We tried Baijiu, the most popular spirit in the world that nobody’s heard of
Selling more than vodka and whiskey combined, the Chinese grain spirit Baijiu is the most popular booze on the planet… and yet nobody seems to have heard of it, let alone tasted it. (FYI, it’s pronounced Buy-Jo.)
Baijiu’s popularity may be influenced by the fact that its country of origin is the most populated on the globe, and that the tradition of Chinese winemaking goes back 9,000 years. Another reason for Baijiu’s popularity stems from its taste variety. Two Baijius can taste as different as rum and tequila, so what exactly makes a Baijiu a Baijiu?
Chinese grain and Qu.
The Chinese government has 12 distinct spirits in the category called Baijiu, but more importantly, there are four dominant styles collectively making up 99% of all Baijius produced (we’ll taste test all four in a minute…).
Each type is made of traditional Chinese grains and Qu (pronounced “chew”). Once the two are mixed, the starch turns completely into alcohol. However, it’s not liquid yet. Still in its grain form, the mulch-like fermented pile is then put in a pot still (like a huge vegetable steamer), where the steam rises up and vaporizes the alcohol.
Most people who do end up trying Baijiu have traveled to China and pick up a cheap bottle at the local liquor store. The cheapest of the cheap Baijiu is not recommended for drinking because it tastes horrible.
Derek Sandhaus, co-founder of Ming River— a Baijiu brand bringing this eastern spirit to Western bars— first tried the cheap, nasty Baijiu but found it was not a true representation of this amazing category of spirit. “Good Baijiu has so many distinct flavors you can’t find in other spirits and has become a whole new pallet for bars and restaurants to work with,” he tells Rooster.
We sat down with Sandhaus, who literally wrote the first English book on Baijiu, and tasted the four Baijiu styles… each one ranging in similarity to a corn whiskey, a mescal, and a chocolate-cheese-fish.
1. Rice Aroma – SCORE: A-
One of the oldest styles of Baijiu, Rise Aroma is a distilled version of traditional Chinese rice wine (and therefore the only Baijiu style made completely of rice). It comes from southeast China, which is very important “Because you always consume Baijiu with foods, and each style is meant to pair with foods from that region,” Sandhaus says.
Rice Aroma should be paired with subtle flavors like steamed fish and dumplings.
BRAND: Vinn Baijiu, made in the only US Baijiu distillery, run by a family of immigrants from Northern Vietnam who got tired of making Chinese food for white people.
SMELL: Sharp but with a hint of lemon. Has a vintage smell like the inside of an antique store.
TASTE: Mellow flavor very similar to vodka. There are noticeable floral and lemon notes. Very approachable and laid back with a taste also comparable to a young corn whiskey.
2. Light Aroma – SCORE: B
A completely different beast, Light Aroma Baijiu hails from northern China where the food is heavy and made to keep you warm. This and the following two Baijiu types are made from sorghum (a relative to corn) but the main difference between them is the fermentation method. And yes, these differences change the taste entirely. “Light Aroma is the Coca-Cola of Baijiu,” says Sandhaus. “It’s popular and fast and easy to produce.”
BRAND: Kinmen Kaoliang, made at the biggest distillery in Taiwan and boasting the strongest ABV of any style at 116 proof.
SMELL: Herbaceous (that means herb-like for you dummies), with a grassy nose with hints of florality (like flowers, duh), and a bit of fruit but nothing tropical. Also smells ‘old’ and vintage-y like the first.
TASTE: Instantly warm and coats your mouth like a thick absinthe. But that makes sense, seeing as people in northern China drink it to stay warm. Tastes similar to an earthy grappa. Can’t imagine drinking a whole glass but can imagine it powering a car.
3. Strong Aroma – SCORE: A+
The most popular style, this Strong Aroma Baijiu comes from Sichuan where the food is spicy as hell. Cooking here uses lots of peppers, garlic, and chili oils, so the Baijiu flavor must have the properties to cut into that spice. Made of sorghum but left to ferment much longer than Light Aroma, the magical taste is 100% a result of the intricate underground mud fermentation process.
BRAND: Ming River, which uses distiller Luzhou Laojiao who is famous for their 10,000-year mash technique of reusing mash for deeper flavors.
SMELL: There’s one dominant smell but it’s impossible to put a name to it until you think of pineapples. Behind that are heavy notes of star anise and an earthy, barnyard sense.
TASTE: The flavor profile is bold and the taste is warm on the mouth. Star anise comes through but is masked wonderfully by the pineapple hints, so it’s not too much like licorice. Would be amazing in a tiki-style cocktail.
4. Sauce Aroma – SCORE: F
As in soy sauce. No, this isn’t an ingredient but a description of the pungent smell. Hands down “the funkiest of all,” warns Sandhaus, the Sauce Aroma style comes from Guizhou where the food is very spicy and very sour. You’ll find every umami flavor under the sun in only one small sip, including flavors of nuts, almond, sesame, caramel, chocolate, coffee, mushroom, etc. “A lot of the tastes are familiar to Chinese cooking ingredients,” Sandhaus adds.
BRAND: Moutai Prince, which just so happens to be the most valuable liquor company in the entire world, Sandhaus says, even compared to Diageo who owns Tanqueray, Captain Morgan, Don Julio, Smirnoff, Crown Royal, Guinness, Ketel One, and a bazillion others.
SMELL: By far the sweetest smell of all four, with a similar note to tequila.
TASTE: SWEET MOTHER OF GOD! If you want to be mind-f***** try this baijiu. One small sip is like an acid trip of 20 different foods, finishing with a rank fish-esque aftertaste. I recommend everyone try it just so they understand what I mean. Ironically, many Baijiu drinkers will only drink Sauce Aroma, and advanced bartenders love the stuff.