Baijiu is the most consumed spirit in the world by volume, but it is virtually unknown outside of China!
We opened our bar Capital Spirits last summer in a hutong in Beijing, China, with the idea to bring Baijiu off the dinner table where it is traditionally consumed, and into a Western bar/pub setting. Since then we’ve been featured in the The Wall Street Journal, Vice, New York Times and other publications.
This August 8th will be the 1st Annual World Baijiu Day – check the website for listings to see if a city near you will be holding tasting events! Baijiu enjoys a thousands-year old history and literary culture, a distinct production process and a range of complex flavors. It is also extremely strong: typically ranging from 50-70% ABV, making it challenging for the uninitiated…but deeply rewarding!
AMA about Baijiu, drinking etiquette in China, how to drink and appreciate Baijiu, nightlife in Beijing, what it’s like operating a bar in China, or whatever else you can think of!
Does “good” baiju exist? I am a frequent traveller to China, and I avoid the stuff like the plague….. I’m more of a whisky guy (being Scottish). Anything you would recommend?
Many foreigners who visit to China who were introduced to Baijiu have a terrible experience. It could be due to the intense drinking culture, or equally likely you just got bad stuff. Did you drink Erguotou, by chance? Erguotou is an extremely cheap (about $4 per liter) and potent (112 proof) local Baijiu popular amongst working-class Chinese, that also unfortunately becomes many foreigners’ first (and last) introduction to Baijiu due to its low price and wide availability.
Whisky is an acquired taste as well. Or beer. Imagine if you had never tried beer before, and someone gave you a tin can of Bud Light. You’d probably swear off the stuff forever! 😉
Baijiu should be drunk differently from western spirits. You shouldn’t really shoot it, and it’s best when paired with food. It’s best to sip it through pursed lips and kind of atomize it inside your mouth.
As a whisky drinker, next time you are in China try anything labeled “strong” aroma, or “nong 浓” in Chinese. Avoid the light aromas, which are mostly just an alcohol burn without complexity. If you’re into very complex scotch, you may want to try “sauce” aroma Baijius. (jiang 酱).
Is there anywhere online you can buy bottles of quality baiju?
If you’re in China, one of our favorite local Baijius is Xingtian. It’s named after a warrior of legend who tried who was decapitated by the emperor in a duel, and grew eyes in his chest and a mouth in his belly because he was so determined to win.
If you’re in the States, check out ByeJoe. It’s an ultra premium Baijiu produced in China, refined in the US. HKB and Vinn are produced in the US.
Most classic Baijius can only be found in China for the time being. In major cities in the US such as Chicago, LA and New York, you can find top-shelf Baijius. This Saturday is World Baijiu Day, so check out the website we mentioned and see if you are near a city that will be hosting an event!
I got a bottle of Moutai as a gift. It tastes very unique. Is this typical Baijiu? Is it high quality?
Maotai is probably the most famous Baijiu brad worldwide. It was the official state liquor of China for decades, and was served to Richard Nixon when he came on his official visit. Maotai has a whole range of labels, depending on which one you have, it could be worth thousands.
Maotai is a sauce aroma Baijiu, and its fermentation process is a very resource and labor-intensive nine month process. Over this time the grains break down in a very complex way, allowing for the unique savory flavor to develop.
Shenzhen resident here. The only baijiu I’ve liked was FenJiu (Maybe FengJiu. I dunno the spelling.) from up North. What makes this kind so different from the others?
FenJiu is the oldest and most distinguished of the light aroma Baijius. It’s made 100% out of sorghum and has a relatively short fermentation process, which is about two weeks, and occurs in clay or ceramic vessels. After distillation, the FenJiu is typically aged for an extended period of time, also in ceramic vessels, to filter out impurities and round out the flavor.
How have you guys been received by the Chinese community? Do they enjoy the non-traditional approach that you guys offer?
They’re very curious about the usage in cocktails, and also about how foreigners react to it. They’re a little confused as well that it is not served with food, especially when it is served outside of cocktails. Chinese always drink Baijiu with meals. We do serve spicy peanuts, and lately we’ve had smoked sausage from Hubei. Baijiu is also drank along with traditional snacks like cured meats and pickled vegetables.
