In the early days of my baijiu research, I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to visit the Kweichow Moutai distillery in the remote hinterlands of western Guizhou. It was an incredible experience—crazy, drunken and unforgettable—but what really stuck with me was how inextricably tied their baijiu is to the unique terrain of the region. Thus, I am happy to share with my readers a piece I wrote for the excellent online drinks magazine, Punch, on the importance of terroir in baijiu production. Excerpt below.
The liquor that made the Maotai township famous is produced in long, squat buildings near the banks of the Chishui River. Inside, they feel like something more akin to a coalmine than a distillery—a dark flurry of steam and earth, heat and frenetic energy. Teams of barefoot men rush about with wheelbarrows full of sorghum, others stand ready with rakes and shovels. A thick haze of vapor rises from the stills and piles of fermenting sorghum, clouding the room. Elsewhere steel cranes drop the grains into deep, stone-lined pits.
It is a labor-intensive process that involves multiple fermentation-distillation cycles over the course of a year. Fermentation pits require constant tending, and more than a hundred aged spirits go into the finished baijiu. A whiskey distillery can comfortably operate with a handful of employees, but baijiu requires an army.