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Ask the Bai-ologist

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Open questions Answered questions

Open Questions

Case Number 004 Which chemical compound is most directly responsible for baijiu burps?
Case Number 001 When did the Chinese stop using the stacked-pot still and switch to the separable pot and condenser model? Which distillery was the first to use the contemporary design?

Answered Questions

Case Number 011 Emaic asks: Have there been any efforts to protect Baijiu by way of "appellation of origin" or "denomination of origin", which protects other alcoholic drinks like Champagne or Tequila?

There has not yet been any formal attempt to protect regional production of baijiu. I suspect that this is in part due to the fact that while most baijiu styles have a regional point of origin, many are now produced throughout China. That said, in April 2020 the China Alcoholic Drinks Association, the official alcohol industry regulatory body, changed the official English-language of baijiu to "Chinese baijiu," suggesting that they may be moving in a more protectionist direction.

Case Number 010 Jack asks about a Chinese friend who: [I]nsists baijiu improves in the bottle like wine (which shouldn't be chemically possible for a filtered, distilled spirit with no botanicals added) while I've insisted that, like whisky, once it's bottled it'll stay as it is. Anyone know how to settle this? It's a debate of twelve years' standing!

Baijiu contains a lot of volatile chemical compounds, some of which are stabilized during the aging process prior to blending and bottling, because interaction with oxygen will alter the chemical makeup of any alcohol, distilled or not. This is why you might notice a wine "opening up" in your glass with time, or slight differences in the flavor of your baijiu over the course of your meal. That said, an unopened bottle of baijiu contains very little air, so the change would be very slight over time. You'd notice changes much more quickly, if you had a halfway empty, opened bottle, but the point of a bottle of baijiu is to be consumed in one sitting, so most people don't have many of those.

Case Number 009 Kevin asks: Do you have any Mao Tai?

Sorry, Kevin. None to share. I actually don't sell any baijiu on this site.

Case Number 008 Simon asks: If I want to make baijiu for a research project, but I need qu. Do you know where I can get it?

Making baijiu on your own is tricky business. I've certainly never been brave enough to try, but I think it can be done. The tricky part if you don't have the patience, or a working knowledge of biochemistry, is sourcing qu. It's basically impossible to get wheat qu—the kind used to make most sorghum baijius in China—outside of China, but rice qu (used to make rice wines and rice baijius) can be found at most Asian supermarkets. It is sold in little packets typically looks like this:

You should be looking for these characters on the packet: 酒曲 or 酒麴 (jiu qu, simplified and traditional characters). And if you do make the attempt, let us know! We'll happily share the results.

Case Number 007 Mark asks: Is baijiu always a blended product? Is there any brand that they have like "single baijiu" or a style that refers to baijiu unblended? Is there any baijiu aged in oak barrels instead of vessels?

Blending is the standard practice in contemporary baijiu production, and there are a number of reasons for this. With more complex, pit-fermented baijiu the mash cannot be distilled in a single pot still cycle. Sometimes it takes dozens of batches to get through a single pit. This means that the flavor of the resulting distillate will vary remarkably in quality depending on which part of the pit the mash originates (top, middle or bottom). Additionally, the qu (fermentation agent) is responsible for much of the mash's flavor, and the microorganisms that live inside the qu will vary depending on the season in which they are harvested. So even "simpler" styles, like light-aroma baijiu, will have a very different flavor when produced in the fall than it will to those produced in the spring. To achieve consistency in a brand's flavor profile over time, not to mention that complexity that baijiu-lovers crave, one requires a talented blender to bring order to all the inconsistent parts.

This was not always the case. It was brought to my attention recently that the practice of blending baijiu may be a relatively modern phenomenon. Before the 1950s, I've been told, the standard practice was to move the distillate from the still to the ceramic aging vessel, and to ladle it out as is for consumers directly from the jar. This notion seems reinforced by the common practice of country-style wine shops throughout China, which typically consist of several rows of ceramic jars filled with various huangjius and baijius (and infusions thereof). Though today's wine shops rarely make their own baijiu on-site, preferring to use the products of local distilleries, which are no doubt blended products.

Today a single source baijiu is a rare thing to encounter, but if you visit many distilleries across China, you are likely to be treated to some yuanjiu 原酒 (original alcohol)—unaged, unblended baijiu straight from the still. Sometimes you are given aged baijiu from a single aging vessel by way of comparison. I recommend both experiences if you find yourself near a baijiu distillery. But for my money, a blended baijiu is likely to be a more refined product. At least at this stage of baijiu's development.

