T he world’s most popular spirit is not, as you might expect, whisky. Nor is it vodka, rum, tequila or gin. It is actually baijiu – made primarily from the cereal grain sorghum but also from rice, wheat, millet and maize – and it accounts for around 40% of the alcohol market in China. In 2021, it generated sales of $86.5 billion, more than every other spirit combined.
Just like the finest whiskies and cognacs, baijiu can command stratospheric prices at auction: a 24-bottle case of “Sun Flower” Kweichow Moutai from 1974, for example, sold at Sotheby’s London in 2021 for ￡1 million.
There are several varieties within the baijiu market, based on style and origin. Some are very prestigious indeed, and none more so than Moutai (also spelt maotai), which has to come from a designated area around the town of Maotai, Guizhou province, southwest China. “If you think of baijiu as brandy, then moutai is like cognac [a refined, barrel-aged brandy named after the region in which it is produced],” explains Paul Wong, Sotheby’s head of wine and spirits, China. “The brand we see in auction houses, Kweichow Moutai, is on the level of Hennessy XO or above.”
So, what does it taste like? It has a flavour profile unlike anything that a drinker of western spirits will have previously encountered. Wong explains that moutai has notes of “mushrooms and umami-rich soy sauce” and it fits into the sauce-fragrance category of baijiu. (The strong-fragrance variety is more fruity and floral.)
He adds: “Typical notes on the palate might include aromas of pear drops or even nail polish remover and a long, earthy, pungent finish.”
What should I look out for when buying moutai?
Seek expert advice for rarer bottles and buy from a reputable source, as counterfeit bottles are widespread. Check that the seal is clean and intact; because the bottle is opaque, weighing it is the best way to discover any loss through evaporation or leakage, especially with older bottles.
How should I serve it?
Serve moutai at room temperature in small, tulipshaped glasses. Common baijiu is usually consumed in glazed cups filled to the brim – and often downed in one amid a raucous chorus of “gānbēi!” (“dry cup”).
However, rare, high-priced moutai deserves a little more respect, so sniffing and sipping it is perfectly acceptable.
What food goes well with moutai?
Wong takes his lead from Guizhou’s local cuisine, “which is often salty, spicy and quite rustic, and goes very well with the local spirit,” he says. “Moutai is strong, so it can easily overwhelm delicate food, but it is becoming popular throughout Asia to partner spicy dishes, and it is even starting to crop up in cocktails.”