Exploring the 4 Major Styles of Baijiu
By now, you’ve probably heard of baijiu, essentially the national spirit of China. But what the heck is it? Baijiu draws comparisons to everything from vodka to rhum agricole, and while it is arguably closest to vodka in construction, it’s really a broad category of spirits that refers to a wide category of Chinese spirits made from grain. There are four major recognized styles of the spirit, all with odd names – rice aroma, light aroma, strong aroma, and sauce aroma – and as the Drink Baijiu advocacy group notes, “they are as distinct as rum is to tequila.” We’ll get to that in a minute.
Baijiu is a crystal clear spirit and can be made from just about anything, but all of the Chinese spirits tasted here are made from sorghum, which is the most common base. (The U.S. baijiu in the mix is made from rice.) What distinguishes baijiu from other white spirits is, in part, its fermentation. Strong aroma and sauce aroma baijiu are fermented in earthen pits over a period of several weeks to several months, using wild yeasts that give both styles a distinct pungency. Light aroma baijiu is fermented in stone jars for less time. As well, don’t mistake baijiu and soju for one another: Baijiu is distilled to a much higher proof, and is often bottled at 50% abv or higher.
The good folks at Drink Baijiu recently put together a sampler kit of four baijiu representing the four different styles, so westerners like me could see what the fuss was all about. As I’ve noted in prior baijiu reviews, regardless of the style, I have to say it remains an acquired taste, similar to drinking cachaca or pisco on their own.
Vinn Distillery Baijiu – We’ve actually encountered this Oregon-born baijiu before. This “rice aroma style” baijiu is the only baijiu made 100% in the U.S. today. Distilled from brown rice, it’s a pungent, earthy, mushroomy spirit, relatively light on the nose but heavy on the palate with notes of cereal, burnt toast, and armpit funk. Largely unsatisfying, with a lengthy, grainy, and musty conclusion. 80 proof. C-
Kinmen Kaoliang Baijiu – Distilled from sorghum, bottled in the “light aroma style,” the second most popular style of China, one which originated in the northern part of the country. Somewhat fresher and sharper on the nose, with some citrus peel and floral notes showing. The palate is heavy duty at 58% alcohol, but not unappealing, offering notes of buttered brioche, baking spice, and candied berries. A brewed tea note emerges over time, as does a more savory cereal/grain element. I can see the appeal here. 116 proof. B-
Ming River Baijiu – “Strong aroma style,” distilled from sorghum. The most popular style of baijiu in China, closely associated with Sichuan Province in the southwest. Ming River is produced by Luzhou Laojiao, China’s oldest continuously operating distillery (and who put together this tasting experience). It’s easy to see the draw here: Ming River has a pungent nose that’s full of overripe melon notes, exotic tropical fruit, and a perfumed note reminiscent of clean linens and lavender. The palate is equally aggressive and even fruitier, a big step away from the lighter, grainier notes of the above styles, with a big apple cider-meets-mothballs character permeating the lengthy finish. 90 proof. B+ [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
Moutai Prince Baijiu – The cryptically named “sauce aroma style” is a regional specialty from southern China, and today it is considered the baijiu to serve at special feasts and parties. The name derives from aromas that are similar to soy sauce, but for my money it’s closer to roasted chestnuts, dark chocolate, and coffee beans than soy. The palate of this sorghum distillate is where it loses me. Extremely pungent with notes of old, fermenting fruit, raw mushroom, and a bizarro mix of petrol and simple syrup, it’s hard to even sip on. 106 proof. C-
Wow baijiu. I was tardy to the baijiu party. I’m definitely intrigued!
I appreciate seeing baijiu getting some coverage but I would say assigning letter grades to examples from a spirit category you don’t like or appreciate is kind of meaningless. Do you have an example of a sauce aroma style baijiu you would rate an A? It’s a bit like giving Lagavulin a C- and saying it smells like a burning bandaid factory.
Andy – I’ve thought about this question a lot and the answer is no, I don’t have a sauce aroma baijiu that I’d rate an A because that’s the only sauce aroma baijiu I’ve ever had. This is a new category for me (and, I’m sure, for 99% of the readership), but I figured I had to start somewhere, and this comparative sampler was the best option available. There are plenty of spirits I don’t necessarily “like” — such as cachaca, pisco, and grappa — but which I do appreciate in well-crafted expressions. I have awarded high marks to spirits in all three of these categories — and I hope to keep delving into baijiu to suss out the best expressions while expanding my own knowledge base. Thanks for the comment!