Then there's the question of wood-aged baijiu. I've had it once or twice, though I can't say I much cared for them. The problem in my experience was that wood aging was used as a gimmick rather than a well-considered practice. The creator had aged it in wood, because they thought they could make more money off of a rare, wood-aged baijiu. But most baijiu manufacturers have no experience with wood-aging, and absent the craft, one is left with an out-of-balance drink whose components feel rather thoughtlessly thrown together. Could it be done well? I think that it could, and I would be eager to try it.

Case Number 006 Marc asks: What's the average time of fermentation for the different baijiu styles ?

Good question, Marc, and one that has a major influence on the flavor of the resulting baijiu.

I typically taste baijiu newcomers in this order: rice aroma, light aroma, strong aroma and sauce aroma, which corresponds with increasingly lengthy fermentation periods. The reason is because as you taste the flavors will become increasingly funky and complex—this has to do with the creations of more esters and aldehydes, but for the purposes simplicity, longer fermentation periods = more flavors, and more intense flavors.

With rice-aroma baijiu you are looking at a fermentation period of a few days to a week, light-aroma baijiu is about 3-4 weeks, strong-aroma baijiu about 2-3 months, and sauce-aroma baijiu goes for about 1-2 months per cycle. You might have noticed that I said sauce-aroma had the longest fermentation period but that the cycle period listed above is shorter than that of strong-aroma baijiu. Nothing is ever simple when it comes to baijiu, and the confusion comes from the fact that the three main categories of baijiu made from sorghum (light, strong, and sauce), can all use multiple fermentation periods. With certain kinds of light-aroma baijiu—Fenjiu in particular— you use two cycles of fermentation, adding rice husks to the mash before the second cycle, which means the sorghum mash is fermented for a month at the first distillation, and two months at the second. Strong-aroma baijiu uses a continuous cycle where about 3/4 of the mash is mixed with 1/4 fresh grain in the next cycle, so part of the mash has been fermenting for 2-3 months in the first cycle, and a diminishing quantity of grain has been fermenting for much longer in each subsequent cycle. With sauce-aroma baijiu you add fresh grains into the mash after the first two cycles, but add no new grain (only qu) to the mash for the remaining eight cycles. This means the mash in the last cycle has been fermenting for 7-8 months.

This indicates that blending plays a central role in the creation of complexity in baijiu. Because distilleries work with so many distillates produced from mashes of various ages, you need someone with a sensitive palate and skilled hand to bring them all into focus and create the most pleasing and layered results.

Case Number 005 Ian asks: With the goal of better appreciating the wide ranging flavours of Baijiu and generally tuning your tastes/senses to the flavour profiles available in Baijiu do you have a top 5 or 10 Baijiu's to try?

Baijiu is indeed a world of spirits, so you're right to ask for an atlas. It can be tricky finding baijiu outside of China, so I'm going to focus on what's available internationally, providing two suggestions for each of the four big styles and a couple lesser-known styles.
For strong aroma: Our sponsor Ming River (or other Luzhou Laojiao brands); Jiannanchun
For light aroma: Xinghuacun Laobai Fenjiu; Kinmen Kaoliang
For sauce: Kweichow Moutai; Guotai
For rice: Vinn; Guilin Sanhua
Wildcards: Xifengjiu (phoenix aroma); Jiuguijiu (fuyu aroma)

Case Number 003 What makes some baijiu cheap and other baijiu very expensive?

Three major factors determine a baijiu's price: 1) Quality of the blend. Baijiu is batch distilled and its quality relies on a number of natural variables. A distillery's expensive baijius will use a blend with the highest quality distillates, whereas a cheaper baijiu's blend can contain more lower-quality distillates and in some cases neutral spirits. 2) Overhead costs. Pit fermented baijius—like strong aroma and sauce aroma—require long production cycles, more floor space and higher labor costs, thus they tend to be more expensive. 3) Brand reputation.

Case Number 002 Why does strong-aroma baijiu taste like pineapples?

Strong-aroma baijiu contains a large amount of the ester (a chemical compound usually created by the interaction of alcohol and acid) known as ethyl hexanoate, which can also be found in pineapples.