Baijiu evolves

25 January, 2023

Largely misunderstood outside of its domestic market, baijiu could be finding new routes to globalisation.

Baijiu exists in a singular space. Its absence in global markets gives it an air of obscurity, but this isn’t a niche product, it’s a populist juggernaut. Trying to comprehend the size of the baijiu category is like trying to grasp the scale of Jupiter by picturing the amount of Earths that would fit inside it.

According to the IWSR in 2018, the last year unaffected by Covid, 10.8 billion litres were sold – that’s more than whisky, vodka, gin, rum, and tequila combined, and would be emptying over the world’s largest waterfall system, Iguazu Falls, for nearly two hours.

And it’s not just volume. The IWSR also forecasts the value of the domestic baijiu market to pass US$200bn by 2024, and the baijiu company Kweichow Moutai is worth more than Toyota, Nike and Disney.

How is it then that something so popular can be so underappreciated outside of its homeland? Or, to humour the cynics, how can such an acquired taste be so widely adored?

Part of baijiu’s barrier to entry does lie in a self-imposed obtusity. Distilleries are fiercely protective of their proprietary recipes and brands often release all of their expressions in the same bottlings, regardless of age, with the only differentiator being an indecipherable code and the price, so you’d better have a distributor that you can trust.

“With baijiu, everything’s so secretive,” says Marie Cheong Thong, the spirits educator who wrote and leads the WSET Asian Spirits programme and chairs the category at the International Spirits Challenge. “You simply can’t get the recipe for Moutai for example. They talk about eight times distilling, but they don’t tell you what kind of distilling, why eight times, they don’t even tell you what qu they use.”

Qu is what baijiu’s producers use to turn grains into alcohol. It’s a proprietary mix of agricultural products like peas, beans, corn, rice, or millet, which is steamed and allowed to grow fungus, bacteria, and other micro-organisms. The mixture produces amylase and proteases that break down starch into sugars and proteins into amino acids and peptides.

“That’s the difference between what we get in the west,” says Cheong Thong. “We don’t get these umami flavours in any of our spirits because there are no proteins for other enzymes to work on. And, it’s all solid fermentation. This combination of grains and qu is mixed, solid state, in fermentation pits dug into the ground for six months, eight months, 10 months before it’s taken out to be distilled. There’s no filtering, steam is pumped through the mixture into the still to get the alcohol out.

“Baijiu is continuously stilled for a long time and then the lees are thrown back into pits where fermentation continues. Sometimes these huge pits have been around since the 1600s. We talk about big distilleries in Scotland – in China, a distillery can be 10 miles long.”

It’s not just these production idiosyncrasies that make baijiu a confusing space for newcomers – regional variations make the category incredibly diverse. Rice-aroma varieties from the south east of the country are clean and neutral while sauce aroma baijius invoke fermented bean pastes and soy sauces. Douchi-flavoured, or fat aroma, baijiu from Guangdong adds pork fat during ageing and the Jingzhi Distillery’s sesame-aroma style tastes like, well, sesame.

Recognised styles

In total, there are 13 recognised styles, the most common being strong aroma originating from Sichuan and accounting for about 70% of the total baijiu market.

“I understand why baijiu can feel like a completely different world when it comes to spirits,” says Bryan Rodriguez, buyer at Harvey Nichols and baijiu judge.

“There’s a lack of understanding of the category and a lack of tasting opportunities. Baijiu is not a liquid that is often sampled in stores and not many places have it by the glass, so chances to taste the liquid are very limited.”

But as globalisation continues to shrink the world and as the spirits industry continues to mature, the category is evolving and appearing in new markets. In Australia, the Good Spirits Co is producing baijiu using locally grown barley, sorghum and wheat, and in the US, Oregon’s Vinn Distillery is producing baijiu from rice. These brands are becoming gateways for the uninitiated.

In 2016, the Luzhou Laojiao distillery recognised the untapped export potential of its strong aroma baijiu and reached out to the team behind the now-closed Beijing-based baijiu cocktail bar Capital Spirits – Simon Dang, Matthias Heger, Bill Isler and Derek Sandhaus – who literally wrote the English-language book on baijiu, the 2014 release Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.

“They had a basic concept, to create a baijiu for the international mainstream market that can be served in international bars, but they didn’t have the in-house team that would understand how to do that and so wanted to work with us to create it,” says Sandhaus.

“Initially our plan was to come on as consultants but pretty early they made it clear that if they were going to make a new line of baijiu and launch it internationally, they wanted our team to be more involved so we worked out a deal with them whereby we would become part owners of the brand.”

The resulting brand is Ming River, launched in 2018, with a China-produced baijiu unavailable domestically and with a uniquely ambassadorial role.

“We’re often people’s first encounter with baijiu,” says Sandhaus. “If it’s a group of bartenders, or spirits industry professionals that I’m doing a tasting with, anywhere from half to 75% of them will have never tried baijiu before. If it’s a group of civilians on the street or book talk, it’ll be more like one or two people in the audience, total.

“I feel a tremendous responsibility to get that first impression right. There were a lot of attempts, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, made by people who came in and saw a big expensive category of spirits and thought they could get some baijiu from China, slap their own label on it, and make money, but they didn’t have the knowledge or appreciation for the category. They weren’t just setting themselves up to fail but the category too.

“As a result, the coverage and people’s attitudes towards it were fairly dismissive, treating it like some weird foreign drink. Exoticising it in a way that I now find distasteful, like isn’t it so weird that this is what Chinese people drink? Baijiu is still discussed in a way that people would be embarrassed to talk about mezcal and other regional spirits.”

A little goes a long way

First impressions are difficult to shake, especially when new flavours are at play. There’s good reason inexperienced drinkers recoil at the bitterness of their first beer or the intensity of scotch. Context is everything.

“It’s important for customers to try a range to truly experience it,” says Rodriguez.

“I will say that a little goes a long way, I add a few drops to a Vodka Martini, which gives it an extra dimension. I’d like to see the category and its distributors do more to educate and expose more drinkers to the style. Fenjiu does this already with bartender competitions and the results are amazing.”

Bartenders are so often the bridge that makes familiar the unfamiliar and, in pursuit of the new, are increasingly playing with baijiu.

“Bartenders so far have been just about the most important ambassadors,” says Sandhaus.

“I would view our team’s role as translators, taking what our distillery does and putting it in aesthetic language that makes sense to the western market, but most of the direct baijiu-to-consumer introductions happen at the bartender level and the places that are most successful in selling baijiu are where bartenders have made a point to educate themselves and are able to share their excitement with the consumers.

“If you can’t present it in a context that recognises its importance to people, you’re doing the category a disservice, but you’re also doing the people that you’re introducing it to a disservice because they’re not being set up to appreciate it.”

Ming River is the canary in the coal mine in the international baijiu market. The fact it’s still singing is proof that there is interest in and opportunity for the category outside of China and as the brand grows it widens a route to market that other distilleries can follow.

“I wish there were more people doing what we’re doing, that there were more people who were competently pushing baijiu into a more international market,” says Sandhaus. “It’s very hard to build a category when you’re the only one trying to educate. We’re five years into Ming River now and the first three were an uphill push. But we’re now at the point where there’s as much pulling as there is pushing.”

Keywords: baijiu, ming river

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