Unearthing China’s Ancient Terroir in Maotai

China's traditional grain spirit, baijiu, has evolved—mostly in obscurity—along a trajectory that has no Western equivalent. Derek Sandhaus travels to one of its most famous production zones to discover why this peculiar drink has suddenly gained international acclaim, and why it can't be replicated anywhere else.

Looking out over the misty Chishui River in the village of Maotai, Guizhou province, one of the most famous baijiu-producing regions in China.

The liquor that made the Maotai township famous is produced in long, squat buildings near the banks of the Chishui River. Inside, 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.

Whereas Western grain alcohols are fermented and distilled in liquid form, the Chinese perform both processes in a solid state, extracting alcohol by running steam through the grains in stills resembling giant dim sum baskets.

The bottling line at Kweichow Moutai, the most celebrated producer in the region.

They say in Guizhou, a rough-hewn, ethereal landscape shrouded in mist and forgotten by time, that you can’t go three days without rain or three kilometers without hitting a mountain. They also say you can’t meet a person there with more than three coins in his pocket. It’s China’s poorest province, where only the faintest outlines of the industrial machine are visible. The deeper you venture into the interior, the further back you appear to travel into the past: terraced rice paddies, ox-drawn carts, stone-roofed villages.

Our van barreled through the fog over dirt roads, unpaved overpasses and unlit tunnels. I could already imagine the article in the next day’s newspaper. It ended: “There were no survivors.”

We were headed to Maotai, a remote Guizhou village precariously perched between mountains and the Chishui River. Though few have heard of it in the English-speaking world, its name elicits reverential nods in all corners of the Middle Kingdom. The harsh terrain that makes overland travel inadvisable also creates a pocket of humid, temperate air perfect for crafting Chinese grain spirits, or baijiu.

Baijiu is not China’s answer to whiskey, nor is it Chinese gin or vodka. It’s an altogether different animal—a spirit that’s evolved along an entirely distinct trajectory from its Western counterparts. Whereas Western grain alcohols are fermented and distilled in liquid form, the Chinese perform both processes in a solid state, extracting alcohol by running steam through the grains in an apparatus resembling a giant dim sum basket. The flavors and aromas are unlike those found in any liquor elsewhere.

The Chinese created the world’s oldest known alcoholic drink, but the major breakthrough came during the first millennium BC with a bit of ingenuity called qu. Roughly pronounced “chew,” it’s a Chinese invention worthy of mention alongside gunpowder and the compass. A fermentation agent, it’s nothing more complicated than water and grain mashed together and dried into clumps. But by careful manipulation, producers achieve astonishing biodiversity within the qu. Each brick can contain hundreds of distinct yeasts, molds and microorganisms, all naturally cultivated from the air. As with the French notion of terroir, even the slightest change in environment will alter the character of the alcohol.

Not only do these mini-ecosystems impart great depth of flavor, they’re also efficient. Whereas Western brewers convert a grain’s starches to sugars before adding yeast to kick off fermentation, qu simplifies the process into a single step. The resulting beverages are potent, with rich flavors at times as sweet as a port or smoky as a porter.

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.

This most basic form of Chinese alcohol, made by combining steamed grains and qu, is a dark amber potion called huangjiu, or “yellow wine.” Celebrated by poets, painters and emperors, it was China’s leading libation throughout dynastic times. Distillation arrived in China later, some 800 years ago, likely as a spoil of Mongolian conquest of the Middle East. Local winemakers at first simply distilled huangjiu, but soon developed distinct Chinese distillation methods and yellow wines gave way to white spirits, or baijiu.

In the centuries that followed, baijiu spread to all corners of the empire and became a fantastically diverse category of sprits. Because overland travel into the hinterland was often treacherous—if not impossible—each backwater hamlet developed production techniques in near total isolation. Some baijius are fermented in stone pots, others in vast subterranean pits of stone or mud. Most of them are distilled from sorghum but they can also be made from rice, wheat, corn, millet and even Job’s tears, or a combination thereof.

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.

Though the scale is grander today, the techniques remain much the same as they have been for centuries. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Beijing sent its emissaries to Maotai to establish an outpost for the state salt enterprise. The Mandarins brought with them wealth and prestige, but also northern distillers. They imbued the local pit fermentation techniques with a complexity hitherto unknown in Guizhou, giving birth to a new strain of baijiu.

There are hundreds of distilleries in the region today, but none more celebrated than Kweichow Moutai (an antiquated Romanization of Guizhou Maotai). During the Chinese Civil War, the Red Army sterilized their wounds and fortified their resolve with local baijiu. After the Communist victory the government consolidated the town’s biggest distilleries into Kweichow Moutai, which became the Party’s favored brand and the official drink of state dinners. When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai thawed Sino-American relations with a toast of Moutai. “I think if we drink enough Moutai,” Henry Kissinger later remarked, “we can solve anything.”

As China’s red star has risen, so too has Moutai’s. The price of its flagship Flying Fairy baijiu has soared from about a dollar per bottle to hundreds. Antique bottles fetch thousands at auction and the country’s movers and shakers have spent so much money on premium baijiu that the government recently outlawed official alcohol expenditures to curb corruption.

It was thus with a sense of building excitement that we descended into Maotai township. Smokestacks materialized through the fog, then tiled roofs and whitewashed walls streaked with mildew. But we could smell it before we saw it. Every inch of town is devoted to baijiu, and the thick musk of fermenting sorghum hovers in your nostrils wherever you go.

Our van pulled into the circular drive of the distillery-owned Mao Garden Hotel. There were nine in our group: Chinese, French, Thai and an Australian and American for good measure. We were soon joined by a busload of Moutai employees, local officials and their respective entourages. Lithe young hostesses in red silk cheongsam dresses led us into a private dining room. A seemingly endless stream of dishes landed on the lazy susan, chopsticks darting in and out as they spun past us.

When I wasn’t drinking I was eating. Guizhou cuisine favors aggressive flavors that run sour to spicy. And while most southwestern Chinese baijiu is sweet and citrusy, Moutai is an intensely savory experience. It is dark and earthy, like mushrooms marinated in soy sauce with notes of bitter herbs, roasted nuts and dates, all in exquisite harmony. There is so much happening that it is hard to pick out just one taste. And the strength—one hundred and six proof—doesn’t help.

When I sensed a brief respite from incessant toasting, a team of women swirled into the room. They wore gruff expressions and shabby Chinese knock-offs of expensive Western clothing. Up to this point, we had been taking thimble-sized shots—sips, really—but the women bore rice bowls and weren’t taking prisoners.

As quickly as the session reached full boil, it was yanked from the flames. We were whisked back to the lobby and our hosts receded back into the Guizhou mist. It was the kind of experience that is impossible to replicate. It was too rooted in time and place, a lot like Moutai itself.

For decades the distillery has tried to match its supply with demand, but between the mountains and the river geological constraints have proved nearly insurmountable. In the 1970s, the government attempted to build a second Moutai plant nearby. They rebuilt the factory according to the original blueprints and even transposed the dust from the ceiling beams. The production process was identical, but the resulting baijiu was not.

Such is the challenge in producing baijiu, which takes the concept of terroir to heights seldom explored in spirits. Every province, town and village has something unique to bring to the bottle. And excellent baijiu requires certain natural conditions: the right climate, the right water, even the right microbes. The singular, otherworldly flavors of baijiu are an embodiment of the Middle Kingdom’s fabled landscape. To drink it is, quite literally, to drink of China.

Photographs of the distillery from the book Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus published by Penguin China 2014.

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