Baijiu, which translates literally as “white alcohol,” is a clear spirit made predominately from sorghum, although glutinous rice, maize or other grains can also be utilized in various proportions. It is ubiquitous in China at official events, like weddings, business deals, and boozy government lunches, but under President’s Xi Jinping’s ongoing crackdown on government largesse, sales are down about 13 percent from a peak in 2012.
As baijiu growth falters, many brands are looking abroad to push sales – not only to introduce it to foreigners, but also to keep it relevant to the younger, wealthier generation of Chinese who are living as expatriates. Despite media buzz and anecdotal interest, there’s a lot of room for growth. Experts estimate that only 0.1 percent of total baijiu production is exported abroad, and much of that is consumed by overseas Chinese at duty-free shops.
Baijiu vary greatly in both fragrance and flavor but generally fall into four main categories – light aroma, rice aroma, sauce aroma and strong aroma – which are produced in different regions of the country. The most renowned and traditional sauce-aroma baijiu – such as Moutai, China’s most famous baijiu brand – come from the southern province of Guizhou.
But up north, Beijing was also a source of prodigious baijiu production, and during the Qing Dynasty, the spirits of nearby Niulanshan, northeast of the walled city, were highly regarded thanks to the mild climate and pure water source. Perhaps the area’s most blessed resource, however, was the plethora of nearby scholar-officials with the time and resources to sustain the distillery.
According to baijiu expert Derek Sandhaus’s must-read book, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, “The trains of baijiu-bearing mule carts embarking from Niulanshan supposedly extended to the gates of the old city walls, and Niulanshan spirits could be purchased as far away as Tianjin,” a city now just a 30-minute high-speed train ride away.
The distillery also produces the ubiquitous Erguotou brand, but we recommend looking for the bottle with the golden bull on it, which for just a few kuai more gets you a smoother spirit with notes of tropical fruit and an herbal finish. The bull on the label represents the famed water from the well in the mythical Golden Bull Cave – indeed most of the famous baijiu brands, at least initially, traded on the purity of their water source as their main selling point. Since the 1970s, Niulanshan has expanded rapidly, and today claims to be the world’s top producer of baijiu by volume.
Industry experts think the way to introduce baijiu to newbies is to do it step-by-step with cocktails, hoping that drinkers might not notice the strength and “unique” flavor profile. In Beijing, Culinary Backstreets leads a Hotpot & Hutongs walk, in which we pair our favorite baijiu bottles from Niulanshan with the delicious foods available in some of the city’s most charming hutong neighborhoods.
Also in the city, there’s Capital Spirits, where experts will take the time to walk first-timers through the basics, covering regional variations, a short history and distilling techniques. In addition to the extensive list of baijiu cocktails, there’s a tasting flight that encompasses the four main categories, giving you a well-rounded overview for understanding the nuance of the spirit without committing to purchasing full bottles. The location in a restored hutong home makes it a must-do for any curious visitor looking for an authentic, educational experience.