IF YOU ARE from China, you probably know more about baijiu than I do. But if you are not from China, the odds are high that even I, with my admittedly cursory knowledge gleaned from the kind of high-level research booze writers do (Googling and drinking), still probably know more about baijiu than you. Because, despite being apparently the world’s best-selling liquor (some sources say 4 billion liters are consumed a year), baijiu is not widely known outside the borders of a single country.
Baijiu is a Chinese distilled spirit, variously made from fermented sorghum (a grasslike ancient grain) or sometimes rice, and there’s evidence that it has been produced in some fashion since the Han Dynasty around 200 B.C., making it by far the world’s oldest hard liquor. Baijiu means “clear liquor” in Mandarin, which is an apt description of the libation itself: In a glass, in most cases, it looks exactly like vodka. But vodka is designed to be as pure and as tasteless as possible. (All vodkas are the same, by the way, regardless of price tag. Go ahead. Send me hate mail.)
But baijiu tastes nothing like vodka, and is more usefully compared to Scotch whisky. Unlike most Western liquors, which are made with a fermented mash boiled in water, baijiu is produced via solid-state fermentation, in which the dry grains are left to ferment with a starter in a giant tub, often underground (this is also how soy sauce is traditionally made), and this process contributes to the unusual flavor profile of baijiu.
A highly idiosyncratic drink varying widely by region, production method and price tag, baijiu is categorized by how it smells. There’s “light” baijiu, which tends to be floral; “rice-scented” baijiu (self-explanatory); “strong-scented” baijiu, which emits whiffs of fruit; and “savory” or “sauce-scented” baijiu, which smells like fruit left out in the sun for too long, and can taste like what happens when a watermelon Jolly Rancher turns to a life of crime.
Often compared to peaty whiskey, this last category of baijiu requires an acclimated palate (the word “funky” frequently crops up in descriptions). I like to think of it as the alcohol equivalent of durian, Southeast Asia’s famously foot-scented fruit that can be practically impossible to learn to love if you weren’t indoctrinated early. And if you’ve ever had durian, the slightly acrid, almost-chemical, rotten-fruit taste of some of the more “savory” baijius will be more familiar, making you wonder, for a moment, whether it’s actually safe to drink.
But it is, although in careful moderation. Because baijiu is incredibly strong, often clocking in at 120-proof, which, for most drinkers, is reserved for the stuff you use to reliably light shots on fire. And one is traditionally intended to drink it neat, at room temperature, sipped like an aperitif, although always with food.
It has yet to break fully into the cocktail world; alcohol writer Kara Newman postulated in Liquor.com (liquor.com/articles/is-baijiu-for-you) that that’s because the overpowering back-flavors of baijiu defy combination with anything they contact. But Sichuan restaurants like Lionhead or Tyger Tyger in Queen Anne have a good selection of baijius.
At a recent visit to Tyger Tyger (tygertygerseattle.com), the bartender whipped up a house cocktail made with baijiu and fresh watermelon juice that mingled perfectly with the candy-fruit flavor of the alcohol, so it absolutely can be done well by those who understand the nature of the beast. And you can always pick up a bottle at Uwajimaya and try your hand at it at home. Maybe buy a durian there while you’re at it, and you could be on to something.