Everything You Need to Know About Baijiu, the World's Most Popular Liquor
Have you heard about baijiu? You will soon. Pungent, distinctive, and clear as mineral water, the national drink of China is often cited as the most consumed liquor in the world. Despite whiskey's grip on the globe, and the boom of agave spirits like tequila and mezcal, it's the PRC's sheer population alone—1.4 billion strong—that gives baijiu the considerable edge.
However, outside of China, the dynamite-in-a-bottle booze remains mostly a novelty. (Allegedly, even the baijiu bought outside China is bought mostly by Chinese people capturing discounted prices at duty-free kiosks.) But that could all be about to change. Lately, the spirit has been popping up abroad, from London to New York, while also evolving and taking on new iterations back home. Here, a brief intro to baijiu, as well as how to experience it on your next trip to Beijing.
It's made for shooting.
The first thing you notice about baijiu is the smell; it doesn’t beckon a taste the way rum or tequila might. The sweetly diminutive glasses typically used to serve the drink give a hint as to how to consume it—in tight proportions, with gusto. It is sipped like a shot, but using a smaller amount; that’s likely due to many bottles' dizzyingly high alcohol content, which averages around 50-65 percent ABV. (In comparison, rum or vodka typically clock in at 40 percent.)
Drink it among good company.
In a culture that emphasizes social interconnectivity, baijiu is the brew that binds. Unlike a glass of wine, which might be consumed in reflective solitude, this spirit is for large gatherings and usually paired with a multi-course meal. Round, raucous banquet tables are the native environment of baijiu. Those who have traveled to China for business or leisure have likely been introduced to baijiu in the kind of environment where stomaching the strong tipple seems like either a test of fortitude, or a high school dare.
There are many different kinds of baijius.
To note, baijiu is not a singular kind of drink, but rather, a whole class of liquors. There are four widely recognized flavor types: rice, light, strong, and sauce. However, beyond this, there is a wide spectrum of flavors from floral and fruity, to savory and spiced. Baijiu has evolved throughout China, so it has taken on the full range of flavors found throughout the country.
When in Beijing, drink Red Star.
For Beijing, the most popular type of baijiu is made from sorghum and goes through two distillations; this class of baijiu is called erguotou (pronounced ‘ar-gwo-toe’ and literally meaning “top of the second pot”). The most popular brand of erguotou, Red Star, is native to Beijing. It is eye-poppingly cheap at less than $2 USD per bottle, and packs a heavy punch at 60 percent ABV. A blue-collar friendly brand, its distinctive green glass bottle can be spotted in the front basket of rickshaw bicycle drivers all over.
(Pro Tip: Red Star has been around for as long as Beijing has been a capital (about 800 years), so its development is intimately tied to the development of the city. To learn a bit more about the earliest days of its production, up to modern times, visit the Beijing Erguotou Museum in the Qianmen district. While, unfortunately, most of the signage is solely in Mandarin, there are self-explanatory dioramas and artifacts. If culinary culture and history is of interest, it’s worth the trip.)
For a baijiu primer, hit up Capital Spirits.
To get a different kind of introduction to this fiery tipple, stop in to Capital Spirits. The "world’s first bar dedicated to Baijiu and craft liquor" has a cool, welcoming vibe—once you find it, that is. Operating out of converted hutong residences (narrow alleyways in residential areas) can be a precarious affair, due to periodic changes in licensing policy, and/or the proclivity of neighbors to try and eject a business. Thus, signage for Capital Spirits is discreet, and one has to buzz an intercom to get inside. But the speakeasy space ensures an intimate experience, making it a perfect setting to get familiar with a liquor that can take some time to warm up to.
Capital Spirits’ baijiu flight is a great introduction, and the staff's commitment to educating patrons comes through in the bilingual index-sized cards presented with the flights, which start at a minimum of four thimbles, and for the truly ambitious, go up to twelve. The cards include a helpful overview of flavor notes that might be found in each sip, which encourages drinkers to sip more attentively, rather than scrambling to stomach the stinging drink. Best of all, the bartenders are genuinely affable, and passionate about sharing their geeky love of China’s prized drink. Come with an open mind, and you might just leave a believer.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.