by Raul Faria
During Tales of the Cocktail last year one seminar sold out fast, really fast. It was the first seminar to sell out and it wasn’t gin, bourbon, Japanese whiskey, it was all about baijiu. Thankfully we got the chance to speak with Derek Sandhaus of the blog 300 Shots at Greatness and the book Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and Yuan Liu of CNS Imports who has a large portfolio of the major players in baijiu exports like Kweichow Moutai and Mianzhu Daqu. We will also go through some tasting impressions of Luzhou Laojiao, Shui Jing Fang, Jian Nan Chun, and Moutai all thanks to Madeleine Andrews of Deussen Global.
What is baijiu, and how would you describe its flavor?
Derek: Well, it’s hard to describe baijiu’s flavor. The reason for that is that baijiu is not one type of liquor. Baijiu is essentially the Chinese word that signifies every type of distilled spirit made in the traditional Chinese style.
So, within the baijiu category, I’ve discovered more than a dozen distinct types of baijiu in my research. There’s probably more than that. But principally, there are four major categories, and those are called, in a literal translation from the Chinese: Strong Aroma, Light Aroma, Sauce Aroma, and Rice Aroma.
So when people say “I’ve had baijiu and baijiu tastes like this or that,” it’s not really being fair to the whole spirit category and they’re not getting the whole picture?
Derek: Yeah, usually when someone says, “Oh, well, I had baijiu, and I thought it tasted like this,” that can be a little misleading. It would be the equivalent of saying, “I have had gin and Western alcohol tastes like this.”
But they will be able to find out because Moutai can be found in the states right?
Yuan: Yes, but you see I want to explain something, how we fully explain baijiu is that we have to almost let go of some of the ideas of we have about spirits from a western perspective. In China “tasting notes” are a foreign concept to the Chinese distillers, because when they blend the drink they’re not only looking to a specific flavor profile, they’re looking to create an experience. Because baijiu is consumed during celebrations right? They want people to really feel excited, to feel happy when they’re with their friends and to have a great time. So it’s really about creating an experience.
Derek: Their job is to take the stored spirits, and they have hundreds of them, to blend these together to get the characteristic flavor of that specific brand. In regard to flavor let’s take Moutai, a Sauce Aroma, most people think that it has a more savory taste than a lot of the categories. They taste fermented soy, roasted nuts and some bitter herbs. It’s got a complex flavor that you can’t explain perfectly in print.
What are the flavor variations of baijiu in terms of flavor?
Derek: So, with these, I mean the difference you get with Sauce Aroma and Strong Aroma, what we’re tasting today, those are probably considered the two most prestigious categories. They have the most complex aromas and flavors. But with Sauce Aroma, you’re getting the more savory flavor profile, you’re getting more nuts, mushroom, soy, in the flavor profile. But with the Strong Aroma baijiu, which is probably the biggest category by volume, is defined mostly by having like a kind of peppery spiciness, and also some aggressive, tropical fruit notes. So, you get pineapple with this. Some people taste apricot, certain variants have notes of anise as well.
Derek: I want to pour for you Luzhou Laojiao, which is one of my personal favorites and is also another example of a Strong Aroma baijiu. So when I was living in Sichuan this was the local baijiu that I loved to bring whenever I was going out for a casual dinner, or anything social. They make it at every price point, so you can go out for casual drinks with your friends, or if you want to impress someone, they have one to cost, you know, a few hundred dollars a bottle.
The types of bailiu are Strong Aroma, Sauce Aroma, Rice Aroma, and Light Aroma? Are those the broad terms people can look for? How important is regionality in Baijiu when considering style?
Derek: Extremely, extremely important. Earlier I was talking to you about pit fermentation. This is a specific technique to a region in China. So, Sauce Aroma and Strong Aroma, the grains are fermented in a solid state, and they’re buried in the ground for about a month to make this happen, and, they’re both in Southwest China, in neighboring provinces: Guizhou and Sichuan. The Sauce Aroma is produced by fermentation in a stone pit and the Strong Aroma is produced by fermentation in a mud pit. This gives it a very different character because the mud absorbs the yeast and other micro-organisms. What we are drinking right now, Luzhou Laojiao the name literally translates to City of Luzhou and Laojiao means old pit. So, the longer you use the mud pit, the more flavor gets absorbed into the wall, the mud walls, and this company has fermentation pits that have been in continuous use since 1573. They also make it with a sour mash. So every time they ferment in the still, they take a quarter of the mash, throw it away, add fresh grains and fresh fermentation agent, and the cycle keeps going. You have mashes that are centuries old.
