Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Baijiu: The Durian Fruit Of The Spirits World (Part 1)

"I think if we drink enough Moutai we can solve anything.
--Henry Kissinger (Moutai is a famous brand of Baijiu)

Baijiu, a distilled spirit that originated in China, seems to me to be the Durian fruit of the spirits world. The infamous Durian fruit, native to Southeast Asia, has a reputation for possessing one of the most foul odors you will ever smell, sometimes described as similar to rotten onions, road kill, or even sweaty socks. However, there are plenty of people, especially in Southeast Asia, who love the taste, and even the smell, of Durian, often considering it to be the "king of fruits."

Baijiu too has a reputation with many people of having a foul smell and taste, reminiscent of stinky cheese, gasoline, and even sweaty socks. However, it is also the most popular spirit in the world, due primarily to its massive consumption within China. It is an integral part of Chinese culture yet its popularity outside China has problems, mainly because a significant number of people believe it has a horrendous taste. Like Durian, Baijiu isn't properly appreciated outside of Asia.

In addition, many Americans know very little, if anything, about Baijiu and if they do possess some limited information, it may be a mix of errors and misconceptions. Hopefully that will soon start to change. Baijiu can now be found in a growing number of restaurants and bars, and during the last year, a number of media outlets have written basic articles about Baijiu. It's certainly a niche beverage in the U.S. but it's fascinating and you'll find the taste often isn't quite what you expect. There is good reason why Baijiu deserves greater recognition in the U.S.

I'm relatively new myself to the wonders of Baijiu but I'm very much intrigued by the spirit and have been trying to learn much more about it. I see some similarities to Japanese Sake and am curious about Baijiu's potential pairing with food, based on its apparent umami nature. The Baijiu I have tasted have been delicious, without any tastes or aromas which turned me off. It's a spirit I recommend that you explore as well and I want to provide you some information about Baijiu, from its history to production methods, to encourage your own exploration.

During the next few weeks, I'll be posting a number of articles about various aspects of Baijiu, trying to show its complexities and mystery, its variations and delights. I hope that you find it to be a fascinating journey and I encourage your feedback.

Recently, at Thirst Boston, I attended a compelling seminar, Baijiu: The Most Popular Drink You've Never Heard Of, which was described as: "Baijiu is likely the world’s oldest distilled spirit and currently the most consumed – and yet it’s virtually unknown in the United States. This is your opportunity to taste some of the most complex and unique spirits that have ever been made by distilleries dating back to the 15th century. Learn about how Baijiu differs from all other distilled spirits in the world and taste for yourself the regional and stylistic differences between different expressions."

This was probably one of the first Baijiu class in the Boston area that was open to the public and it was an excellent opportunity to learn the basics of this spirit and get to taste five different Baijiu. It helped set the stage for my further explorations of Baijiu. There is also a single English book about this Chinese spirit, Baijiu: The Essential Guide To Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus, which has been helpful in providing additional information about Baijiu (and which I will review in a later post). In addition, I've consulted numerous magazines, online articles, scientific journals, and books that mention this spirit. We certainly need more English articles and books about Baijiu as it seems we've only scratched the surface of its potential.

The Thirst Boston Baijiu seminar was presented by Manny Burnichon, founder and CEO of Private Cask Imports as well as National Brand Ambassador for CNS Importswhich has been importing Baijiu into the U.S. for about 32 years. Who knew Baijiu has been available in the U.S. for that long? CNS used to sell Baijiu primarily in Asian communities in the U.S., especially in Los Angles, New York City and Texas. Now though, they have begun a push to market Baijiu to the non-Asian market in the U.S. and face a number of obstacles, including misinformation and ignorance about Baijiu. I hope that my posts about Baijiu might contribute in even a small way to help educate consumers about this interesting Chinese spirit.

Baijiu is most often pronounced as "bye joe," but there are different sources claiming it is pronounced as "bye gio," "bah joo" or "bye zho." The term "baijiu" was derived from two words, "bai"(“transparent”) and "jiu" (“alcoholic drink”), so baijiu is roughly translated as "white liquor," reflective of its white color. In addition, baijiu is also sometimes known by other terms such as samshu (Cantonese for "thrice fired"), baigan and shaojiu

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of Baijiu, with some sources claiming its ancestors extend back two to three thousand years. Many sources seem to agree that it was most likely invented about a 1000 years ago, though it didn't receive the name Baijiu until about 300 or so years ago. There are some Baijiu distilleries that can trace their history back 500-600 years.