They also really love drinking in such a non-pressure environment outside of the typical banquet setting where they are forced to drink shot after shot until they puke.
What are your opinions of MaoTai and WuLiangYe? They sre immensely expensive and quite famous among the Chinese people as being expensive gifts.
They are classic brands, and their high (possibly too high) price makes them a good gift for someone looking to impress. I think that as far as their top-shelf offerings are concerned, they’re both fantastic baijiu, but if you can’t afford them there are other products made by less prestigious distilleries that will get the job done.
Where are all of you individually from and what brought you all to China?
Bill and David are cousins and are from Florida.
Matthias and Johannes are from Germany.
Julia is from France.
We all were brought here by airplanes. 😛
So correct me if I’m wrong, but Baijiu is basically Chinese gin?
It is actually very different from gin, although there similarities. They both are colorless, and have a distinct taste that can be difficult to newcomers. Apart from that they are very different. Gin is a botanically-infused spirit, whereas Baijiu gets its flavor not from infusion but from the fermentation process. Gin has a lightly fruity, waxy, medicinal taste, but apart from that is very neutral. Baijiu makes you notice! It can taste hot, spicy, salty, smokey, savory, and some are very heavy on esters.
Gin is also commonly mixed into cocktails, whereas Baijiu is brand new territory. We’ve been reaching out to mixologists all over the world and coming up with some really delicious stuff!
Sooo, its like soju? I freaking love soju.
Soju and baijiu are two branches of the same alcoholic tree. In fact, the old word for baijiu was shaojiu 烧酒, which became soju in Korea and shochu in Japan.
I am not sure if it was because our host was forcing us to drink shot after shot of Baijiu when I was visiting Dengfeng but I have heard, and vaugely remember from experience, that Baijiu is an especially potent liquor. Is there any truth to this?
Baijiu ranges between 32% on the low-end to over 70%. Our guess is you had something on the high side.
Is baijiu flammable?
Some are. We have a shot here which is 50% snake-infused Baijiu (yes, snake) that is topped with 67% “Hengshui 衡水” aroma Baijiu and then lit on fire.
Is it true Nixon used to get way drunk off of baijiu?
Yes! It was known amongst his diplomatic team, specifically Henry Kissinger, that Nixon could not hold his liquor, so they were actually really nervous that Nixon would get too sauced and make a fool out of himself when meeting Mao and the Communists in the early 70s. The Chinese knew this as well, and probably put the pressure on Nixon to drink…
Kissinger also famously quipped during the meeting that if “we drink enough Baijiu, we can solve anything.”
Here’s a historical photograph that we hang in our bar!
Thoughts on Maotai? I drank it over there with my friends trying to impress people. I have a bottle of it sitting on a shelf here and I’m waiting to indulge.
It depends on if it is real or not. There are a lot of fakes. There are more Maotais sold each year than are produced by the Maotai factory.
Not everybody likes the “sauce jiang酱” aroma Baijius. They are probably the most acquired taste of them all. But the people who do swear by it. I recommend you try it with some salty snacks and some pickles to go between sips. Don’t drink it like you would a vodka or something similar. It is a different experience. Drink it very slow and try and suss out the flavors. It is very complex and takes over nine months to produce.
Fun fact: When the Communists were fanning out in the Chinese countryside recruiting young soldiers, they didn’t have many resources or support to maintain the civil war against the Nationalists or the Japanese. After entering Guizhou province, a family that had been making Baijiu in the locality supplied the Red Army with Baijiu, and that was Maotai. That’s how it became the official national drink of China.
How do the locals react to a baiju bar(which in itself is already out of the ordinary) ran by foreigners? having been to china numerous times, i find this very interesting.
Locals love it – 50% of our customers are locals and 50% are foreigners. It’s a new experience for them to try so many types of baijiu in one place (usually at restaurants you’re only limited to a dozen or so).
Regarding having foreigners run it might be some of the appeal for now but it’s becoming more popular now. A 2nd baijiu bar opened just last month in Beijing and a few times we’ve seen people taking photos and trying to copy our menus which probably means they’re gonna copy the bar concept elsewhere.
