If you’re looking to start a new collection, you could do worse than to look into baijiu. This Chinese alcohol may not on the tip of many tongues in the west right now, but that’s destined to change soon.
Baijiu is an industrial-strength spirit, so it may take a little adjustment before it becomes palatable. It’s consumed with abandon in China, by pivotal state figures and the common man alike. Those of us with delicate and unsuspecting western taste buds, however, famously struggle with the high alcohol content.
Even if you never adjust to the taste, however, it makes an astounding collectors item. Collectible baijiu is a huge business in China. The liqueur industry is worth an estimated £3.5 billion, and rising. This leaves plenty of opportunity for investment and future returns.
The collector’s market of baijiu is soaring in China, overtaking a previous interest in vintage wines. We cannot put any better than Liu Yuan, who holds the post of general secretary of the National Association for Liquor and Spirits Circulation in China:
“Moutai has become China’s Louis Vuitton. Given the limited output and steep price, it’s a good way for officials to carry favour, and for the rich to show off their wealth.”
When a bottle of baijiu is opened in China, all eyes will be upon the label. Casually pouring a hugely exclusive and reputable brand can do wonders for a reputation in society – and failing to read the room, and providing a substandard selection from a cellar, can be a real faux pas.
Let’s take a look at the three core elements that make a bottle of baijiu collectible, separating the everyday from the extraordinary. If you’re looking to pack out a cellar with baijiu, you may as well pick the very best!
All baijiu is precious in China, but this does not mean that all baijiu is equal. A brand that you’d pick up at a discount supermarket is very different to that which is served at a state banquet. Just like a guest at 10 Downing Street would be expected to sip upon something available for under £5 at the closest corner shop, a guest in China will be provided with only the very best baijiu available.
Baijiu brands are typically named after the region that hosts their distillery. Like champagne or Bordeaux wines, assurance that baijiu originated in a reputable region is a big selling point. The most reputable and luxurious brand of Baijiu is undoubtedly Kweichow Moutai, found in southwest China. This small township is the home of a state-sponsored distillery, and it remains a hugely popular and celebrated choice of baijiu brand. Not everybody can afford Moutai, which adds a little prestige by itself.
If you can somehow lay your hands on an aged bottle that dates to before the 1950s, you will have a genuine collector’s item in your possession. Prior to the government stepping in and realizing that baijiu was big business, there were three separate distilleries in the area.
The products of their labours remain prestigious to this day, but if you can pick something up from one of the previous independent brewers (Lay Mau in particular), you will raise substantial funds at auction. Don’t despair if you can’t find – or afford – Moutai, however. Wuliangye, Luzhou Laojiao and Fenjiu are also reputable and collectible Baijiu brands.
Like all alcohol, baijiu exponentially increases in value as it ages. A brand of baijiu that dates back decades can reach a huge sum at auction. As tradition and culture are so important in China, the age of their alcohol is particularly pivotal. The most valuable bottle of baijiu of all time was a Lay Mau, which sold for over a £1million at auction.
We have mentioned just how popular Moutai is as a brand of baijiu. This comes with a side effect – manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand! If you pick up a contemporary bottle now, you may be able to turn a profit sooner than you think.
With the alcohol business so important to China’s national coffers, it’s tough to imagine Moutai production running completely dry. As it becomes harder and harder to produce the drink in the quantities that consumers desire, there may be a market for third-party sales.
Baijiu that dates back to the 1990s is comparatively easy to find, and thus will not raise substantial sums of money. This was the golden age of the spirit’s production, and it was distilled and bottled at a rate of knots. If you can find an extremely rare collector’s edition, however, money can still be made.
Baijiu from the 1960s and 1970s is considerably more valuable, as China was living with famine during the period. This had a substantial impact on the ability to create baijiu. If you can date back even further, expect to hunt high and low but raise some real money.
Sadly, the collectability and popularity of baijiu has led to a number of counterfeit bottles flooding the market. Whenever an item shows popularity, opportunistic types will attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of investors. Before spending big on a bottle of baijiu, ensure that it’s genuine.
Ned Zhang, who works within the wine department of Christie’s Asia, has some particular advice to help with this. He claims, “it’s best to invest in limited editions, commemorative editions, or Chinese zodiac editions. Even better if you can find one with the original carton case, which will be worth about 20% more than one without it.”
You could take a serious hit to your savings, and your pride, if you’re duped by an artificial bottle of baijiu. Do your homework, and learn what separates the genuine article from the pale imitations. Investment in this spirit is not a get-rich-quick scheme, but it can pay huge dividends if you do it right.
If you can tick all three of these boxes with a bottle of baijiu, hold onto it. If it makes it to auction, you could be staring down the barrel of a substantial sum of money. In an increasingly uncertain world, with financial markets turning on a sixpence, interest in baijiu appears to be an ever-present.