As part of the ongoing effort to project Chinese culture, or “soft power”, abroad, a baijiu college has been established in Sichuan province, at a cost of 400 million yuan (US$58 million), with the goal of training sommeliers who specialise in the eponymous tipple. It is hoped that graduates from the college will help make the hitherto unfamiliar baijiu roll off people’s tongues, and down their throats, in the same way that gin, tequila, vodka, whisky and sake do.

The “national drink” of China, baijiu (literally “white liquor”) is distilled from grains such as sorghum, rice or wheat, which are fermented with jiuqu, a starter culture of different moulds, yeasts, and bacteria. Like whisky, wine or any other alcoholic spirit, the quality ranges from the cheap and very nasty to the sublime, although the ambrosia end of the spectrum comes with hefty price tags to match. Among the many varieties of baijiu, the most recognised is probably Kweichow Moutai’s Maotai, which comes in a distinctive red-and-white ceramic bottle.

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Produced in the town of Maotai, in Guizhou, a backwater province that neighbours Sichuan, the liquor is  said to exude a scent redolent of savoury sauces, a quality that is elusive to the untrained nose in much the same manner as alleged notes of licorice, berries and whatnot in an expensive Bordeaux are obscured to the ordinary wine drinker. Rather, Maotai’s lingering fragrance and complex mouthfeel have been described as harsh by the uninitiated.

Despite having a relatively high alcohol content of around 50%, connoisseurs of Maotai claim that it does not cause hangovers, an assertion that many would certainly dispute.

The recent history of Maotai is well documented. Several distilleries operated in the town from the 19th century to the early 1950s, when the state acquired and merged the three biggest. Today, Kweichow Moutai is a partially state-owned enterprise that is one of the most valuable liquor companies in the world.

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But there are those who claim that Maotai can be traced back two millennia, to 135BC. In that year, Tang Meng, an emissary of the Western Han dynasty, visited Nanyue, an independent kingdom whose territory covered parts of present-day Guangdong, Guangxi, and northern Vietnam. There, Tang tasted something called jujiang, which locals said originated from the region of Shu (present-day Sichuan).

Detailed analysis of historical records, together with some intelligent guesswork by historians, suggest that jujiang was, in fact, produced in the state of Yelang, a confederation of non-Han Chinese tribes located in present-day Guizhou. It was this link with Guizhou that prompted many to make the spurious connection between that ancient tipple and modern Maotai. Some even erroneously claim that the second character in jujiang (枸酱) refers to the sauce-like aroma that is a defining feature of Maotai.

Even if it’s untrue, the story of a 2,000-year-old past makes a nice tale, especially for those who are trying to sell Maotai to the rest of the world. With the right marketing strategy, coupled with a redesign of the dated packaging to make it look less like a bottle of drain cleaner, it is not inconceivable that Maotai, as well as other varieties of baijiu, will one day be recognised and enjoyed by the rest of the world.