The Rise of Chinese Baijiu Spirits

Though many will be familiar with Chinese food, Chinese beer, and even, perhaps, Chinese wine, Chinese spirits or strong liquors are perhaps far less well-known, at least outside of China.

The most important examples are those called “baijiu”, which translates into English as “white (or clear) liquor”, with global sales of these drinks trumping the sale of gin, vodka, tequila, rum, and whisky combined.

What is Baijiu?

Baijiu, which is a broad category of spirit that includes a diverse range of various sub-styles, has been made in China since at least the 13th century, making it one of the oldest spirit categories in the world.

They can be made using a host of different ingredients, including sorghum, rice, wheat, barley, or millet, and are known for their colourless appearance and often exotic flavour profile.

Baijiu on Bar Shelf
Baijiu on Bar Shelf

When looking into these drinks the first thing you will notice is their appearance. Mentioned previously, these spirits are almost always clear in their colour, highly reminiscent of vodka or water.

Outside of their appearance, you will notice that they possess an incredibly distinct and pungent aroma or smell, making some inexperienced drinkers hesitant to sample.

Don’t let the smell put you off, however, as these are a connoisseurs drink meant to be consumed in small doses or shots, with most brands and bottles found outside of China coming with a very hefty price tag.

Taste wise, it is best to look at individual brands and the styles they represent as they can come in a range of different flavour profiles alternating from spicy and rich, smooth and almost flavourless, to even somewhat unique, with notes of soy sauce.

Another defining feature of these drinks is their very weighty levels of alcohol, often sitting around the 50-60% mark, making them consumable only in small amounts and ideally alongside food or in a cocktail, particularly if you’re not accustomed to drinking hard liquor straight.

Pairing Food with Baijiu

That being said, the best food pairing options depend upon the particular style chosen, of which there are four main ones, including rice aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma, and strong aroma.

Those that fall under the rice aroma category are best served with light-style dishes, including canapes, steamed or fresh seafood dishes, or ramen-style noodle dishes.

One popular brand includes Sanhuajiu, which sits around the 52% alcohol mark and is known for its light aroma and taste of rice, making it quite easy-to-drink.

Bowl of Ramen Noodles
Bowl of Ramen Noodles

When pairing a bottle of light aroma baijiu, such as Fénjiǔ, be sure to pair them with light seafood or white meat dishes, particularly lightly steamed chicken or fish, as the subtle flavours of the drink won’t clash with the equally light flavours of the food.

Moving along the spectrum, sauce aroma baijiu, best exemplified by the world-famous Moutai brand, which is famous for its pronounced soy sauce-like flavour and short, sharp finish, is best matched with fatty meat dishes, such as roast pork, or spicy Asian stir-frys.

Bowl of Spicy Asian Stir-Fry
Bowl of Spicy Asian Stir-Fry

Finally, when pairing bottles of strong aroma baijiu, particularly Shui Jing Fang, which is famous for its rich flavour of sour plum and bitter sweetness, be sure to serve them alongside portions of hot and spicy dishes. Some of the best pairing options includes spicy beef noodle stir-frys or creamy and hot Indian-style curries.

How to Enjoy Baijiu?

As you can see, there are many different styles of baijiu, offering drinkers the chance for a lifetime of continual enjoyment. When starting out on your own tasting journey, however, it is recommended to begin with those that fall within the light or rice aroma category, as these are gentle in their taste and easily the smoothest of all the baijiu spirits.

Just as you wouldn’t start drinking a heavily peated whisky or double IPA straight away, it is important to only begin drinking sauce or strong aroma baijiu once you’ve started with the softer variants, so as to ease your taste buds into the complexity and strength of character found in the previously mentioned baijiu styles.

Baijiu Sour Cocktail
Baijiu Sour Cocktail

Whilst all baijiu, irrespective of their particular style, are traditionally enjoyed by drinking them straight from a shot glass, they can easily be used in some truly exquisite cocktails, making them far more approachable and party-friendly.

Some of the best include the Baijiu Sour, Szechuan Sling, or Baijiu Falls.

For a list of some of the best, including the ingredient lists on how to make them, check out this site, which details some of the most interesting.