Spirits Business ranked Kweichow Moutai as the world’s valuable spirits brand in 2021, beating the likes of Jack Daniel’s, Hennessy, Smirnoff, Bacardi and Johnny Walker again. So, this is a bottle that deserves a place in any serious drinks cabinet.
The Moutai Chun 1998 is a perfect introduction to the world of Moutai Baijiu. As elegant and dazzling as the bottle that houses it, this fragrant liquor warms the drinker with mellow notes of chocolate, peanut butter, light soy sauce, curry leaf, creamy yoghurt, sweet spices and a gentle waft of smoke. Velvety and gently sweet, it makes a fascinating accompaniment to dim sum or satay. Alternatively, we love to sip it with noodles in a peanut and mustard sauce, scattered with coriander, cucumber and sesame seeds.
Named after the town of Maotai in Guizhou province where it originated, Kweichow Moutai have been making Baijiu for over 200 years. The brand shot to fame outside of China when it picked up a gold medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and later when it was served by Mao Zedong to visiting dignitaries at state dinners.
Baijiu has been China’s national drink for more than five millennia and is the most-consumed hard liquor on the planet (18 billion litres are made each year). Although the West has been slow on the uptake, that’s all about to change. Sales of this fascinating spirit are exploding around the world. And it’s worth noting that Baijiu is as important a part of Chinese heritage as silk, tea, ceramics, martial arts and calligraphy, all of which have become very popular on these shores.
The name translates as ‘clear spirit’, and Baijiu can be distilled from sorghum, wheat, rice, sticky rice or corn. What makes it unique is two-fold. Firstly, it’s an ingredient called ‘Qu’ – bricks of damp grains left in a warm place until they grow yeasts, fungi and microorganisms – that is used to kickstart the fermentation, a little like koji for Japanese Sake. This gives Baijiu a distinctive aromatic funk, which reminds us a little of high-ester Jamaican rum. Secondly, it’s the fact that Baijiu – unlike any other spirit we’re aware of – is created by distilling the solids, not the liquid. Baijiu is then matured in ceramic jars; something that’s becoming increasingly fashionable in the world of wine also. These breathable containers allow micro-oxygenation of the spirit and remove impurities, all without adding flavour.
Again, like fine wine, production methods vary and there are strong regional variations. So, the Chinese generally classify Baijiu by its distinctive smell. The primary categories are ‘rice’, a sweet and floral style from the south; ‘light’, a delicate style from the north made with sorghum; ‘strong’, the most popular style crafted using at least two grains and mud pits for fermentation; and ‘savoury’ or ‘sauce’, an expensive and umami style thought to resemble soy sauce. Following a similar trajectory to other strong, artisanal spirits like Mezcal, Baijiu is traditionally sipped neat, but it has recently captured the attention of cocktail aficionados and the world’s finest bartenders. Baijiu now looks set to cement its status as the greatest spirit on the planet by increasing its global reach.