Baijiu: China’s Potent—and Pungent—Export

Baijiu is the best-selling liquor on earth (largely because of the number of people who consume it in its native China). Its aroma is super-funky, and that’s a good thing. At 100-to-120 proof, it’s not to be trifled with. But this ancient spirit can definitely be enjoyed.

Photo courtesy of the manufacturer

Its aroma is charitably described as funky, its flavor as complex. It’s Chinese, powerful (100 to 120 proof) and ancient. Largely because of the number of people who consume it in China, it’s the world’s best-selling spirit.

It’s called baijiu.

Robert Yang of Allendale Wine Shoppe in Bergen County, who stocks seven varieties, says businessmen in China knock down straight shots “like water.” Thanks to a surge in American distribution, Jerseyans should soon be able to choose from more brands in more retail outlets.

Baijiu means “white liquor.” The most common form is distilled from sorghum fermented for up to a year underground in clay vessels or (not kidding) mud pits. After distillation, the spent grain is re-inoculated with mold and thrown back into the pits, where traces might live on in future batches for 100 years or more.

I brought home a bottle from China. The brand name translates as Mr. Cat’s Philosophy, but I have to admit litterbox comes to mind. I would describe its aroma as perfumey, piney, dirty diaper. That, I’m told, is a good thing.

“The highest compliment you can pay a drink in China is to call it hen xiang, or quite fragrant,” says Derek Sandhaus, co-owner of the Ming River brand, available in New York and, soon, New Jersey. “In much the way a gourmet purveyor might prize a particularly stinky blue cheese, the baijiu manufacturer strives for an assertive aromatic complexity.”

Baijiu generally comes in six flavors, known as fragrances: strong and sauce are the most challenging; light and rice are more approachable. I recently tasted the 1915, an internationally award-winning light from the Hengshui Laobaigan distillery. It tasted of fresh grass and was much more palate pleasing than Mr. Cat’s Philosophy.

The 1915 will likely retail for around $250 per 750 milliliter bottle when it comes to New Jersey, possibly next year. Much less expensive bottles are available at Wine Shoppe and at Wine Chateau in Metuchen.

The venerable Jersey City dive bar Golden Cicada serves baijiu shots. For most of us, the easiest intro is in a cocktail. Sandhaus recommends adding a bit to sours and tiki drinks. I’d suggest it as the liquor in a lychee martini.

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