A couple weeks ago I explained, from start to finish, the process of making baijiu. This was not idle talk but a necessary first step in introducing the various categories of baijiu in greater depth. To review, there are five steps in making baijiu: preparation of ingredients, preparation of qu, saccharification, fermentation, distillation and aging. I’m kicking things off with rice aroma, or mi xiang 米香, the most unique of all baijiu categories. Why is it so unique?
Preparation of ingredients: This is the first obvious difference between the other baijiu categories. Rice aroma uses rice – regular or glutinous – instead of sorghum as its primary ingredient. The rice is steamed and cooled three times before it’s brewed.
Preparation of qu: Also unique to rice-aroma baijiu, it uses small, rice-based qu. This is a mixture of rice flour, water, medicinal herbs and sometimes clay powder (for adding volume). There can be as many as a hundred herbs in the small qu and as few as none, but the most famous rice-aroma baijiu, Guilin Sanhua, only uses one. The qu is formed into small balls, dried out and crushed into a powder.
Saccharification: The cooked rice is mixed with qu powder and placed in a shallow earthenware jar. A hole is dug in the middle of the mixture to allow for better aeration. The jar is covered and allowed to sit for one day.
Fermentation: Unlike fermentation in the other categories, this is a distinct step from saccharification. The now sugary rice mix is transferred to a larger jar, water is added to activate the yeasts and the jar is covered. It is left to sit for about a week.
Distillation: Rice-aroma baijiu is triple-distilled, discarding the head and the tail, which can be more easily achieved because most rice-aroma baijiu companies have abandoned traditional Chinese stills in favor of modern vertical stills. When it is finished, it should be a slightly volatile mix that has bubbles when shaken. Until the last century, examining the way in which the bubbles formed was how the quality of a rice-aroma baijiu was determined. Hence the name sanhuajiu (three-flower spirit), “flowers” being a euphemism for bubbles.
Aging: Guangxi Province, where the most famous rice-aroma baijiu is made, is also home to breathtaking karst landscapes. Guangxi baijiu takes advantage of its surroundings by aging its baijiu inside of the naturally cool and dank karst caves for an interval of several years. Guilin Sanhuajiu also uses the water from the nearby Li River to dilute the baijiu to the required strength.
So there you have it, every single step contains something unique. To my mind, it should probably not be considered the same type of spirit, because it’s much closer to Korean Soju or Japanese Sochu than to other categories of baijiu, but baijiu is, after all, a catchall term. Baijiu doubters should give a shot and, if you’re still skeptical afterward, try it infused with snake.