I am a Canadian living outside Dalian. Do you know any good local baijiu? I like 50% or stronger. I like to drink a glass or two with dinner.
There are a number of good Dongbei baijius I could recommend. Yuquan makes a nice mixed-aroma (part strong, part sauce) and Daoguangnianwu makes one that’s really unique. Beidacang is a great inexpensive sauce aroma. But if you like the strong stuff try Yushuqian.
I was gifted two bottles of Wuliangye 1618 from my wife’s father (my in-laws are Chinese). I am wondering if they have an expiry date and/or when the best time to drink it is? I want to keep them for many years and wanted to know if they would still be good to drink? Also would aging them increase the value of them at all?
They are distilled spirits and they will improve with time. With the way the market is going, they will most likely be worth much more in years to come.
How is your business actually going? Are you turning a profit yet?
We’ve been doing quite well since the beginning due to a unique concept, we are the first baijiu bar in the world, and the locals are fascinated by this.
From what I tried, cocktails with baijiu ended up quite foul-tasting. What kinds of stuff do you use in your cocktails? I prefer to drink baijiu while eating, since I find it goes very well with Chinese food, and to finish with a whisky or cognac if there are still people standing, but I wouldn’t mind trying a few cocktails for fun.
Well, we’ll tell you how we make our Baijiu Sour:
- 50mL of rice aroma Baijiu (we use Guilin Sanhua)
- 10mL of Cointreu liqueur
- 5mL of concentrated lemon juice
- a dash of orange bitters
- juice of one kaffir lime
Shake and serve on ice.
Yes, Baijiu is definitely best with food or snacks. The Chinese drink when they eat. If you come to China, you’ll be amazed by how people behave in restaurants. They are loud, wild and rowdy, because that’s where they go to party. The idea of a bar here, a place where people just go to congregate and drink, is an import. The flavor of Baijiu as it has evolved through history has been perfected and refined to go with Chinese food.
Come by and try a cocktail on the house!
What are the challenges that your business must overcome to survive in the years to come? What odds do you give that you guys will go out of business? Is your target customer a westerner or a local?
Our customers are about half Chinese and half foreign. The Chinese customers appreciate seeing their traditional spirit presented in a new and fun way, while the foreign customers enjoy receiving an educational approach to the world’s most misunderstood spirit.
Do you have processes in place to deal with imitations and fake wines? In my experience the higher the grade of goods the more likely imitationa are to be produced. How do you guard against dodgy stock?
We’ve gained quite a reputation with major producers who like that we’re opening up new markets for Baijiu. Most of our premium Baijius come direct from the manufacturers. The mid-range Baijiius are not as valuable and so you don’t really have to worry about knock-offs.
Based in HK and I would like to ask, how is business? How’s the reception to this fascinating concept? Who comes in? Any baijiu collectors? I will be in BJ in 2 wks and would love to stop by!
Come on by when you are in town! We have Chinese come in earlier in the night (they tend not to stay out as late) and then foreigners later on. It’s not that they don’t mind drinking together but it just happens to work out this way due to their nightlife habits.
Business has been good! We’ve gotten very favorable press and people seem to love the concept. If you’ve ever done wine tasting in Napa Valley, that is what we are trying to do with Baijiu, because we feel it has the same time-honored tradition and range of tastes that should be appreciated.
We’ve had some Chinese business people come in taking photos of our menus and decor and stuff, and some ask us to partner with them opening up Baijiu bars around China.
What is it about Baijiu that gives it the ability to overpower literally anything it is mixed with?
One of the key selling points for spirits in China is the strength of their fragrance. Chinese spirits are distilled differently than Western spirits, in a way that produces aggressive punchy flavors. This can make mixing more difficult. That said, some styles of baijiu, like light-aroma and rice-aroma are more delicate and much easier to mix. Choosing the right style is really key.
Any ideas on how to win the public over on a Chinese produced liquor when, in my opinion, most Chinese domestically produced consumables (foodstuffs, etc) have a generally negative viewpoint from the public?
