What packs a 110-proof punch, is kick-started with a funky item called qu (“chew”), and has an annual production that would fill 4,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools ? Baijiu! Here are a few frequently asked questions.
What’s World Baijiu Day?
It’s an annual event, held each August 9, to promote baijiu, a Chinese alcohol that is pronounced “bye joe” and translates to “white spirit”. Baijiu is a clear alcohol made from one or more grains and typically has a kick of 38 to 55 percent alcohol. It’s the world’s best-selling spirit. Get a two-minute lowdown here:
There is more baijiu produced than whiskey or vodka!?
Yes, and more than rum or gin, too. Baijiu represents about a third of global spirits sales. With annual production of over 20 billion bottles, or 10 million liters, it would take one hour to flow over Niagara Falls.
Then why haven’t I heard of it?
The vast majority of baijiu is made and consumed in China. It’s used for holidays, business meetings, gathering with friends, and occasions like weddings and Chinese New Year. The goal of World Baijiu Day is to introduce more people to this spirit through events in dozens of cities. Here is a map of the 2018 activities.
OK, so how is baijiu made?
It’s a diverse category. From tiny Mom ‘n’ Pop outfits to huge operations with national distribution, China has thousands of distilleries. They use one or multiple grains to make baijiu: sorghum is the top candidate but rice, corn, wheat and others are also used. Fermentation is done in everything from buried clay jars to centuries-old earth pits, and the distilled end product is aged in a variety of vessels. Oh, and it uses qu.
You mentioned that earlier. What is that?
Some people equate qu with yeast but it’s more complex. It’s a brick of compressed grains that is aged in a hot and humid room, and emerges loaded with mold, bacteria, yeast, even tiny bugs. It kicks off the two-step process of turning grain starches into sugar and then that sugar into alcohol. It’s quite unique.
Bugs in my booze? Hmm, what does it taste like?
Reviews range from palatable to paint nail polish-esque. It depends on what kind of baijiu you try and your particular tastes. Here are the four main styles in one sentence each.
Sauce aroma, associated with southwest China, tends to be quite funky—think savory herbs, soy sauce, stinky feet, anything with umami—and complex.
Strong aromas, also linked to the southwest, is fruitier—think tropical—and more phenolic, with a cleaner and sharper, but potent, body.
Light aroma, from the north, tends to be more neutral, and can have bread-y, savory and slightly sweet characteristics—one sub-category, fenjiu, can seem salty.
Your experience also depends on how you try it. Many people are initially turned off baijiu because the traditional way of drinking it is ganbei-style.
Ganbei is a toast that translates to “dry glass” and means “bottoms up”. Newcomers who knock back dozens of high-proof shots at lukewarm temperature don’t always tend to become fans of baijiu. That’s why the informal theme of World Baijiu Day is “beyond ganbei”.
So, basically sipping it rather than shooting it?
It means making baijiu accessible in creative ways. Some venues feature cocktails, infusions and liqueurs. Others do seminars, food pairings or tasting flights to people can try different styles side by side. Some even use baijiu as an item in foods, like chocolate, pizza and gelato. One chef deep-fried it. And this year, there will be a cool twist, with deep-fried baijiu ice cream.
And these events are held all over the world?
Yes, there were 30 events in 20 cities in 2018 and more are expected this year. There are also a number of overseas baijiu brands. Some use baijiu sourced from continental China, such as byeJoe and Confucius Wisdom in the United States, while others use their own home ingredients, such as Taizi in New Zealand, Vinn in the U.S. and Dragon’s Mist in Canada.
Sounds good. When is it?
World Baijiu Day is on August 9, a date that sounds auspicious as its the eighth (ba) month and ninth (jiu) day. But some venues prefer to do multi-day events. Consider it a kind of baiju-fest. You can find a list of partners here.