For those of you who want to understand more on how Baijiu is made, the first thing to note is that it depends on the aroma. Sauce, strong, light and rice are made in slightly different ways and each distinction develops its own fascination with ingredient differences (See Baijiu Ingredients)and how those differences affect the taste (and indeed, aroma).
In general, the process starts with fermenting cooked sorghum with other grains, including Jiuqu. Jiuqu is made of crushed wheat, barley, and peas sometimes. It develops yeast and fungi under temperature and humidity adjustments. Mixing jiuqu with sorghum creates enzymes which break down the grains and help to create Baijiu’s many flavours. The yeast leads to ethanol.
Grains are soaked in hot water and as they expand, crushed jiuqu is added to the grains. The mixture is then fermented in a pit or jar depending on what aroma of Baijiu is being made. Fermentation is when sugars, alcohol, amino acids and various flavour compounds really come together. For example, sauce aroma Baijiu will start to smell more like soy and is dominated by the market leader, Moutai.
With Baijiu, one process which really separates it from other spirits is that fermentation and distillation are done on wet, but solid, cooked grain. With other spirits, they tend to use a filtered grain extract or grain soup.
Sauce Aroma Baijiu – Guizhou province
Soy, umami, mushroom, caramel, bitter herbs. A baked, even nutty flavour. Ultimately, the soy essence is powerful in sauce aroma Baijiu. Sorghum is fermented in stone brick pits 8 times in the course of a year. The result is a more pungent “sauce” with umami and soy as key characteristics. Moutai is considered a drink of choice for high class meals in China. The price reflects this, something we detail more in our blog on Baijiu brands.
Strong Aroma Baijiu – Sichuan province
Fruity fragrance, star anise, pepper, pineapple, banana. The strong aroma Baijiu is continuously fermented in mud pits which evolve each year to add more flavour. For example, the brand Wuliangye has 30,000 pits and the oldest has been in operation for….600 years! To expand on this, it means that strong aroma Baijiu is made in pits which have a mash of fermentation that can actually be centuries old. Don’t let that put you off. And don’t be put off by the word “strong”. The aroma notes as above can be quite fragrant and less pungent than sauce aroma Baijiu. However, as with a spirit such as whisky, where Islay can be pungent compared to the floral notes of Speyside, it is no less palatable and the same holds true with Baijiu. It really is more about personal preference.
Light Aroma Baijiu – Northern China
Floral notes, mild fruit, chamomile. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security with light aroma Baijiu. This particular aroma can bottle at over 50% alcohol volume so it is not “light” in the sense of being less strong in alcohol content! Light aroma Baijiu is made from sorghum and sometimes qu from wheat bran or barley and peas. If you can get past the strength of light aroma, it can be a good starting point in terms of flavours as both strong aroma and sauce aroma seem to have more powerful tasting notes. However, the alcohol strength does make it perhaps harder to immediately start with. The process of making light aroma baijiu is characterised by short production cycles with minimal ageing periods, in stone pots or pits.
Rice Aroma Baijiu – South-eastern China, mainly Guangxi and Guangdong provinces
Sweet, mellow, aromatic, smoky. Although rice aroma Baijiu is not widely available outside mainland China it could be argued as the most accessible aroma to start with, for a Western palate. Steamed grains of rice are added to the qu before water is added and the result gives it the more mellow notes overall. This process requires (sometimes) continuous distillation, which gives it that lighter palate. So the tasting note summary is more dry and delicate.
Baijiu Tasting summary
Overall, being introduced to Baijiu and the varied aromas involved is not that different from the hallowed regard malt whisky tasting enjoys or the increasing complexities of vodka, gin and rum. Even craft ale is enjoying a continued upsurge in quality, popularity and complexities. The difference with Baijiu can be attributed to some key things however:
- Very strong alcohol content (such as light aroma at 50%)
- Lingering notes of aniseed, pungent smoky essence and even a solvent edge
- Bitter notes
These are all present in many other spirits, it’s just that with Baijiu they seem to be the main association when really, a new drinker will experience much more floral notes, fruits and spices to the interesting palates Baijiu can bring forth. Ultimately, if you want to discover Baijiu then keep an open mind and take note of the different baijiu flavours that different aromas bring forth.