Distinctly pungent and with a fiery high proof, baijiu is the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the world. A feat achieved alms exclusively because of the People’s Republic of China’s sheer population size and their penchant for one-upmanship during business dinners where businessmen down shots after shot of this national drink to see who can imbibe the most. Outside of the country, this white spirit remains an enigma to many drinkers. Here in Singapore, there has been a growing effort to push baijiu appreciation.
A clear distilled liquor, baijiu is usually made from sorghum, although other grains such as rice, glutinous rice, wheat, barley, or millet may be used. A naturally cultivated fermentation starter made from pulverised wheat or barley, or steamed rice is added to the mash of grain and water to aid in the quick conversion of starch to alcohol, hence allowing the final spirit to reach its high levels of alcohol by volume — anywhere between 35-65%. The starter’s high microbial content also has a major effect on the aromatics of the final baijiu. The fermented grains are then distilled and the resulting spirit aged for a few months or up to decades in ceramic jars.
What Is Baijiu?
Baijiu is generally divided into four common categories based on their distinct flavour and aromatic profiles: Rice aroma, liquids lighter in flavour and typically sweeter and mellower; Light aroma, spirits with higher percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) but lighter aroma and easier on the palate; Strong aroma, higher percentage ABV spirit with more complex flavours and aromas; and Sauce aroma, baijiu with savoury flavours and complex aromas similar to the umami notes of premium soy sauce.
For all its complexities and prestige in China (at the top end, the very finest baijiu can command up to hundreds of thousands of dollars), the lack of awareness and education on baijiu accounts for its relative obscurity outside of China.
Ang Chien Sern, manager at Ang Leong Huat, a supplier of many baijiu brands and Chinese wines and spirits here in Singapore, laments that China products are unfortunately still viewed as inferior; baijiu’s high alcohol content also makes it seem like just a spirit to “get drunk with” and not for appreciation.
“It’s such an old school kind of drink. The lack of information from the Chinese markets means even sommeliers and bartenders here don’t understand it fully,” says Gerald Lu, sommelier and general manager at Praelum Wine Bistro.
But awareness of baijiu is certainly rising — albeit slowly.
Google saw a 53.5% increase in searches for “baijiu” in Singapore over the last three years compared to the previous period — signalling an increasing willingness among Singaporeans to find out more about the spirit. Its availability has also risen. One can now find a good variety of baijiu whether at the airport or on an online grocery store. Bars, too, are increasingly listing baijiu and serving it both neat, and in cocktails.
How To Appreciate Baijiu
So how should one approach drinking baijiu? Ang admits that there is no real culture of baijiu connoisseurship in China today. But because of the beverage’s dizzyingly high alcohol content, he recommends taking “a small sip first (few drops) and let the baijiu linger around your tongue, then a bigger sip or a shot to feel the aroma and flavours bursting in your mouth as the liquid glides down to your stomach”.
“A good baijiu has many layers of complexity in both its nose and palate. This complexity is elevated through the use of high quality ingredients such as clear, fresh water straight from the source, and carefully distilled high-grade sorghum,” explains Daniel Luo, Ambassador of Langjiu, a Sichuan-based producer of fine baijiu
As the complexities and pungency of sauce aroma baijiu can be quite an acquired taste, Luo suggests to start out with the more approachable rice or light aroma before proceeding to the stronger and sauce aroma varieties of baijiu.
“The best way to start [appreciating baijiu] is by drinking it in cocktails,” shares Lu. “I find that they go very well with sweet citruses like yuzu and passionfruit. Once people start to understand and accept the baijiu taste, then they can move on to enjoy it on its own.
Luo concurs that “for first-timers, trying baijiu in the form of a cocktail would serve as a great introduction to the Chinese liquor”. Which is why Langjiu has worked with a handful of local bars and restaurants to come up with baijiu tipples using Hong Hua Lang (Langjiu 10 years old) to tickle the uninitiated drinker’s palate.
Komyuniti at Yotel Singapore serves up Two Weeks Menu, a savoury cocktail that uses shiitake mushroom foam and pickled shallot powder to help ease the imbiber towards the baijiu’s umami flavours, while strawberry puree and lemon juice provides a refreshing sweet-sour complement. For a refreshing tipple, the Bloom cocktail at Oxwell & Co plays up the baijiu’s floral notes with Maraschino liqueur, sakura concentrate, osmanthus, marigold and lemon soda.
Over at The Single Cask, The Silk Road cocktail accentuates and rounds out the nuanced flavours of the Hong Hua Lang (Langjiu 10) with the addition of fruitiness from lychee syrup and peach liquor, and smokiness from Lapsang souchong tea. Other Langjiu cocktails include Lang 1898 at Xi Yan Maxwell and Dou Hua Jiu at Telok Ayer Arts Club.
If you’re the intrepid and curious sort, Xi Yan Maxwell and Jiu Zhuang Bar serves Langjiu neat, while other brands of baijiu can be enjoyed at Chinese restaurants like Spice World Hot Pot and Forest at Resorts World Sentosa.