The heritage surrounding the production and consumption of alcohol has shaped Chinese culture for centuries, influencing religion, art, philosophy and politics. One drink, Baijiu has helped bring together adversaries and brought about the downfall of kingdoms. The history of Baijiu has it all.
Nine thousand years ago in Jiahu, Henan Province, people started to brew a drink made from rice, honey, grapes and hawthorn fruit. Little did they know at the time that it would become the world’s oldest known alcoholic beverage, called Baijiu.
The Invention of Jiu
In the first century Wine became part of the Chinese heritage. It also became a social drink of the nobility. Ancient Kings employed Court Brewers to craft drinks and use them to win over key friendships and placate enemies. One drink in particular stood out. Called Jiu, or Baijiu, meaning clear (white) liquor.
The Golden Age
During the first millennium, Chinese kingdoms became united, forming a vast empire. During this time ‘Huangjiu’ a sweet grain wine, became the most popular drink of all. However, some advocated moderation, and others preached enlightenment through drinking to excess and general drunkenness. Typical of this was the poet Li Bai, who transformed solitary drinking into a raucous communion with the moon and shadows, in his infamous works.
The Discovery of Distillation
During the 13th century the armies of Genghis Khan invaded China, advancing across Central Asia, to the Middle East. Persian chemists unlocked the secrets of alcohol distillation and soon the conquerors spread distilled spirits throughout their Mongol Khanate, according to Chinese historians. The archeological evidence, however, suggests that distillation may have arrived even earlier via trade routes, meaning that wine still may have been a domestic Chinese invention. (See: How Is Baijiu Made)
Birth of Baijiu
During the reign of The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) China’s brewers wasted little time refining their methods to incorporate wine in their liquor. An essence known as Huangjiu is extracted, and it quickly becomes a potent drink known as Shaojiu, or “burnt wine.” Today we call it Baijiu. (See: Baijiu History)
Spread of Baijiu
Between the 16th and 19 centuries Baijiu’s popularity in China spread rapidly, adapting to the tastes and traditions of its citizens, and was transformed into several unique styles of liquor. A class division emerges with the aristocratic elite still quaffing Huangjiu and those less fortunate liking the raw power and value of Baijiu.
Drink of the People
The People’s Republic of China was born in 1949. The state modernised Chinese spirits by setting up regional distilleries throughout the country. Age old techniques are used – styles are sorted and classified. Production standards and quality rise allowing Baijiu brands to gain prominence. (See: Drinking Baijiu – Chinese Customs & Traditions)
Baijiu Goes Global
In modern times today, Chinese born in the north can easily drink the Baijiu emanating from the south, and vice versa. Distilleries have also been exporting their spirits overseas, targeting new foreign audiences. Will the worlds top selling spirit be welcomed into cocktail bars alongside Tequila, Gin and Brandy around the globe? Only time will tell. (See: Baijiu Cocktails)