We are based in China, but definitely want to work towards broadening baijiu’s appeal in the US. I think you are right that there is a generally negative impression of Chinese consumables, but all baijiu produced for export is subjected to the same rigorous US safety standards as any imported spirit, so one need not worry on that account. Education is the key to baijiu’s ability to crack overseas market.
Why is it notorious?
Great question lol. It’s notorious because a lot of foreigners come to China and have a bad experience with Baijiu. It is a very strong spirit with a distinct taste that can be difficult for the uninitiated. You’ll hear stories of Baijiu that tastes like rocket fuel. Not far from the truth.
I’ve never heard of Baijiu. What are the base ingredientsfor it? I gathered from some of the answers that in some cases it’s distilled fermented sorghum but are there other ingredients you can use? Are there certain restrictions as to where it can be produced like Bourbon or Champagne? Can it be produced in the US? Are there restrictions on ingredients to still be considered Baijiu?
Great question. What makes a Baijiu a Baijiu is the fermentation process. So long as a spirit is made through solid-state fermentation, it can be considered a Baijiu, regardless of where or what it is made of. Another definition is any alcoholic spirit made in China is a Baijiu. But this will probably collapse over time as Baijiu is more and more appreciated abroad and has strict standards applied to its production.
The most commonly used grain is sorghum as you said. However, Baijius are also often made from a cocktail of different grains. Wuliangye, one of the most famous and expensive Baijius, is made from rice, glutinous rice, wheat, corn and sorghum.
Baiju, personally, is just too strong for my tastes. How do you convince people to like it?
We present different styles of Baijiu side by side, enabling people to compare and contrast the widely diverse host of flavors that can be found in Baijiu. Oftentimes, people don’t like every Baijiu presented, but most people wind up enjoying one or two of the styles. We convert about 90% of the people who come to our bar, many of whom come in claiming that they hate Baijiu.
I’m very interesting in trying baijiu. However, I won’t be going to China any time soon, and I don’t speak or read any Chinese. Though I do have several Chinese grocery stores nearby. How can I recognize a decent baijiu? Should I be wary of bottles with english or pinyin on the label? Also, is it pronounced like it’s spelled, or will I sound like an idiot asking for “BUY-jew”?
It is pronounced BYE-joe. If you want to be really authentic, it is BYE with the second tone, and joe with the third tone. So say “BYE” like you are asking a question (BYE?) and then joe like you are doing vocal fry. Like as low as you can possible say it. Then the Chinese will know you are a badass and show you the real stuff.
Most quality Baijius will have both English and pinyin (romanization of Chinese) on the label. If it looks cheap, it probably is. Most Baijius in the US and EU will be authentic because a low-grade Baijiu wouldn’t be imported. If it comes in a ceremonial-looking bottle that’s a good sign.
I’ve only had some stuff my friend brought back from Beijing to drink “as a dare.” It was apparently the total cheapest shit you can buy out there, and tasted like a combo of hate, sadness, and despair. I live in the US, and really want to try what good stuff tastes like. Do you know of any companies that import the good stuff? It sounds interesting, but the bad stuff was worse than well tequila.
Baijiu ranges from the absolutely horrid to some of the finest alcohol you can experience. It’s a big country with a huge population and a corresponding range of quality.
Also, make sure you are drinking it correctly. If you are shooting it like wells tequila, that’s the problem. Good stuff should be sipped slowly with food and appreciated like a fine brandy.
We usually bought Baijiu for how incredibly cheap it was while also getting you insanely drunk (though it was tough to get down. ha) How much does the more delicious, high quality stuff cost at your bar? Also, where can you find this ‘good’ Baijiu for mad cheap?
Most Chinese people who drink good Baijiu are very familiar with “the market” and know what to get and where to get it when they have business or family dinners. For foreign students and the like, it can be a bit harder to get the good stuff, so they usually resort to the cheap and powerful stuff. Which, for a student, is pretty awesome…haha
We offer a variety of flights that will allow you to sample premium Baijius. Come by next month when you are here and you won’t leaving standing.