Baijiu is an important element of Chinese culture, something which is essentially consumed at every restaurant, at every holiday, for every special occasion and with every business deal. It is even entwined within Chinese diplomacy, as in 1951, Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of China, declared Kweichow Moutai Baijiu to be the National Liquor. As such, it is regularly served at official state dinners and U.S. Presidents from Richard Nixon on have been toasted with Moutai.

The title of the Thirst Boston seminar, "The Most Popular Drink You've Never Heard Of," is a common refrain, almost a cliche now, in many of the recent articles in the media about Baijiu. Some outlets are just trying to be trendy, to highlight a new spirit before they move onto writing about the next hot, new spirit. Other are more serious about Baijiu, trying to introduce Americans to this intriguing Chinese spirit. Even if the phrase seems to be getting over used, it is hard to deny the truth of that matter. Many Americans know little, if anything about Baijiu, and it's the most popular spirit in the world. How can it be so popular yet Americans be so clueless about its existence?

Statistics on Baijiu consumption and sales are not always easy to find, and one of the major reports on the matter came from International Wine & Spirit Research. In 2012, Baijiu was the largest spirit category in the world, based on consumption, at 31% (over 11 billion liters) while second place was occupied by Vodka, at 19%. The next three spots were taken by Whiskey (11%), Shochu (9%), and Brandy (6%). The value of the Baijiu market was approximately $23 billion, accounting for about 55% of the alcohol value in China, with beer accounting for 31% and wine only 7%. Of the $23 Billion in Baijiu, it is broken down into low end (21%), value (18%), standard (30%), premium (17%) and super premium (14%).

There are said to be about 10,000 different Baijiu distilleries in China, producing an enormous diversity of Baijiu, from very cheap alcohol to super premium bottles which can cost ten of thousands of dollars. Back in 2010, the #1 spirit brand in the world was Johnny Walker and Kweichow Moutai, a Baijiu, was down at #9. However, only three years later, Johnny Walker was still #1 but Kweichow Moutai had moved up to #2. And presently, Kweichow Moutai has continued its climb and now sits at the #1 spot, having finally dethroned Johnny Walker. That is an epic climb in a short amount of years.

Within China, the primary demographic currently consuming Baijiu is men over 40, while the younger generation tends to gravitate more toward other spirits and drinks, such as Western-style cocktails and wine. This is similar to what occurred in Japan as younger generations moved away from drinking traditional Sake. However, unlike Sake and despite these demographics, Baijiu still saw double-digit growth during the period of 2007-2012. Much of that growth was attributable to the government, which was responsible for 40%-50% of all Baijiu purchases.

It would then be the government which would cause chaos within the Baijiu industry. In 2012,  in order to combat corruption, President Xi Jinping enacted a series of anti-graft measures, partially to drastically limit the amount of expensive Baijiu consumed at official government dinners and business events. With the crackdown, Baijiu producers saw a significant decrease in purchases, leading to only a 3% growth in 2014, much different than their prior double digit growth. Obviously, with the industry's prior reliance on the huge government market, the new laws were destined to reduce sales.

Thus, Baijiu producers started a more concerted effort to find new markets for Baijiu through exportation though this is still in its relative infancy. This is also what some Sake breweries have done to help their industry because of decreased Sake consumption within Japan. Sake producers have started increasing exports to places like the U.S. and Australia. Interestingly, Baijiu sales have started to rebound, having increased by about 7% in 2015. As for exports, Australia is currently the #1 market while the U.S. is at #2, with the bulk of sales to Chinese immigrants. Importers are hoping that those demographics will change, with a greater number of non-Asians embracing Baijiu. For this to occur, American consumers need to be given reasons why they should drink Baijiu.

Baijiu: Its Unique Production Process (Part 2)
Baijiu: Drinking Etiquette & Some Reviews (Part 3)
Baijiu: Cocktails, Boston & World Baijiu Day (Part 4)
Baijiu: Food Pairings (Part 5)
Vinn Bajiu: Made in Portland
Baijiu: The Essential Guide To Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus

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