Whether you're into natural wine, sour beer, or funky Jamaican rum, baijiu is basically lightning in a bottle, and unlike anything else in the world.

By Andrew Parks
February 01, 2019
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Baijiu straight from the sill - Photo by Andrew Parks

If there's one stop that stands out along Jordan Porter’s top-rated Chengdu Classics tour—aside from a heavily spiced, and deeply savory, heap of shredded, barbecued rabbit—it's the alley that's full of the longtime expat’s favorite pungent and pickled foods, including peanuts, mustard greens, garlic, radishes, and a fermented tofu that strikes fear in the hearts of most Westerners. Even more novel in the flavor profile department is a nearby stall that specializes in paojiu, a DIY form of infused baijiu. For those who are unfamiliar, baijiu is a vast category of clear yet complex spirits that’s played a prominent role in China’s drinking culture since the Ming Dynasty. Fermented sorghum is often the root of its secret recipes, although other grains—including rice, wheat, corn, and millet—pop up in proprietary blends throughout the country. 

Chengdu Food Tours - Photo by Andrew Parks

Due to its distinct smell, baijiu is categorized by its bouquet; strong, light, sauce (as in soy) and rice aromas make up most of the market. Paojiu softens the Sichuan province's steady diet of strong aroma baijiu with sugar and fruit (sour plums, cherries, persimmons), medicinal herbs (ginseng, cinnamon, ginger), or more beastly additives, like ants, snakes, and animal penises. Aside from making baijiu more palatable—they often cut ABV percentages down to the level of a strong wine—these infusions often have bigger health benefits in mind, from balancing one's chi to aiding digestion after a marathon meal. Think of it as a tincture that gets you twisted, but everyone's writing their own prescription.

"The thing about paojiu is it isn't dominated by brands," explains Porter, who also runs a local Baijiu Club with his business partner, Chengdu native Anita Lai. "Its glory is in its myriad homemade forms. Restaurants and families all do their own styles and it changes a lot regionally. I love to just explore what different places use, and how that ties to the geography and agriculture of a place."

Sorghum - Photo by Andrew Parks

This inherent sense of terroir is what makes China—the Sichuan province especially, due to its fertile agriculture and high levels of humidity—such a thrilling place for adventurous drinkers. Whether you're into natural wine, sour beer, or funky Jamaican rum, baijiu is basically lightning in a bottle, and unlike anything else in the world. Outside of what is commonly called erguotou—which includes popular, inexpensive brands like Red Star and Niulanshan—baijiu is not the 'Chinese Everclear' far too many foreign press features have made it out to be. In fact, it's quite the opposite: the epitome of liquor that's truly alive and eludes any easy descriptors.

"Baijiu has an undeserved reputation among non-Chinese drinkers," says New York bartender Justin Lane Briggs. "That reputation certainly has some of its roots in ignorance and fear of the unknown, which is a real problem (and arguably linked to racism). Thankfully, I think people are starting to investigate some of their assumptions about 'other' places. Mainstream America has become more and more comfortable with broadening their palates, and with that, there has been a huge emphasis on food and drink that reflect a place, a people, a culture."

A similar line of reasoning could explain the meteoric rise in the Stateside popularity of mezcal in recent years—while it once occupied the domain of a very particular palate, it's now something everyday customers expect on left-field drink lists and major cocktail menus. Baijiu has a similar appeal: it's a spirit that tells a story—and evokes an environment.

"Sichuan is a hotbed for bacteria," explains Porter. "Whether you’re making paojiu or baijiu, it’s the same idea. There’s lots of stuff lying around, and if you can figure out how to harness it, you’ve got flavor. That’s the magic and mythology of baijiu, really: these simple [ingredients] produce a wonderful, unquantifiable array of flavors and aromas. It's hard to articulate, really."

One way to get a handle on how baijiu differs from other spirits is to see how it's made firsthand. Most visitors do this by requesting an English-speaking guide at Shui Jing Fang. The only distillery located in the heart of Chengdu—most baijiu comes from rural and/or remote areas—it's essentially a living museum, with less exhibition spaces in front and a closely monitored workspace out back.  

Here's the thing about Shui Jing Fang, however: It's kind of like those commercials about John Jameson and the Captain Morgan. The brand's only been around since 2000, but it's been declared "the oldest distillery in China" because its parent company, Quan, stumbled upon the ruins of a 600-year-old facility when they were undergoing renovations in 1998. Since its mud pits—an old-school reservoir for fermenting grain—were still intact, along with its corresponding yeast cultures, the claim that it's "had more than 600 years of continuous production" isn't false so much as a convenient truth.  

Diageo—the British multinational behemoth that has a hand in Hennessy and owns Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Baileys, and Guinness—seized upon this tall tale in 2003, forming a partnership with Quan and establishing Shui Jing Fang as its own independent entity. Once the brand earned top-shelf status among strong aroma fans, Diageo ramped up its investment and established a controlling stake in the company. This explains why a Shui Jing Fang tour feels like a carefully orchestrated hour of history lessons and thinly veiled marketing routines. Rare bottles of Shui Jing Fang lit up and displayed like archeological findings in a natural history museum, and there's an entire room devoted to Western spirits Diageo happens to sell on the side.

Luzhou Laojiao workshop - Photo by Andrew Parks

Striking a slightly less staged balance between mythmaking and mirth is Luzhou Laojiao, a state-run distillery located about three hours southeast of Chengdu. It's one of the country's top five brands, and the guides here let you linger over the production floor longer. Sure, everything is seen through a glass window, but the folks keeping LL's beloved 1573 brand in circulation look far more laid-back and loose than the ones at Shui Jing Fang. 

Our hosts at Luzhou Laojiao a few months back were the co-founders of Ming River, a new brand that's distributed in the U.S. and Europe, but produced somewhere on the company's secretive campus. During our walk through, we were able to watch Luzhou Laojiao's signature "1,000-year pit, 10,000-year mash" process from start to finish. It begins with steaming locally-sourced sorghum. The grains are left out to cool, raked alongside previously distilled piles of sorghum, and sprinkled with qu, a unique blend of bacteria, yeast, and other naturally occurring microorganisms that converts starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol at the same time. Also known as solid-state fermentation, this procedure is only found in baijiu factories, and it's what sends the spirit on its way to achieving spellbinding flavors.

“They're basically making a sorghum kimchi," explains Derek Sandhaus, Ming River's education director and the author of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits

Once everything is properly mixed, the mash of fresh and spent grain is shoveled into sealed mud-lined pits—four of which date all the way back to 1573—and left to ferment for two to three months before undergoing distillation and the rest of baijiu's production routine.    

"They form a symbiotic relationship," explains Sandhaus. "The pit itself starts participating in the fermentation process, as it absorbs more yeast and microbes from the mash. With pits this old, you can achieve flavor combinations you can't get anywhere else really, because there’s nothing else as old as these pits.” 

He pauses, smiles, and adds, "I hope that wasn't too confusing."