In your cocktails, are you mixing Baijiu with any western staple spirits like whisky, gin, tequila, or are they more about Baijiu plus mixers? Does Baijiu work with bitters and/or amari?
We have two approaches to Baijiu cocktails. The first is just making a classic cocktail where we replace the liquor with Baijiu. The second is one where we showcase the special of flavor, which is a lot tricker. But to answer your question, we use Campari, rum, tequila, limoncello , and many other ingredients, including orange bitters in our cocktails.
Our signature cocktail the Baijiu Sour uses orange bitters.
You can mix a rice aroma Baijiu as you would a vodka or a gin for the most part. Yes bitters work very well
What kind of western food do you guys think baijiu pairs well with?
We’ve been experimenting. Blue cheeses go great with the stronger aroma Baijius, smoked meats and salty stews, especially chili go great with the light aroma Baijius.
I’ve lived in China for over a decade and had my fair share of baijiu is various forms – what is your particular favorite, and what region in China does it come from? Also, have you heard about any of the “American baijiu” productions that are apparently now being done in the Pacific Northwest?
Typically we prefer Sichuanese strong aroma Baijius, but that’s just us. Every province and township and village has its own unique Baijiu. It’s an alcoholic anthropologist’s dream.
We’ve heard of some of these Pacific Northwest Baijius, and we are dying to try them!
For someone with a bottle of Mao Tai in their cabinet,and has absolutely hated it. Do you have a cocktail recipe you would recommend?
Some people have experimented with Maotai, but it’s a really complex flavor profile that makes it difficult to use as the base to a cocktail. My advice for using it in a cocktail would be in extreme moderation, like in a wash to give a savory cocktail a little extra something.
What is erguotou?
Erguotou is a form of light-aroma baijiu that originated in Beijing notable for short fermentation and aging periods. It’s distilled from sorghum in pots. It’s cheap to produce, not particularly complex, and probably the most widely available style of baijiu anywhere in the world. It’s not the best, but it’s not bad for the under-$5 range.
Do ya’ll do any moutai drinks?
No, Maotai is such a potent spirit that it obliterates the flavor of anything else you try to mix it with.
My dad has a bottle of MaoTai from the 80s that he claims is very valuable and would sell in the thousands of dollars range, does such a thing exist?
Absolutely. The Kweichow Moutai Distillery started operations in 1951, and has long been the most celebrated brand in China. Some of their older bottles fetch high prices at auction. Whether one from the 80s would be worth thousands, I can’t say, but it’s worth looking into if you want to sell it.
Is baijiu available in many liquor stores in the US? I currently live in Chicago and I imagine there is probably a place in chinatown I could get some. What kind would you recommend for someone who usually drinks whiskey or scotch?
Baijiu is tough to find in the US, but that’s starting to change. Some of the major brands have begun rollouts of their products, but mostly in California and New York, though I imagine Chicago won’t be far behind. For someone who likes scotch, you’ll probably want to start with a strong-aroma. The taste profiles are very different, but this category gives you a good sense of baijiu’s complexity and is generally more approachable than sauce-aroma.
Only way I’ve been able to drink baijiu is to mix it with ice tea, do you guys mix it with anything to make it taste better? I did probably drink the cheapest one.
There are plenty of great ways to spice up a baijiu. You can go the cocktail route—we make a few at the bar—or also infuse it with herbs and spices, which can really round out and tone down the flavor of a cheaper baijiu.
Is there a difference between rice wine and Baijiu?
My girlfriend always serves hot Saké to me and i used to hate it but it has grown on me, is baijiu any different?
Rice wine is made 100% out of rice, few Baijius are. Most Baijius contain sorghum which has a very distinct flavor. Also, Baijiu is distilled while sake is not, so Baijiu is typically much, much stronger. To be honest, the two taste nothing alike.
‘ve always thought Baiju smells and tastes like fresh pineapple.. however, noone agrees with me. Have you ever heard people noting it’s likeness to pineapple?
In my early experiences with Baijiu I always described the taste as pineappley, but I would say that what you had were mostly strong aroma Baijius, which are a bit fruiter in flavor.