With regionality having such an effect on the final product what is the range broadly speaking in terms of flavors associated with specific regions?
Derek: So, one thing that’s nice about the range of baijius that we’re tasting right now, is that they can really illustrate well the difference, the differences that are produced by regionality, because starting with the first one we have, that’s a little bit further Southeast from this distillery. And this the, the third one we’re having Mianzhu Dazhu is even further North. So what you’re going to see, is even though that these are all using similar production methods, the more distance that’s traveled from a certain region, you begin to see the flavor profile develop. Baijiu is always consumed with food. Sichuan is considered the home of Strong Aroma baijiu. Guizhou is the home of Sauce Aroma baijiu. So, both of these baijius really come out of the Chinese culinary traditions. And in Guizhou where you have this more savory, kind of, tangy baijiu. This goes typically with the local food which is sour and spicy. These more aggressive fruity flavors, come from Sichuan where they eat spicy-spicy food. So, what you’re going to see here is that even though Luzhou Laojiao baijiu and the Mianzhu Daqu baijiu, even though they’re both made in the same category of spirits, the difference in the region gives you very different yeast and microorganisms. So all this is harvested from the air. Based on the local terrain you get a very, very different character of the drink.
I would also add that within the Chinese baijiu category, there’s a category called Light Aroma and it’s most common in northeastern China. It is lighter and has more mild floral notes, you could probably compare it more easily to a vodka, although I think it’s still a bit different. Beijing is really the center of Light Aroma baijius, and up there this is a milder baijiu, with those floral notes, and it’s more savory. This is mostly paired with the local food, which is very like, very, it’s a lot blander, heartier, it has more like salt to it. Less spice. So, yeah. All of this, as I said, it’s part and parcel of the Chinese culinary tradition. Wherever you go in China, the baijiu that they produce there compliments the local food. That is why you always, always drink baijiu with food.
What component directs the flavor the most and the final product that these guys are making? What’s the defining example?
Derek: It really comes down to something that’s unique to Chinese winemaking. This goes back to ancient times, a good 3,000 years ago. China invented something called qu (pronounced “chew”), qu is basically grains that are mashed with some water, formed into molds and left to dry. As they dry, they harvest yeasts and other micro-organisms from the, just from the air. So, it’s naturally cultivated yeast and microorganisms. Once you’ve steamed grains and mix them with qu, you can take the grains directly from a starch to alcohol. You can’t do that with Western alcohol, because when you just use yeast, it won’t break down the starch into the sugar. But there’s enough micro-organic life in these cultures that you can go directly from the grain to the alcohol.
So that is the most closely guarded trade secret between distilleries, is the qu. They don’t want anyone near their qu. I’ve only been able to touch qu once in the, you know, several dozens of distilleries that I’ve visited in China. That’s where you get your strongest flavors from. And the reason that they don’t want other people coming into contact with their qu is that if you take some of this culture and you have the ability to extract some of the micro-organisms you could use them to inoculate your own cultures. Someone could be able to duplicate their unique flavor profile.
Why did you start 300 Shots at Greatness?
Derek: Sure. Well, you know, before I started writing about baijiu, I was writing about Chinese history. For my next book, I wanted to do something that was more contemporary, something that had the history element and the rich culture, but also something was still a part of everyday life in China today. Baijiu just leaped out at me because, for listeners that have not traveled to China, there’s a big foreign expatriot community there who drinks all the time and there is a big, local Chinese community who drinks all the time. But these two communities have very little overlap. They’re not drinking the same drinks. So, they’re not drinking together.
