Baijiu is not just a drink, it is a category of drinks. Distillers across China have developed their own wrinkles on baijiu over the centuries. Since the 1950s the Chinese government has classified regional styles largely according to production method and ingredients. The current iteration breaks baijiu down by “aroma,” though something may be lost in translation.
Four principle styles that comprise the bulk of all baijiu: strong aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma and rice aroma. There are several other styles, some so specific that they refer to the spirits of a single distillery.
Choose a Classification
The pride of Northern China, light-aroma baijiu brings the heat to a frigid region. Traditionally fermented in stone jars, it can also be distilled in pits. It has short production cycles and low overhead, making it cheap and easy to produce. Moreover, it’s deadly strong, often bottled at 60% ABV or higher. There are two major sub-divisions of light aroma: erguotou and fenjiu.
At a Glance…
Nose: Floral, melon
Flavors: Dried apricot, pear, bitter herbs, pine
Fermentation Vessel: Stone jars or pits
Popular Brands: Red Star, Xinghuacun Fenjiu, Kinmen Kaoliang, Niulanshan
Aside from the “Big Four” there are many, many other styles of baijiu. Just how many depends on how you sort them, but a conservative estimate puts the total number at around a dozen. Often these styles borrow techniques from other styles, while others represent the eccentric workings of a single distillery. What follows is not an exhaustive list of known categories, but rather a few highlights.
Undoubtedly the most famous distillery to fall outside the major categories is Xifengjiu (West Phoenix Liquor) from Fengxiang (Phoenix Flight) County, Shaanxi Province. In the Chinese government’s first attempt at a baijiu classification system in the 1950s, feng or “phoenix” aroma was among the principal categories. Given the styles singular nature, though, it slid to the margins of the classification system.
So what makes a drink smell like a mythical bird? Like a light-aroma baijiu it uses qu made with wheat, barley and peas. Like a strong-aroma baijiu it is distilled from sorghum fermented in earthen pits. But those pits are scraped clean each year. For the coup de grace the spirit is aged in the “Seas of Alcohol,” giant rattan baskets lined with cloth solidified by oil, beeswax and pig’s blood. Fruity, grainy and fiery, it lives up to the legend.
Mix and Match
Mixed-aroma baijiu is another style that seeks to harmonize elements from throughout the wider baijiu-verse. To make a mixed aroma, one simply takes two or more baijius from different categories and blends them together. Most commonly it is a combination of strong and sauce aromas, though the exact combination and ratio of each is the blender’s prerogative.
Chi-aroma baijiu is named for douchi (d’oh chur), a popular Chinese condiment made from fermented beans. It is identical in production to a rice-aroma baijiu except for one significant twist: It is infused with pork fat during the aging process. The result is an oily libation with a slightly salty taste.
Rice Aroma Baijiu
Mellow and approachable rice-aroma baijiu comes from the southeastern provinces Guangxi and Guangdong. It is distilled entirely from rice and sticky rice fermented with rice-based small qu. A good argument can be made that rice aroma stands apart. It varies from other styles in three important ways: 1) Conversion of starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol are undertaken separately; 2) It is fermented and distilled in a semi-solid form; 3) It is often distilled using a continuous still. That said, it is inseparable from South China’s folk winemaking tradition and the world of baijiu is a good deal richer for it.
At a Glance…
Nose: Cooked rice, lemon
Flavors: Rice, flower tea, grass, honey
Ingredients: Long-grain rice, short-grain rice
Fermentation Vessel: Stone jars
Popular Brands: Guilin Sanhua, Kiukiang
Sauce Aroma Baijiu
Which sauce? Soy sauce. Popular with China’s movers and shakers, it is almost synonymous with its hometown Maotai, in southwest China’s Guizhou Province. It is distilled from sorghum fermented repeatedly in stone brick pits. As a style it is known for an intricate production process and a rich umami flavor. It is as challenging and rewarding a category as any of them.
At a Glance…
Nose: Soy sauce, roasted herbs
Flavors: Fermented bean, mushrooms, caramelized fruit
Fermentation Vessel: Stone brick pits
Popular Brands: Kweichow Moutai, Langjiu, Guotai
Strong Aroma Baijiu
Popular throughout China, strong-aroma baijiu is most commonly associated with Sichuan Province. It is an assertive, fruity drink built to battle with the region’s molten hot cuisine. And much like that cuisine, it is popular throughout the country. Strong aroma is the biggest sub-category of baijiu by market share and volume, accounting for more than two thirds of all baijiu production.
At a Glance…
Nose: Tropical fruit, barnyard funk
Flavors: Pineapple, banana, anise, white pepper, grass
Ingredients: Sorghum, sometimes mixed with other grains.
Fermentation Vessel: Earthen pits
Popular Brands: Luzhou Laojiao, Wuliangye, Jiannanchun, Yanghe