Chemist here, always been interested in distillation and fermentation. I just read your reply about fenjiu and it fermenting in ceramic vessels. Is the ceramic material aspect all-important or just tradition? What distillation method you use? Copper still? How has a sorghum beverage done in the west? Iirc historically they haven’t done well outside of the eastern countries (and Africa maybe?) Because of its bitterness
There are said to be a host of minerals in the ceramic which enhances the flavor of the final product, not sure of the legitimacy of this, could just be tradition.
We don’t use any stills. some Baijiu producers use pot stills, while other more potent ones use column stills, some but not all are copper. Remember there are over 10,000 Baijiu distilleries in China, many different methods are used to create Baijiu.
I think sorghum is gaining popularity in the west now due to the whole gluten-free movement. I know several gluten-free beers are made from sorghum.
How do you get your abv to the 50-70% mark without a distillation method? Are you using some sort of super saiyan yeast? Has anyone ever done studies of different types of baijiu fermented in different container types and do you need a chemist?
All Baijius are distilled, the high ABV comes from distillation.
“Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits” is available on Amazon and goes in-depth on the different styles of fermentation used in Baijiu production. Definitely worth checking out.
What’s the best strong aroma baijiu you have in your bar?
The Guojiao 1573. It’s made by Luzhou Laojiao. It is fermented in mud pits that have been in continuous usage since 1573. It is the oldest Baijiu distillery still producing today. The flavor of strong aroma Baijiu is dependent on the pits from which it comes. The most complex flavors come from the oldest pits, and its the oldest Baijiu pit in China.
Another one we really like is Jiannanchun (Sword Southern Spring), also from Sichuan, the historical home of strong aroma Baijiu.
With or without ice?
Baijiu is traditionally drank neat, room temperature and unmixed in tiny, thimble-sized 10mL glasses. Lots of mixologists have been experimenting with Baijiu cocktails in recent years. Our signature cocktail is the Baijiu Sour. It’s good!
Are you planning on expanding to other country’s? Stuff like this could be a hit in America we’re always looking for new stuff to drink.
Yes! We are seeking like-minded people to help us introduce people abroad to Baijiu culture. Half of us here on staff are Americans. Decades ago, tequila used to be a totally weird thing to us. The ritual with the lime and salt, as well as popularization through music and theme parties made it mainstream. Could the same thing happen with something as exotic as Baijiu? Let us know…
Do you guys know elephant mountain? Best baijiu I’ve ever had in the states.
We carry it here! It’s really well received because it’s one of the most mixable Baijius out there.
What’s the best baijiu that retails under 50 kuai in China?
Anything typically under 100 kuai is not a real Baijiu, meaning it is not produced by traditional methods.
Having said that, if you are at a restaurant in Chia and want to get a Baijiu to go along with your dinner, anything that comes in a cardboard box around 50 RMB (~$9) might be drinkable, but will wear on you over time. It’ll just be mass-produced industrial alcohol. Buyer beware.
What makes it deeply rewarding compared to other hard liquors?
Baijiu comes on you slow. If you drink it the proper way with food, it will slowly build a warmth. Much like there is a Tequila drunk, a Whisky drunk, etc, there is a Baijiu drunk. And it is marvelous.
Is it like soju?
The rice aroma “mi 米” ones are similar, but the Baijiu that most people are familiar with is waaaaaaaay stronger! Each category of Baijiu is as different from the other as whisky is from vodka. The word “baijiu 白酒,” which translates towhite alcohol, is a catch-all for any distilled spirit produced in China. There are more than 10,000 unique distilleries here.
Why is it that my people have enjoyed this for centuries but it takes a bunch of white expats in order to make it ‘respectable’ and worthy of mention in mainstream news media outlets?
Probably because we were the first people to intentionally try to understand Baijiu as a sophisticated craft spirit, or we were some of the first to serve it to western journalists and explain to them what both the historical and cultural significance of Baijiu is.
The worlds first baijiu bar? Have you ever been to China??
Chinese people don’t drink Baijiu in bars. They drink it in restaurants, at home, at fancy banquets and business meetings.
Chinese drink beer and western spirits at clubs and karaoke bars.