So, what I wanted to do is see if we could find a way to merge Eastern and Western drinking traditions. I wanted to see if a foreigner, like myself, could find a way to appreciate the local drinking tradition. It was very easy for me to do that, but 300 Shots at Greatness, the name of my blog. That came from something that someone told me right after I started researching baijiu. That from someone, somewhere, that there is a taste threshold at which someone goes from not liking something to liking it. Like a – we all probably remember the first time we had coffee, or Scotch. Where we said, “I don’t like this.” But then we had it a little more, and we added a few glasses, and then eventually, bam! We loved it. So, we crossed a threshold from hate to love.
The joke was that with, with beer, maybe, you had to drink 5 beers and then you liked it. But, with baijiu you had to drink 300 shots. And, then, you would go from hating to loving it. Now, personally, having gone through this experiment, having consumed the 300 shots, I don’t think it’s a matter of [volume]. I think that, for me, it was all about understanding the subtle differences between the brands and just finding a flavor profile that was suited to what I already liked.
Talk to us about the book, Baijiu: the Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. How did it come about?
I started out writing, kind of in my, just a, kind of a normal, non-fiction, blog style. I then pitched it to my publisher and they said, “Well, that’s kind of wild, but what if you just took all of the stuff you knew about baijiu, then wrote a guide so that people could understand it first”. Because there’s so little knowledge out there, they wanted me to introduce people to the categories. I said, “Sure.” The first half of the book is the overview of the categories. It tells you the history, it tells you how it’s produced. The different ingredients that are used to make baijiu, and kind of breaks down the categories, one by one. It really tells you what the differences are between the different types of baijiu. Then, the second half of the book is brand profiles, so it goes alphabetical, by distillery and covers about 90 of the most major baijius in China. It goes brand by brand, it tells you not only how to say it in English, but it also has the Chinese characters. So if you go into that, you know, dark, dusty Chinatown liquor store, you can point to the name and they pick it off the shelf for you. It’s kind of an eclectic collection of baijius that I featured in here, because I wanted to pick baijius that not only were the most popular baijius in China, but some of the ones that were doing something different. For example I have one in here that’s in Southeastern China, and they age their baijiu with pig fat. So it’s got this really salty, kind of, bacony finish to it that’s really nice. It’s not one of the most representative baijius, but it’s unique. I also included every single baijiu that is made by a foreign company in this book. Because these are the baijius, that you, as an average consumer, are going to be able to find first in the United States.
Here are my tasting notes of the Baijiu featured by CNS imports
Kweichow Moutai 53% abv/ Sauce Aroma Baijiu
Aroma– big bold aromas, sweet and salty with savory parmesan notes, pickled fruit, umeboshi like aromas, with a faint chicken stock, almost ramen broth like note.
Taste– sesame and walnut like nuttiness with cooked mushroom.
Finish– clean and astringent with ligering nutty and savory notes.
Luzhou Laojiao 52% abv/Strong Aroma Baijiu
Aroma– sweet and fruity with ripe fruits like pineapple and banana with some bubblegum notes.
Taste– bubblegum and banana with some lush, juicy lychee notes in the background, very tropical and fruity.
Finish– long minty astringency with banana and lychee notes throughout.
Jian Nan Chun 52% abv/ Strong Aroma Baijiu
Aroma– lush tropical fruits with juicy over ripe pineapple notes.
Taste– juicy and lush fruits, pineapple, some lychee and pear with a faint minty herbal and cinnamon note providing the background.
Finish– clean with a minty astringency backed up by those lychee like tropical notes and some very faint pepper spice.
Shui Jing Fang 52% abv/ Strong Aroma Baijiu
Aroma– salty and savory with notes of cooked mushroom, toasted nuts and some faint burnt sesame and cooked fruit.
Taste– mild briny sea water saltiness with celery notes, slightly vegetal.
Finish– astringent long finish with some tannic, dry herbal notes.
Mianzhu Daqu 52% abv/ Strong Aroma Baijiu
Aroma– a bit briny and savory with some ripe stone fruit aromas.
Taste– salty and savory start that produces over ripe fruit backed up by some celery root and vegetal notes.
Finish– clean with a minty herbal astringency.