China's discovery of grape wine is a recent phenomenon. The traditional alcoholic beverage in China is baijiu, also known as shaojiu, which has 5,000 years of history and is still popular. According to management consulting firm McKinsey & Co, China's baijiu market is valued at US$23 billion.
The Drinks Business magazine defines baijiu as a spirit "made by the distillation of fermented mash that is the result of processes of saccharification [breaking down complex sugars to simple sugars] and fermentation by an active starter [jiuqu] on steam cooked grains", usually sorghum.
Baijiu is produced throughout China, with Sichuan province accounting for about 30 per cent. Famous producers include Wuliangye and Luzhou Laojiao.
The spirit is an acquired taste and has a relatively high alcohol content, typically between 40 per cent and 60 per cent. In appearance, it can range from transparent to a pale yellow, depending on ageing and the process of oxidation.
Baijiu is categorised by its aromatic profile, there being seven different styles. On the heavier side is a type called ester rich (sauce style), the most famous example of which is probably mao-tai, with its rich, intense earthy aromatics. Other intense styles include luzhou laojiao, which is made from sorghum and rice and now produced exclusively by the Luzhou Laojiao distillery, and sanhuajiu, from Guangxi, and also derived from rice. Lighter styles include fenjiu, from Shanxi, characterised by its delicate and clean finish. For something moderate, try xifengjiu, from Shaanxi.
Beijing's austerity campaign has hit the industry hard, causing sales of baijiu, and grape wine, to plummet. A new future for baijiu, however, may lie in the West, where it is being reinvented as a cocktail. Lumos, in New York, the first westernised baijiu bar, boasts a menu of 60 cocktails made from the fiery spirit. One popular concoction is Sesame Colada, a blend of baijiu, mangosteen, sesame paste, pineapple and agave.
Mao-tai is arguably the most famous and most expensive baijiu. In 2011, a bottle of 1955 Five Star mao-tai was auctioned for 1.26 million yuan.
According to Ian Wo, of Googut Wines & Spirits, mao-tai appreciates in price as its flavours evolve and improve during cellaring.
Premier Zhou Enlai famously served Richard Nixon mao-tai during the American president's historic 1972 trip to China. In 1979, American diplomat Henry Kissinger said to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, "I think if we drink enough mao-tai we can solve anything."
Here are three baijius to try.
Guizhou Dongjiu, 2001
Made with more than 130 types of herbs. Think of it as the Chinese equivalent of gin.
Delicate, herbal with minty notes. Rich, concentrated and quite mellow. HK$780
China Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fenjiu Distillery, 2007
Restrained, herbal, salty aromatics. Fairly neutral and delicate. Expresses purity akin to gin/vodka. HK$380
Kweichow Moutai, 1999 (Whiteskin)
This vintage mao-tai has pungent notes of fermented bean curd and savoury, earthy, blue cheese. Powerful, well integrated, with some saline notes and very long finish. Before release, the mao-tai is aged for a minimum of three years, giving the spirit a pale yellow hue. HK$19,000
The baijius are available in Hong Kong from Googut Wine & Spirits (tel: 2470 8127).