Baijiu, the national drink of China, is heading to the west thanks to an immense rise in its popularity in both the bar and cocktail scene. Despite having a challenging odour that some liken to a smelly cheese or gasoline, it has proven to be quite the hit. This is due to it being an excellent beverage to create cocktails with, as the alcohol is clear and packs quite the punch (it generally has an ABV of between 40% and 60%).
The ancient Chinese beverage, which was first created 5000 years ago, is made from grain and is usually distilled from fermented sorghum which is a grain commonly found in China. There are geographical differences in the way that it is created, especially between southern and northern China. In southern China baijiu can be created with the use of glutinous rice, whilst in northern China you can see such variations as barley or millet baijiu – although these ingredients are often viewed as untraditional compared to fermented sorghum. The result of this distillation is that you get an alcoholic beverage that is like vodka in both taste and strength.
Baijiu is hugely popular within the Chinese community. It is ceremonially drunk during Chinese New Year and weddings and served either warm or at room temperature in a small ceramic bottle which you then pour into small cups. Most cocktail bars in the west won’t adhere to these traditions as baijiu cocktails are usually served ice cold with a mix of different fruity syrups and sodas.
A reason why baijiu is becoming big in the west is that lower quality of the beverage is quite inexpensive, as a 250ml bottle can be purchased for the same price as a can of beer. On the other side of the coin, higher quality baijiu is both harder to create as it’s often aged for many years and can sell for as much as £2704 per 500ml. Even though the beverage isn’t common in the west, an estimated four billion gallons of the spirit is consumed every year around the world and the figure will rise as China wants to make the national spirit one of the biggest exports in the world.
Several of the biggest manufacturers of baijiu such as Luzhou Laojiao, Maotai and Wuliangye are looking at expanding to overseas markets as they’ve noticed that there’s been a huge rise in experimentation with the drink in the United States and Europe. The author of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, Derek Sandhaus, certainly believes that this is the case. “If you looked at the US five years ago, you would find fewer than five bars that were working with baijiu, and now there’s probably dozens, if not hundreds, that are working with it.”
According to Brand Finance, baijiu has overtaken whiskey as the most valuable spirit in the world and some of the biggest baijiu brands combine for a value which is more than £17.6bn. These are already staggering figures that are surely going to increase once baijiu becomes a household name in the western alcohol market.
Vodka was considered an exotic drink in the 1950s but is now one of the most common drinks in the world. If given a chance, the same could happen for baijiu.