Chances are you might not even have heard of baijiu. Sometimes nicknamed “firewater,” it’s China’s national liquor, and earlier this year its market value hit US$71.5 billion, making it the world’s most valuable liquor, stealing the crown from British whisky brand Diageo.
Thanks to China’s huge population, baijiu accounts for almost a third of global spirit sales. Euromonitor International, a London-based consultancy, estimated about 5.5 billion litres, or 1.5 billion gallons, of baijiu sold last year.
Baijiu is an acquired taste, and often leaves first-timers a little stunned. Its strong flavours have been compared to things like sweaty socks, aged cheese, or rotten fruit.
It’s potent stuff. The liquor is known for its high alcohol content – it is typically between 80 and 120 proof, hence the “firewater” nickname. Despite this, it’s the tipple of choice for every festive occasion in China, from wedding receptions to business banquets and social drinking.
The fiery liquor baijiu has been the toast of China’s elite for several thousand years. It sometimes sells for hundreds of dollars a bottle, and its most famous variety is named after the ancient Chinese town in which it’s produced.
Called Maotai town, it’s tucked into the mountains of China’s southern Guizhou province and is touted as China’s liquor capital. But apart from its fabled liquor, Maotai town’s unique architecture is a big draw, as is the charming Chishui River from which the liquor is produced . 赤水河 in Chinese, it literally translates as “red water river” because it shows a reddish colour in the lower stream due to a large sediment concentration. Getting there requires a two-hour drive from Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, to Renhaui city, cutting through the picturesque Guizhou hills.
Although baijiu’s popularity can mainly be linked to its huge consumption in China, its most famous brand “Maotai” has been stepping up efforts to go global in recent years.
It already has a growing network extending from Asia to North America, Europe and Australia. Increasingly, people are interested to know more about the world’s most consumed alcohol and the place from where it originates. The ancient town of Maotai has become a liquor-lover’s pilgrimage site, with even China’s National Liquor Culture Museum being housed there.
Jim Boyce, a Canadian wine expert based in Beijing, is the founder of World Baijiu Day, aimed at promoting the best-selling yet little-known spirit. He told CNN that 30 Baijiu Day events were held in 20 cities around the world last year and that dedicated baijiu bars are now found in both the UK and the States.
Currently, baijiu is increasingly being used as an ingredient in cocktails in the West as a gradual introduction to the eye-watering spirit. This is one way to balance its strong flavour with other ingredients to make it more palatable for first timers.
Whilst baijiu’s international success is unlikely to happen overnight, experts believe that it could follow a similar trajectory to tequila, which started off as a strong Mexican alcohol that nobody liked, to becoming one of the most popular spirits in the world.