What Makes Moutai the Leading Baijiu of China?

What Makes Moutai the Leading Baijiu of China?

Ahead of Sotheby's inaugural Moutai-dedicated live auction in Hong Kong, Rico Li shares how it is made – and why it is the world’s most valuable distillery.
Ahead of Sotheby's inaugural Moutai-dedicated live auction in Hong Kong, Rico Li shares how it is made – and why it is the world’s most valuable distillery.

T aking place on 2 April, Moutai Extravaganza | The Inaugural Live Sale brings a stellar line-up of more than 270 bottles of highly sought-after Moutai. Headlined by the ultra-rare Kweichow Moutai Aged 80-year-old released in 2002, the auction includes more than 100 limited and customised editions and rare finds such at the early 1980s Flying Fairy and Five Start Bottlings, and the iconic “Iron Cap” Moutai from 1987 to 1996.

Read on to discover what makes this Chinese liquor so unique.

“Gathering the spiritual springs within itself, converging with exquisite waters as it flows southward.”

In one poetic phrase, we capture the essence of the Chishui River, revealing its pristine charm. The river originates in Yunnan, and its banks are adorned with overlapping shades of green. The water flows gently as it passes through the edges of Sichuan, enters the river valley and into Guizhou – a land known for its production of the renowned and time-honuored Chinese liquor Moutai.

In the world of strong spirits, Moutai's grand reputation is comparable to that of Scotch whisky and French brandy, making it China’s leading baijiu. In the world of baijiu, Moutai (also known as Maotai) is classified as jiangxiang (sauce fragrance). It’s savoury aroma comes from the production process resembling that used in the fermentation of sauces. The liquor itself is mellow, delicate and leaves a lingering fragrance in the mouth.

Just like Champagne can only be called as such when produced in the Champagne region of France, only the liquor brewed in Maotai Town can be called Moutai. The unique terroir of Maotai Town is incomparable to any other place. Maotai Town experiences mild winters and hot summers, with low wind and rainfall. The hot and humid climate is conducive to the habitation and proliferation of micronutrients necessary for liquor fermentation. In addition, the excellent water quality of the Chishui River, abundant in trace elements, shapes the fragrant essence found throughout Guizhou.

In addition to an excellent terroir, the clarity of Moutai liquor relies on superior raw materials, particularly the sorghum variety known as hongyingzi (red sorghum). Red sorghum differs from regular sorghum in that its grains are firm and plump, with small and thick husks, making it capable of withstanding multiple rounds of steaming and cooking. Moreover, red sorghum contains significantly more tannins than ordinary sorghum, with a tannin content of approximately 1.68%. This content falls within the optimal range, as it is not lower than 1%, which would dilute the sauce fragrance of the liquor, nor higher than 2.5%, which would impact the bitterness and smoothness of its taste. During the fermentation process, red sorghum also produces precursor substances such as catechin acid, vanillin, and ferulic acid, contributing to the unique taste of Moutai liquor, reminiscent to that of soy sauce.

The process of brewing Moutai liquor is a profound art that has been passed down for centuries. It generally involves three stages: malting, fermentation and blending. Firstly, wheat is crushed and mixed with koji and water to form a starter. After fermenting for 40 days, the starter is stored for about six months, marking the beginning of the brewing process. The fermentation stage consists of two major phases: the addition of red sorghum and distillation. This stage takes a whole year and involves nine rounds of steaming, eight rounds of spreading and drying, and seven rounds of extracting the liquor. Finally, the liquor from different rounds is stored in ceramic jars. The blending process takes place according to three typical flavours – sauce fragrance, mellow sweetness, and cellar aroma – as well as different alcohol levels and ages. This ensures consistent quality among the final products, and the entire process takes three years to complete.

The secret of producing the exquisite Moutai liquor lies in the combination of the excellent water source, favourable terroir, and meticulous craftsmanship. As the Chishui River flows through Maotai Town, it undergoes a refining process that gives birth to the pure and precious essence of Moutai liquor – drop by drop.

Whisky & Spirits The Hong Kong Sales

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