With drinkers turning into more and more accustomed to boldly flavored drinks like mezcal and amaro, maybe it’s time to take a better take a look at the Chinese language spirit baijiu. Like these different classes, baijiu (pronounced “bye joe”) might be difficult at first style, however the extra you recognize about it, the better it’s to like. At the very least that’s what occurred to me.
Many of the details about the class I’ve written beneath comes from the guide Baijiu: The Important Information to Chinese language Spirits by Derek Sandhaus, in addition to from what I realized on a press journey to the Luzhou Laojiao distillery in Luzhou, China, the place Ming River Baijiu is produced.
The time period “baijiu” covers all Chinese language distilled spirits, all of that are fermented with “qu,” a mixture of grains embedded with yeast, mildew, and micro organism. Should you’re aware of sake, you’ll know that koji is a mildew that breaks down the complicated carbohydrates in rice into fermentable sugars which might be then fermented by yeast. Qu works equally; it’s simply all sure up along with yeast and unfold into the grains all of sudden.
Like whiskey, baijiu is fermented and distilled from grains. The most typical grains used are sorghum and rice, although corn, barley, wheat, and different grains are employed relying on the class and model.
Baijiu’s 4 Major Classes
There are 4 major classes of baijiu, referred to as “aromas,” although it’s best to consider these as types of spirits and ignore the concept of odor. These had been initially regional types of baijiu that turn out to be formalized over time. 1000’s of small particular person distilleries had been grouped collectively into fewer bigger ones, and the federal government created official types normally based mostly on the dominant model from every area.
The class of “sauce aroma” baijiu contains the top-selling and most well-known model Kweichow Moutai. It and different sauce aroma baijiu do style intensely like savory soy sauce (besides not salty), with wealthy umami notes in flavors (in my view) of savory mushrooms and darkish gamey meats like venison. They’re wealthy and intense.
The highest-selling class of baijiu (about 75 % of gross sales) is “sturdy aroma” baijiu. Manufacturers of sturdy aroma baijiu embody the Nationwide Cellar 1573 model and Ming River, each from mother or father firm Luzhou Laojiao; Wuliangye; and Shui Jing Fang that’s owned partly by Diageo. To me, sturdy aroma baijiu typically tastes like a mixture of vivid tropical fruit, comfortable creamy cheeses, and earthy barnyard notes. It may well appear unrestrained at first, as if one thing in fermentation had gone horribly awry, till you be taught to understand that every one the sturdy flavors are very a lot on goal and every product is mixed to style precisely because it does.
“Gentle aroma” baijiu is understood for brief manufacturing cycles with minimal growing old durations. It has a light-weight physique with floral notes and the sweetness and taste of dried fruit. “Rice aroma” baijiu is distilled from fermented rice as you would possibly guess, and is typically made in column stills. It has a light-weight physique like vodka, with notes of flowers and honey. There’s a model of rice aroma baijiu, Vinn, made in Oregon.
Steady Fermentation and Redistillation
Quite than fermenting and distilling a sugary liquid (as with scotch whisky and rum) or a slurry of liquids and solids blended collectively (as in bourbon), baijiu ferments after which distills moistened grain solids. The one different spirit I can consider that’s fermented and distilled from a stable is grappa.
Grains for baijiu are steamed, blended with qu, lined, after which put into the fermentation pits or pots. Relying on the type, fermentation can final for a number of months to construct up taste. Then the moist, fermented grains with alcohol sticking to them are put into pot stills. The stills are constructed like bamboo steamers—steam pumped from beneath the grain solids helps raise the alcohol up out of the grains, and it’s collected and condensed as in a typical pot nonetheless.
Right here’s the place it will get even stranger: For sturdy aroma and sauce aroma baijiu, after the grain solids have been distilled, they’re scooped out of the nonetheless and positioned again into their fermentation pits or vessels to ferment once more, together with some freshly-steamed grains that haven’t but fermented, and extra qu. The fermentation vessels now comprise each previously-fermented and unfermented grains.
In sauce aroma baijiu, this refermentation with added recent grain occurs a pair occasions out of eight cycles of fermentation; throughout the remainder of the cycles, the identical distilled grains are refermented and redistilled with no added unfermented grains. After the grains are refermented and redistilled for eight cycles over a one-year interval, the method is full. The assorted distillation runs are aged in ceramic vessels individually, after which blended collectively to make the ultimate merchandise.
In sturdy aroma baijiu, beforehand distilled grain is blended with freshly steamed grain in each fermentation cycle. In sturdy aroma baijiu the aim is to by no means cease the cycle of blending a number of the final batch’s distilled grains in with the brand new grains, in the identical fermentation pit as final time. And by by no means cease, I really imply by no means. The continual use and complete age of the fermentation pit is taken into account an awesome level of delight and high quality in baijiu.
The aim is to maintain reusing the identical fermentation pits that construct up micro organism within the partitions, making for more and more complicated, fragrant spirits with every cycle. There are non-exact parallels to bitter mashing and to stillage utilized in Jamaican rum, and to utilizing wood fermenters to make sure spirits quite than sterile stainless-steel ones.
The 4 unique fermentation pits used for Nationwide Cellar 1573 model baijiu have been used repeatedly for the reason that 12 months 1573 (that’s 450 years!) based on the model. Additionally they use many pits over 100 years previous, and the oldest ones are thought-about the perfect to take advantage of fragrant, intense flavors for baijiu.
Distilled baijiu is aged in non-reactive ceramic vessels (typically in stainless-steel), and it’s blended between youthful and older and extra and fewer flavorful batches to make particular person manufacturers. The ultimate product can vary anyplace from a recent, mild, and fruity rice aroma product to a pungent, meaty sauce aroma baijiu.
In its house nation, baijiu is most frequently consumed with meals, with drinkers taking tiny sips between bites, notably when consuming spicy Sichuan meals. If you wish to ease into the class, that’s the way in which I’d advocate attempting it. And I do advocate attempting it. Baijiu is an incredible spirit.