Baiju – The World’s Most Popular Spirit You’ve Never Heard Of
Pop quiz: What’s the world’s most popular spirit? Hint – it’s not whiskey, or vodka, or bourbon. If you’re still stumped, then you might be surprised to learn that the most widely consumed spirit in the world is Baiju.
Baiju Gets The Popular Vote
Thanks to China’s huge population, baiju accounts for almost a third of global spirits sales – though only a small amount can be found outside its borders. In recent rankings by Brand Finance Spirits 50 2019, baiju continued to dominate across spirits categories.
According to the report, baiju brands took up the top four spots in value with Moutai maintaining its position as the world’s most valuable spirit. From 2018 to 2019, the baiju brand was valued at a whopping $30.5 billion – seven times that of fifth and sixth placeholders, Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniel’s.
So why hasn’t the rest of the Western world embraced it? Well, there are several factors to consider.
For one, even though China has been making the spirit for centuries, the modern baijiu industry didn’t really take shape until after the 1950s. During that time, China was still largely a Communist country isolated from much of the world.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that baiju brands began to appear in the US. It’s taken some time, but within the last decade more restaurants, bars, and retailers have offered the spirit with sales steadily increasing to non-Chinese consumers.
Another reason for its slow adoption in the West might be because many consumers outside of China still don’t quite understand what baiju is – most people have never even heard of it.
What Is Baiju?
Baiju literally translates to “white spirit.” Unlike other spirits, baiju isn’t regulated in any official capacity. Instead, the industry generally recognizes the Chinese white liquor by four main styles – though there are a multitude of sub-categories to explore, if you’ve got the palate for it:
- Rice Aroma: This style originates in the southern Guangxi province. As its name suggests, this style is crafted from rice, which gives this light spirit with a sweeter, more floral tone. It is often compared to Japanese Saké.
- Light Aroma: This style is most prominent in China’s northern regions, particularly in and around Beijing. Fermented from sorghum, light aroma baijus are identified by their delicate, dry flavor and ABVs as high as 56%.
- Strong Aroma: China’s most traditional and widely consumed style is the strong aroma varietal. Made with at least two different grains and fermented belowground in mud pits, this style boasts a potent overripe flavor profile.
- Sauce Aroma: Consumers of this style say the drink’s savory characteristic resembles that of soy sauce. Remember Moutai – the world’s most valuable spirit brand? It’s expensive for a reason. This premium liquor is produced in the Guizhou province and involves multiple fermentations over the course of about a year, followed by an eight-cycle distillation.
In an interview with CNN, Bill Isler, co-founder of the world’s first baijiu-themed bar suggested that “vodka or gin drinkers may tend to the light aroma type, whereas whiskey or rum drinkers may prefer the strong aroma type,” where flavor is concerned.
How It’s Made
Baiju is typically made from one or a combination of sorghum, wheat, rice, sticky rice, and corn; but the biggest differentiator between baiju and other spirits involves fermentation.
All baiju products utilize a special fermentation agent called qu – a cake-like brick of mold, yeast, and bacteria, combined with cultivated grains. The microorganisms in the qu serve to stimulate both the processes of saccharification (the conversion of carbohydrates into fermentable sugar) and fermentation. Meanwhile, other grain spirits treat these separately: saccharification occurs through malting or mash cooking. After the sugars have been converted, yeast is added to begin fermentation.
Without the restrictions placed on other global spirits, baiju is celebrated for its diversity. Thanks to differences in geographical influences, distinctive traditions, production methodologies, and more, there are a broad range of unique expressions and flavors within the baiju category to enjoy.
The Future of Baiju
While baiju continues to be a Chinese staple, consumers in other parts of the world are beginning to appreciate the versatility of the spirit.
Since 2015, festivals and events held around the globe have celebrated World Baiju Day every August 9. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has begun to actively promote baiju tourism as bars offering flights and cocktails starring the spirit pop up across the country. And when it’s been infused in everything from ice cream to pizza, you can drink your baiju, and eat it too!
This World Baiju Day, consider trying something new. Baiju America can help you find out where to buy a bottle in the US. Once you’ve gotten your hands on the spirit, consider organizing your own virtual baiju tasting with friends, experimenting with building a flight, or learning a cocktail recipe to enjoy at home.
Just make sure to toast by raising your glass and saying, “Ganbei!”