believed they discovered alcohol distillation and introduced it into the Middle Kingdom. Early Chinese spirits were little more than stronger riffs on pre-existing fermented beverages, but by at least the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) China got its first taste of something like modern baijiu. The drink became popular around the empire, particularly with the peasantry, and adapted to local tastes and techniques. 

With the abdication of China’s last emperor in 1912, the country and its drinks entered the modern age. Whereas all Chinese spirits had been produced by small family-run workshops, private investors began setting up the nation’s first modern distilleries. After the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, the state consolidated the industry into a number of larger state-run producers across the country. Traditional techniques were studied and improved upon, and outdated equipment was replaced. Baijiu had always been a favorite of the masses, but now it received official sanction: It became the national drink.

By the beginning of this century, the baijiu industry comprised more than ten thousand distilleries, public and private. It has become the world’s most popular spirits category, outselling vodka and whiskey combined. International spirits companies have entered the industry, and baijiu has begun to make inroads in the international cocktail world. While most of baijiu’s overseas potential remains untapped, it is fast finding an audience around the world.

Classification of Baijiu

Baijiu is a diverse category of spirits, and individual baijiu styles can be as unique from one another as gin and tequila. According to the official Chinese classification system, baijiu styles are named by fragrance, yet each fragrance refers to a specific regional style with a distinct production technique. Some styles of baijiu are so specific that they refer to the baijiu produced in just one village, or even just one distillery. That said, the vast majority of baijius fall into one of the following four styles.

Strong Aroma 浓香 nong xiang

Strong-aroma baijiu is the currently the most popular style in China. It is generally associated with Sichuan Province, but also has ties to Anhui, Jiangsu and Shandong. It is made by continuously fermenting sorghum—or sorghum and a mix of other grains—in large earthen pits. It has a pungent fruity nose, and has a complex taste reminiscent of tropical fruit and anise with a peppery finish.

Light Aroma 清香 qing xiang

Light-aroma baijiu is associated with northern China, particularly Shanxi Province and Beijing. Light-aroma baijiu uses a sorghum mash that has been fermented with wheat and pea qu in either ceramic jars or stone pits. Light-aroma baijus have a crisp body, with floral notes and a hint of dried fruit. Though they have a mild nose, but the punch is strong: They are typically bottled in excess of 50% ABV.

Sauce Aroma 酱香 jiang xiang

Sauce-aroma baijiu comes from Guizhou Province, most notably in the town of Maotai. Its production process is laborious, involving a series of about eight fermentation-distillation cycles over the course of a year. It is distilled entirely from sorghum fermented with wheat qu in pits lined with stone bricks. The spirits produced in the various cycles have radically different flavor profiles, which are blended together without water to create the final product. It is more savory than most baijiu styles, with earthy, fermented flavors and notes of mushrooms and dark chocolate. It was given its name for a nose that bears marked resemblance to soy sauce.

Rice Aroma 米香 mi xiang

Rice-aroma baijiu comes from southeastern China, specifically the provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong. It is made entirely from rice and sticky rice, and has a similar flavor profile to Japanese saké or Korean soju. It is fermented with rice qu in stone jars and distilled either in a pot or column still. Rice-aroma baijiu can has a sweet floral nose and a subtly smoky finish.


Baijiu Cocktails

By: David Putney, Capital Spirits, Beijing

30ml strong-aroma baijiu
30ml Aperol
30ml Amaro Montenegro
30ml lemon juice

Shake, double strain over ice.

By: Paul Mathew, The Hide, London

35ml strong-aroma baijiu
15ml yellow Chartreuse
15ml creme de cacao
10ml Cynar

Stirred, served on the rocks with a lemon twist.

By: Justin Lane Briggs, New York

30 ml strong-aroma baijiu
30 ml Giffard Abricot du Rousillon
23 ml Contratto Aperitif (or Aperol)
15 ml lemon
2 dash Sichuan peppercorn tincture
-1 dash Absinthe (optional)

Shake and serve in a coupe glass with a sprig of rosemary.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jacob Schickler / www.jacobschickler.com

Baijiu Blog & News

Capital Spirits Baijiu POP UP Dinner Tasting Event in Berlin Feb 18-19

Capital Spirits Baijiu POP UP Dinner Tasting Event in Berlin Feb 18-19

Capital Spirits Baijiu POP UP Dinner Tasting Event in Berlin Feb 18-19 You’re Invited to an exclusive Baijiu tasting and dining event in Berlin! MODERN EXPERIMENTAL CHINESE The WOO is hosting a new pop-up series: Elements. The event features a five-course tasting menu highlighting authentic Chinese flavors with modern experimental preparation and local ingredients. Each […]

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Baijiu – Süd Deutsche Zeitung Magazine Exclusive Coverage. The Next Spirit to Conquer the World

Baijiu – Süd Deutsche Zeitung Magazine Exclusive Coverage. The Next Spirit to Conquer the World

Süd Deutsche Zeitung Magazine just released an exclusive expose about Baijiu in its 48 hours eating and drinking page.  Columnist Kai Strittmatter examines the current baijiu industry and ventures deep into the heart of strong aroma baijiu country in Sichuan to reveal the backstory behind legendary distilleries such as LuZhouLaoJiao and WuLiangYe.

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MOUTAI FORUM – BAIJIU APPEALING TO NEW AUDIENCES Top officials, bartenders and other baijiu experts met in China last week at the Moutai Forum to discuss new interesting ways to appeal to new audiences for Baijiu. Discussions included new products aimed at women as well as foreign audiences. China’s baijiu industry has struggled in recent […]

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About Us

Capital Spirits LTD (CS) is a professional spirits consultancy specializing in creating and expanding new markets for baijiu around the world. Baijiu is the world’s most popular category of spirits, with annual sales exceeding those of vodka and whiskey combined. Our international team comprises the world’s leading experts in baijiu marketing and sales for new audiences. Our past clients have included major Chinese distilleries and international spirits producers, and we have experience at all levels of the Chinese spirits industry from production to international distribution and sales.

Our Mission

We have made it our personal mission to introduce baijiu to the world after years in China have allowed it to steal our hearts, minds (and livers). The Capital Spirits LTD team leverages their multinational, multilingual experience and deep China, baijiu and spirits expertise to build key relationships within China, the EU and USA. With members from Germany, US and China, we are fluent in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and German.


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