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Forget your whisky, vodka and gin. The most-consumed spirit in the world – one that represents 35 percent of total global consumption – is a high-proof potable that few people outside of Asia have heard of. It is baijiu, the ‘official’ drink of China, a nation of 1.3 billion people, and where drinking it to celebrate every conceivable occasion is more than a social endeavor; it is a way of life.
Yet in non-Asian countries, baijiu is literally so foreign that even bartenders and waiters in some U.S. and European Chinese restaurants do not know how to pronounce it (for the record, it is BYE-Joe).
Adding to its obscurity is the fact that baijiu, which roughly translates to “white spirit" or clear alcohol, is not made like other spirits. It is distilled from sorghum and wheat, then blended with other grains, including sticky rice. It is aged in sealed earthenware jars, rather than oak barrels, that are buried underground from 1 to 7 years. Such a unique beverage has its own, appropriately unusual classification system – baijiu is labeled according to four “aromas:" strong, light, sauce, and rice.
Although made by numerous distilleries, primarily in the Sichuan and Guizhou Provinces of southern China, very few baijiu are made alike. But one thing almost all have in common is a high alcoholic content, which averages from 80 to 120 proof, and in China, it is considered rude to leave a bottle of baijiu unfinished at any business luncheon or dinner, where multiple toasts are the norm.
With baijiu slowly making its way out of Asian borders, expect to see it first used in cocktails, rather than as traditional Chinese shooters. Here are five of the best brands, worthy of at least a few cautionary sips.
1. Kweichow Moutai
Kweichow Moutai is the most highly respected brand in China and is the ceremonial drink poured at virtually all state dinners and red carpet gatherings. It was the baijiu shared in California by President Obama and Xi Jin Ping during the Chinese president’s visit to the U.S. in June 2013. A ‘sauce’ aroma, the distillate is aged in clay pots a minimum of three years and blended from more than 200 different base liquors. It takes about five years to make one bottle of Moutai, which pairs well with heavier foods such as lobster and grilled meats.
2. Shui Jing Fang
The award-winning Shui Jing Fang baijiu comes from a 600-year-old distillery (the oldest in China) of the same name. The unique hexagon packaging features hand-painted designs and a wood-and-porcelain base that doubles as an ashtray. An indication of baijiu’s potential outside of China, Shui Jing Fang is now owned by Diageo, the largest spirits conglomerate in the world.
3. Luzhou Laojiao
Luzhou Laojiao’s unique matte-finished porcelain bottle sets this full-bodied baijiu visually apart from all others. Its distillery dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), and the baijiu itself was a Gold Prize winner at the Panama International Fair in 1915. Luzhou Laojiao’s 104 alcohol proof almost hides its peppery peach and pear notes, which make fresh citrus juices a good starting point to tame this baijiu into a cocktail to complement Cantonese dishes.
4. Jian Nan Chun
This baijiu comes from one of the oldest distilleries in China. Its underground mud cellar tanks – where Jian Nan Chun’s unique mixture of rice, glutinous rice, sorghum, wheat, and corn are fermented – are more than 300 years old. Jian Nan Chun is one of the most recognized baijiu brands in China and, in spite of its obscurity in the United States, won a Gold Medal during a blind tasting at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
5. Hong Kong Baijiu
This is the most non-typical of all baijius, but ironically, it is the easiest to find in some major cities and online. Although most baijiu brands were created hundreds of years ago, Hong Kong Baijiu (HKB) was brought out in 2014 by Charles Lanthier, a French businessman working in Shanghai.
“I was just amazed at the baijiu they were pouring for me at business lunches and dinners," Lanthier recalls. “Its taste and distillation were interesting, as was the fact that the biggest spirits category in the world was unknown outside of China. So I decided to introduce it to one of the world’s biggest spirits market, America."
To do so, he worked with a distillery in the Sichuan province to create a lower-than-normal 86-proof baijiu and aged it for up to two years before blending by a grappa-producer in Italy. It is designed for cocktails, rather than as a straight shot. As such, Hong Kong Baijiu has a musty, margarine-like aroma and a smooth, glassy texture with notes of green apples and wet grass, making it a candidate for experimentation by modern-day mixologists, although, as Lanthier admits, “It’s not for everyone."