My wife and I were sitting in a Chengdu friend’s garden last week when our host, Xiao Wang, told me he wanted me to try his favorite baijiu. He stepped inside his apartment and came back with a narrow white bottle with red characters that identified it as Jiangjin Baijiu 江津白酒, Yuanjiang 原浆. Flipping the bottle over, I learned that it was distilled from sorghum in Chongqing and called itself a light-aroma baijiu. Then I saw something that took me by surprise: It was a small qu baijiu, which is to say it uses rice as its fermentation agent.
I’ve been studying Chinese spirits for a while now, so it’s not often that a baijiu shows me something new. To my knowledge, there were two types of light-aroma baijiu: Fenjiu, the top-shelf spirits of Shanxi, and erguotou, the bargain-basement Beijing brew. Three types, if you want to count Taiwan kaoliang (I don’t, because it’s essentially an erguotou). All of them are fermented in clay pots and all of them, like all major types of baijiu save rice-aroma, are fermented using wheat or barley-based big qu. But this was another story all together small-qu sorghum baijiu fermented in pots. It was the type of things that only I could get excited about and I was very excited (not sexually, but on the verge).
The smell of Jiangjin was light and floral, almost like cotton balls. On first taste, I was immediately reminded of some kaoliangs I tried earlier this summer. It was light, crisp and slightly herby, but there was something else in there – a kind of marshmallowy sweetness I normally associate with rice-aroma baijiu. Baijiu distilleries place an emphasis on the importance of qu recipes in determining the flavor of the finished product, but this was the first time I was able to put it to the test. Trying a familiar baijiu with an uncommon qu really drives home what a prominent role qu plays in flavor.
Over the next several hours we did our best impression of the ancients, drinking baijiu while we sat under the stars and discussed Eastern and Western philosophy. Xiao Wang is a Buddhist with a temperament and smile to match. His favorite philosopher is Sartre. It’s hard to reconcile his Buddhism with admiring someone that hated everyone, but Wang also drinks liquor and eats meat, so he’s probably not terribly observant. We drained the entire bottle before I left.
It was a great night and a solid baijiu. For the price – about RMB20 (US$3) for a 490ml bottle – you really can’t do much better. I am proud to name it my first baijiu of the month.