Native to the African continent, sorghum is the grain of choice for most baijiu.

It is said the world’s oldest known alcoholic beverages belong to the people of Jiahu, in Henan province in China. More than 9,000 years ago, their brew of rice, honey, grapes and hawthorn fruit was drunk to transcend reality and commune with the spirit world. As the Chinese empire took shape, this drink took many forms, but one stood out – a grain alcohol fermented with naturally harvested yeast, named jiu. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and with the help of distillation techniques introduced by the Mongols, baijiu or ‘clear spirit’ was born.

With its long history, the drink is made via an array of production methods, styles and variations, with steaming, fermentation, distillation, maturation and blending typically being involved. Fermentable materials can be wheat, rice, corn and snow peas, but sorghum is typically used as it has the highest transfer rate of carbohydrates to sugar and, in turn, to alcohol so less material is needed to achieve a high alcohol level in the final product. As a result, many baijiu range from 28% ABV all the up to 65% ABV.

The most popular baijiu fits into one of four categories or ‘aromas’. ‘Light aroma’ is typically made from sorghum fermented in stone jars or pits and takes on a faster production process meaning it’s less complex, more pure and cheaper than the other styles (Don’t be fooled by the name; ‘light’ still weighs in at up to 60% ABV).  

‘Strong aroma’, usually associated with Sichuan, has more structure to stand up to the sweltering cuisine. It’s also predominantly made with sorghum, sometimes mixed with other grains, and fermented in earthen pits. ‘Rice aroma’ is made 100% from short and long grain rice, and is often fermented in continuous stills. And last, but definitely not least, is the ‘sauce aroma’ – an intriguing concoction made from sorghum fermented in stone brick pits, showing a huge amount of umami on the nose (or soy sauce, hence the name).  

One special component of baijiu, unlike any other beverage is the qu, which consists of wheat and yeast, similar to a starter in sourdough bread-making. This is typically added to each year to maintain house consistency, à la Champagne maisons. Luzhou Laojiao National Cellar 1573 is the oldest cellar in China still operating and remarkably still using the same starter as the year it opened – as the name suggests, 1573.

Water purity is crucial to quality production, and most producers are located on rivers, with their banks covered in organically farmed sorghum, and with water sources protected both up- and downstream from pollutants. It’s not unusual for the whole town or region to be singularly focused on producing baijiu. With global sales reaching around A$2 billion in 2020, it’s big business.

Arguably the most famous baijiu producer is Kweichow Moutai, which has such a cult following, some people buy Moutai instead of stocks, as it’s guaranteed to go up 10% in value each year. The distillery produces around 8.5 tonnes of liquid annually, but this equates to only 50ml per Chinese drinker. Better get in quick.

Baijiu To Try

National Cellar Guojiao 1573 (52% ABV), 500mL, A$199  
100% sorghum, produced organically in Luzhou, Sichuan, in the strong aroma style. Green melon, ripe pineapple, honey and resin, similar to some rice-based shochu. A velvety mouthfeel with a burst of grilled pineapple, hints of mushroom, chamomile tea, barnyard and a touch of sweetness. Pair with Sichuan dishes, BBQ prawns with chilli or grilled salmon with chimichurri. Can handle strong flavours.

Moutai Flying Fairy (53% ABV), 500mL, A$449
Made organically over five years using sophisticated, handcrafted techniques passed down for generations. More earthy and intense than the Chun 1992. Complex aromas of baking – cocoa, caramel and cinnamon – blended with mushroom, sultana and muscatel. Strong umami flavour with fresh pear, caramelised pineapple and white chocolate rounding out a long and captivating finish. Best for spicy dishes but any Chinese dishes work well.

Fenjiu 30 Year Blue and White (48% ABV), 500mL, A$179
A famous light aroma baijiu from Shanxi province, made mainly from sorghum and some rice husks. Aged 30 years in earthenware. On the nose, cacao and cinnamon dominate, with hints of caramel, barley, yeast, orange peel and an enticing floral note in support. Smooth on the palate with a long sweet finish reminiscent of butterscotch.   Not too complex, good for chicken and seafood, ideally prawns, white fish or clams. Or can be served warm at 40 degrees with Shanxi style food such as handmade noodles with aged vinegar and chilli oil.

Moutai Chun 1992 (53% ABV), 500mL, A$119
Made in the sauce aroma style from 100% sorghum. Earthy, with mushroom, barley, wet leaves and petrichor filling the glass. Intense flavours of cinnamon, chocolate and star anise, with a smooth, precise finish. Pairs well with cocktail dishes, BBQ meats, smoked pork and strong tasting foods.