According to many sources, 2019 may be the year of baijiu in the United States. Although this fiery clear spirit is, by sales, the most popular spirit worldwide, few people in the west know of it. Of those who have tried it, many have found the high proof and unique flavor of the spirit off-putting.
This begs the question, why is the spirit so popular worldwide? And why is it gaining more traction in the West?
As those who have been exposed to it may guess, baijiu is a unique liquor. Unlike western whiskey, baijiu doesn’t use yeast as it’s active ingredient. Instead, Qu, a traditional cultivation of microbes pressed into cakes, is used to ferment the rice or sorghum.
The usage of Qu plays a crucial part in a baijiu's flavor. Qu, draws in the natural flavors of its surroundings, adding an extra, local facet to each baijiu's flavor profile.
Using Qu also allows for a unique process called parallel fermentation. Rather than the usual two step process of converting starch to sugar and then sugar to alcohol, baijiu fermentation employs both processes at the same time, and is one of the only spirits that does so.
After fermentation, the liquid is aged in small pots for various amounts of time. Moutai, one of the premium brands of baijiu is aged in ceramic pots for three years.
Baijiu is one of the oldest liquors in known history. It is an extremely important liquor to the Chinese culture. It has a special place as the liquor of business and of celebrations.
While it is still not very well known in the U.S. market, people who have travelled to China know of it’s importance. At dinners they will have seen the importance of custom surrounding the drink.
Served in small glasses and at room temperature, the communal consumption of the liquor serves not only to demonstrate hospitality and good faith between parties, but also becomes a measure of your virility; thus these business dinners can often turn into benders that imprint a bad association of the liquor the next morning.
This setting is where baijiu was first introduced to the west. When Nixon and Kissinger first visited China in 1980, they were some of the first westerners in the modern world to be baptized by the fiery waters of baijiu. They drank it with Zhou Enlai and Kissinger famously said, that “we could solve anything if we drink enough baijiu”.
Though baijiu is steeped in cultural traditions and preconceptions of its consumption, it has taken a new life in the West.
Since its introduction, more and more bartenders have started to utilize baijiu's unique flavor to their cocktail menus, introducing the liquor to the American palette.
Though it isn't the traditional use for baijiu, there was a time in every liquor's history where it was unheard of to use in a mixed drink. Whiskey, like baijiu was meant to be sipped, and traditional liquors such as Aquavit have only recently been utilized by mixologists.
For my money, baijiu is a promising, if challenging liquor with respect to cocktails. It is a liquor that gives you a burn and flavor that most others do not. If it takes a mixed drink to get one past its bite and start enjoying its flavor, then by all means, Ganbei!