The year 1573.
Future playwright William Shakespeare and scientist Galileo Galilei were schoolboys. The sprawling Songhai empire in West Africa was in its twilight years. And across the Atlantic in New York, well, forget skyscrapers: that land was still a hunting ground for the Lenape people and was decades from becoming New Amsterdam let alone The Big Apple. Oh, and when it came to European fashion? The Spanish cape was all the rage.
1573. Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci had just arrived in Macau and would soon become a legend in China. A China where farmers had started harvesting new earthly riches from recently arrived ‘New World’ foods such as corn, sweet potatoes, peanuts and chili peppers. And where the novel Journey to the West was just about to be published and become one of the great classics.
1573. What a time to be alive!
That year also saw some guys in Sichuan launch a new baijiu distillery that we know as Luzhou Laojiao, considered to be the longest continuously running distillery of its kind. 448 years. That’s how long these guys have been plying their craft: ever since Matteo Ricci and the sweet potato arrived, ever since people delighted in the tale of a monk heading west.
Anyway, Luzhou Laojiao sent me three samples to taste and review and subject to experiments. I plan to cover that in two parts. The first is a straight-up review of the baijiu. The other will focus on attempts to pair those spirits with ten fruits–from peaches and plums to mangos and melons. (I did pairing for three consecutive days, involving well over 100 sips and providing an excellent vitamin boost even if it made me tipsy on school nights.)
All three of the baijius hail from the “strong aroma” category, the largest one, accounting for 70 percent of production in China. Without getting too technical, a few features:
- The baijius can be single grain (usually sorghum) or multi-grain (including corn, wheat and more).
- The grain is fermented in mud pits about two meters deep. (See them at the back in the photo above.) First, grain is cooked and mixed with a fermentation agent called qu and everything is shoveled in pits and sealed for a month or two.
- Then the grain is taken from the pit and put into a still and baijiu is extracted by pushing through steam. Yes, steam right through that near-solid mass of grain. It’s a quite special process and called solid-state distillation.
- Also special: some of that grain is then returned to the pit, along with new grain and qu, for more fermentation. This cycle of distillation and fermentation can go on for years, decades, centuries. That’s called continuous fermentation.
- Finally, plenty of factors affect the flavor of a given baijiu, including grain quality, water source, the climate and those microbes in the mud pit walls, some of which must be on their billionth generation after all these years.
- Oh, and as a nod to history, the person in charge of the mud pits wears a Spanish cape (kidding).
Okay, enough technical talk. Let’s get on to tasting.
We’ll start with Ming River, a baijiu launched in 2018 with an eye to foreign markets, beginning with the United States.
This baijiu weighs in at 45 percent alcohol and is the lightest of the three in terms of sweetness, viscosity, intensity and finish. Aromas included anise, white pepper and melon, and the baijiu starts with a light playful sweetness that shifts to more tannic spicy sensations, with some ripe tropical fruit and a mildly peppery finish.
This one is mild as far as strong aroma baijius go and feels like it has a toe in the light aroma camp — think fenjiu and erguotou — in terms of accessibility. It should also be the most versatile for cocktails although there’s something to be said for managing to make a worthy drink recipe with the next two challenging options.
In terms of packaging, Ming River breaks the mold from traditional baijius, with a more modern look. I found the bottle looked better on screen, where it is very “Instagrammable.” It is a bit chunky up close, with a boxy design and thick lip. But that’s just a personal preference — if you look at the photos in the post, the label stands out in terms of readability.
This baijiu takes things up a notch or two in terms of funk, intensity and flavor. There is more umami here: along with tropical fruit you can find toasted sesame and roasted chicory character.
Antique Edition is pure and sweet up front and then that intensity pounces — a concentrated fruitiness, tight dryness and pronounced spiciness that will snap one to attention. The texture is a touch oily even as this baijiu is dry. Amped by 52% alcohol, it has a longer and spicier and one could say hotter finish than Ming River.
Re packaging, this one seems like the anti-Instagrammable. Gold lettering on a dark brown bottle does not make for easy photos. But in terms of heft, texture, size and shape–with its gentle curves and just-right closure–this bottle was my favorite of the three.
This baijiu is the real deal. Lots of sensory stimulation, from roses and peaches to tropical fruit and something funky–I will update when I pinpoint the flavor! Guojiao 1573 has a concentrated sweetness that carries through to the finish. Not syrupy, not viscous, just balanced and pleasant, one that works well with the moderate viscosity and the spicy firm finish of this baijiu.
The tasting notes say “mellow.” Let’s agree to disagree on the definition. But I can say my baijiu-loving friends, based on my experiences with them, would give this one a thumbs up. At least on the flavor. The price? At about US$200, it ain’t cheap!
Re packaging, the hard-to-read lettering and plastic cap don’t really work for me, but then again, I’m not the target customer!
In sum, Ming River (US$38) is the most affordable and accessible to newbies of the three, Antique Edition (US$50 is a bit funkier and likely to give China banquet veterans flashbacks) and Guojiao 1573 (US$220) is a baijiu fan’s baijiu and to go-to if you have money to burn or are with somebody on a liberal expense account.
The baijiu vs fruit challenge is coming up next.