There’s a few flushed faces in the room as China’s national firewater is downed in tiny gulps. It has a BANG the baijiu virgins aren’t expecting. Bloggers, Instagrammers and the curious are crammed into the elegant Moutai Baijiu showroom in Sydney’s Chinatown. We’re listening to marketing managers Imogen Hayes and Ed Xian explain the 2000-year-old art of making and drinking the colourless liquor which is at least 40% proof. It might be China’s most loved alcohol, but baijiu isn’t well known to drinkers in the west. Free tasting workshops aim to widen its appeal in Australia.
Baijiu is made from organic sorghum, wheat, glutinous rice or barley and water, distilled much the way whiskey is, but in underground fermentation pits. Baijiu is an integral part of family dinners and celebrations in China. The Chinese toasting expression is: Gan bei! We leap to our feet and learn this one quickly.
“It’s the custom to show respect and drink one tiny 10ml glass to toast each guest. If there’s a lot of people to respect at the table, you can guess the rest,” says Ed.
“In China in the cities it’s offered in the glass, but if you go to a village they’ll roll out the red carpet for a foreign visitor and offer it to you in bowls,” he says.
I taste three types of baijiu. Although Kweichow Moutai Prince ($88 a bottle) is less mature than the others, I prefer its flavours. It starts with a massive fiery hit, rolls into toasted nuts and finishes with smooth chocolate. The mid range baijiu has citrusy tones. The most expensive one I try is Kweichow Moutai Flying Fairy ($288) which has an earthy aroma reminding me of Chinese medicinal herbs which are an acquired taste.
Chinese travellers buy
baijiu in Australia
Chinese inbound tourists shop at the Sydney store for their favourite tipple. Moutai is China’s most trusted baijiu brand.
“China has a lot of things that are fake but when Chinese come to Australia they buy baijiu here because they know it’s the real thing,” explains Ed with a laugh.
Bottles at Australia’s sole distributor start at $A88 (aged one year) and go up to $5588 for the high-end stuff aged for 50 years. The copper drinking vessel (pictured below) had a dual purpose in the bad old days when frenemies got together. It was used to drink baijiu, but changed colour if poison had been secretly added.
Baijiu is used in a few cocktails in Sydney and Melbourne. Recently, the Western Hemisphere’s first dedicated baijiu bar opened in New York. Lumos is a cocktail lounge located in New York City’s downtown Soho district. 90 W Houston St, NY, NY, 10012. Connect on Facebook: Lumos NYC
Taste for Travel’s occasional cocktail and wine writer, the discerning Warren Bobrow of the Cocktail Whisperer lives in NYC, but says so far he hasn’t visited Lumos because he’s not a fan of baijiu.
“I’ve been receiving samples… but sorghum is not an easy drink,” he comments.
BAIJIU CHECK LIST
- Moutai Australia
- 398 Sussex St Sydney 02 9212 2288
- Moutai on Facebook
- Periodic free workshops. Stay tuned for these – they’re lots of fun
- Cocktail competition coming up in October – the prize is a trip to China
- Baijiu is often served with balls of glutinous rice eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival and served wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Bloody Mou Cocktail
60ml Moutai baijiu
120ml tomato juice
15ml lemon juice
Half tsp horseradish sauce
3 dashes Tabasco (medium hot, add or subtract to your own taste)
5 drops Worcester sauce
Pinch of salt and pepper
Add all to cocktail shaker, fill shaker with ice and seal it. Gently roll the shaker in your hand to cool the mix. DO NOT SHAKE. Strain over ice in a highball glass and garnish with a lemon wedge, celery stick and sprinkle of white pepper.