Baijiu basics: What does it stink like?

Last weekend I set off to a friend’s cocktail party. I knew they would have vodka and mixers, but vodka doesn’t help me get any closer to 300 shots, so I came packing a party grenade of Lang Jiu 郎酒. Lang Jiu is yet another Sichuanese baijiu, distilled along the Guizhou border near the Chishui River (not far from Maotai), available in a handy pocket-size (seen above) at all good grocery stores for about RMB25. From the moment I poured it, I could tell I wasn’t going to like it. It smelled like vinegar with a hint of rotten pineapple. Behind the burning onset was sour and fruity taste with a dull sugary taste at the end, like honey that’s been sitting out too long. In a word: revolting.

“But Derek, just last week you said you were starting to like baijiu, why the sudden change of heart?”

I’m glad you asked, rhetorical device. “Baijiu” is a catch-all term for all distilled alcohols in China, roughly equivalent to the English word “spirits.” So two baijius can be as different in taste and ingredients as rum and brandy.

The last time I talked about baijiu classifications, I focused on the fermentation agent or qu, but baijius are commonly also classified by flavor. There are many different sub-categories, but to keep things simple, let’s look at the five primary categories:

Strong aroma (nong xiang 浓香): This is the most common type of baijiu produced in Sichuan, and is usually made with a combination of sorghum mixed with other grains. Its taste is complex and fruity. It has an aftertaste so strong that it will haunt you through your belches for several hours (days?) after drinking. Examples sampled on this blog thus far include Wuliangye, Luzhou Laojiao and Quanxing.

Light aroma (qing xiang 清香): This variety is more common in northern China and is made principally from sorghum. It’s supposedly a bit smoother than the strong aroma stuff, with a taste that’s more balanced. The most popular light aroma baijiu is Fenjiu from Shanxi Province. I’ve got a bottle burning a hole in my liquor cabinet, so expect to read about this soon.

Sauce aroma (jiang xiang 酱香): Sauce, as in soy sauce (though these are also made with sorghum, not soybeans). The smell is this variety’s defining characteristic. It will hit you from a distance and is supposed to linger in the glass (and drinker) overnight. The flavor is also quite strong, though it is actually more acidic than saucy. This baijiu is the specialty of Guizhou Province, more specifically northwestern Guizhou along the Chishui River. Though I can’t speak to the quality of the good stuff ­– I hear high-end Maotai is quite pleasant – I’ve had the most difficulty when drinking cheap, and possibly fake, sauce aroma baijius. This is hardly surprising, as Maotai production is an elaborate, time-consuming process involving as many as eight fermentations and several distillations. That’s a lot of room for error.

Rice aroma (mi xiang 米香): These are small qu, rice-based baijius, most popular in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces. They supposedly have a faint honey-esque smell, a sweet taste and they go down smooth. Popular brands include Guilin Sanhua Jiu and Xiangshan Jiu.

Mixed aroma (jian xiang 兼香): As the name indicates, baijius in this category are produced by mixing two or more baijius in any category – the Chinese answer to the blended whiskey – or by infusing non-baijiu ingredients.

All of this has been a very roundabout way of saying that last week I was drinking strong aroma baijiu, Guojiao 1573, and this week I was drinking sauce aroma baijiu, Langjiu. They come from two distinct categories, and one needn’t like both.

228 shots to go.

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5 Responses to Baijiu basics: What does it stink like?

  1. David says:

    Very interesting post.

    Wonder if you have tried KongFuJia (Confucius Family Liquor) and what kind of comments you would have on that brand of baijiu.

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