Baijiu, the national drink of China, is a distilled alcohol between 80 and 120 proof. Literally translated to “white alcohol” or “white spirits,” baijiu is often incorrectly translated as “white wine.” Normally, it is enjoyed during family celebrations, business negotiations and holidays. It is also offered when a foreign guest is present. Chinese women do not drink baijiu.
Baijiu is a high grain, crystal clear liquid that can be flavored or unflavored. Some additives include tealeaves, Chinese herbal medicines, preserved snakes and scorpions. Many indiviuals with a Western palette find the flavor of Baijiu to be reminiscent of rubbing alcohol or diesel fuel.
Origin of Baijiu
Baijiu may have been made as long as 7000 years ago. Various types of grain grew in the valleys where populations began, and some of these grains were used to make wine and other alcohols.
Yi Di and Du Kang were purportedly the first to make alcoholic beverages for profit. Yi Di was one of the first to attempt to make a mellow wine from fermented glutinous rice. Du Kang, who lived during the Xia Dynasty (2100 BC to 1600 BC), was the first to make alcohol from sorghum beans. Sorghum is a grass-like cereal grain.
As the story goes, Du Kang stored cooked sorghum beans in a hollow tree stump one winter day. Rain filled the stump, and in the spring he noticed a fragrant aroma coming from the stump. He had accidentally discovered the process of fermenting the beans to form an alcoholic drink now known as baijiu.
Different groups of Baijiu are usually classified by their fragrance:
- Heavy/thick fragrance has a lasting sweet taste.
- Honey fragrance has a sweet taste of honey.
- Layered fragrance has a combination of “sauce,” heavy and light aromas.
- Light fragrance has a delicate mellow smell.
- Rice fragrance has a clean aromatic aroma.
- “Sauce” fragrance has a strong ammonium-like odor.
Types of Baijiu
While baijiu is normally made from sorghum, it can, however, be made from other types of grains. In southern, China it is usually made from glutinous rice. In northern, China it can be made from ingredients, such as barley, oak or wheat.
Baijiu can be either unflavored or flavored, with many different varieties available for each type. Unflavored baijiu include:
- Daqu jiu: fermented a long time and made from sorghum and wheat
- Erguotou: inexpensive and, therefore, more commonly drunk
- Fen jui: the original white alcohol made from sorghum
- Gaoliang jiu: named for a certain type of sorghum
- Jiugui: made from spring water, sorghum, glutinous rice and wheat
- Maotai jiu: a gold medal winner made from sorghum and wheat
- Shuang zheng jiu: a rice wine that is distilled twice.
Flavored types of Baijiu are:
- Guihua chen jiu: distilled with Sweet Osmanthus flowers and has a lower alcohol content
- Meiguilu jiu: distilled with a specific rose and crystal sugar
- Sanhua jiu : made for over 1000 years and has an aroma of a Chinese herb
- To Mei Chiew: made from rice wine with added to mei flowers and crystal sugar syrup. It is aged for more than one year.
- Wujiapi jiu: distilled with Chinese herbal medicine
- Yuk Bing Siu Zau: made from steamed rice. Pork fat is added, then removed.
- Zhuyeqing jiu: translated to mean “bamboo leaf green liquor.”
The cost of Baijiu varies widely according to the quality of the drink. For example, while the cheapest types cost pennies, the most expensive cost thousands of dollars per bottle.
How to Drink Baijiu
Baijiu is normally served at room temperature or warm in a small ceramic bottle, then poured into a small cup or shot glass. Baijiu sets, sold in specialty shops or Asian markets, generally include baijiu, a ceramic bottle and small glasses.
Baijiu is often served with food, but it is important that the proper baijiu is served with each meal. For example, Fen jiu is appropriate for instant noodles, dry biscuits or fried rice, while Jianzhuang best accompanies animal feet, claws and paws.
Making a toast or gesture to the other comrades at the table and drinking with them is the correct etiquette when drinking baijiu. When a glass is empty, it is polite to fill the glasses starting with the person with the most money and filling ones own glass last. It is considered rude to excuse yourself from joining in when offered a glass. After someone has filled a glass, it should be held with two hands, one hand holding the bottom so that it will not be dropped.