Paul Blow
Chinese buijiu from Shui Jing Fang Moutai Maotai

Sorry, tequila, mezcal, and pisco. I love you, but the most naturally complex (no flavors added) white spirit in the world is Moutai (also spelled Maotai), the national spirit of China. Despite the fact that it’s existed, in one form or another, since the first century BCE, most people in our country have never heard of it.

And they might be thankful for that. Once described by a spirits expert as tasting “like the bottom of Bluto Blutarsky’s laundry hamper,” let’s just say that the flavor of Moutai is unique. And incredibly difficult to describe. In China it’s said to have a soy sauce character. And, yes, there’s that (though not Kikkoman soy sauce, but the fuller, deeper umami-rich savor of better soys). But there’s also wild tropical fruits, berries, chocolate, vanilla, musky jungle flowers, and burning rubber. Indeed, sensory scientists employed by Moutai (the spirit is now produced by a state-owned company) have isolated over 1,000 different aromas. How does it taste? Much the way it smells, though it carries its 52 percent alcohol (104 proof) remarkably smoothly, finishing with incredible flavor rather than an alcoholic burn. I actually love the stuff.

Moutai comes by its astonishing complexity via a production process unlike anything I’ve seen in the West. Made mostly from sorghum and a little bit of wheat, it undergoes a fermentation process that includes the steaming of the sorghum, amassing it into a giant mound where it starts to ferment (like a compost heap), burying it in a pit for a month, pulling it out, distilling some of the alcohol out of it, and repeating this process seven times. Where the fermentation process for grain used in a batch of whiskey takes around a week, the process for Moutai runs over six months. After distillation, the spirit is aged in ceramic vessels for an average of five years.

Moutai also comes bundled with the greatest drinking ritual of any spirit, if you want to enjoy it as they do in China. There, Moutai is only drunk at mealtimes, in little half-ounce shots. And it goes amazingly well with a huge range of dishes. You also never drink it by yourself, but rather with others and with a toast. This can be a private toast between two people, or a group thing where everyone at a banquet downs their Moutai in unison. Glasses are then refilled when someone offers you a toast or you decide to toast another.

The only downside of Moutai is that it’s hard to get in the U.S., and if you can find it, it’s expensive. A Newsweek piece on it has the current price at about $340 a bottle, up from only $30 or $40 just 12 years ago. Incredibly popular as gifting currency in China, much of the 10 percent or so of Moutai that’s exported to other countries ends up coming back across Chinese borders, as profit can be made on it there.

But the scarcity is because Moutai cannot be made anywhere else. It’s produced in Guizhou Province in southwest China, on the banks of the Chishui River (which supplies the water from which it’s made). It doesn’t taste the same when the production process is carried out anywhere other than where it’s been for hundreds of years.

For most people, the scarcity and price of Moutai are irrelevant; they wouldn’t want to drink this bizarre stuff anyway. For those curious about the taste, there are other examples of Moutai’s category of spirit, called baijiu by the Chinese, like Shui Jing Fang (pictured above) or Wuliangye. Neither is as refined, complex, or delicious as Moutai, but they are available and offer a sense of the taste of baijiu.

And it might be wise to familiarize yourself with the taste. By sheer numbers, baijiu is the most consumed spirit in the world, over vodka, gin, and whiskey. Diageo, one of the world’s largest spirit companies, is betting big on it, according to the Wall Street Journal. So maybe it’s time to order out some Chinese, pop a bottle of baijiu, and start toasting your dinner guests.

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