Wine Talk with Alice Swift
Sorghum: The Ancient Spirit of China
In June of this year, I traveled back to my home country of Taiwan, where I experienced a spirit beverage that has existed as far back as the Ming Dynasty. Travel with me to the country of China, where we explore the origin of baijiu (báijiǔ). Baijiu is a clear, or “white” alcohol, as the term directly translates to in English, and is the highest consumed spirit in the world, believe it or not! This term is used for a number of spirits produced in East Asia, such as shochu from Japan, or soju from Korea. In China, the primary form of baijiu is made of sorghum, which is a type of grain, and typically has a much higher alcohol percentage than the other baijiu made in Asia (closer to ~30-65% depending on the brand).
Because of the higher alcohol content and unique aromas, it does take a little getting used to in order to appreciate the aroma and flavor characteristics. However, this white spirit is more like a whiskey rather than a clear spirit like vodka or rum when it comes to complexity and body.
Sorghum is a gluten-free, hearty grain with many other names (e.g., Indian millet, Guinea corn, great millet, jowar, cholam, etc.). It was originally produced primarily as a crop in Africa but is now used in East Asia for spirit consumption. Other uses around the world include being ground and made into porridge or flatbread, couscous, breads, syrup, beer, etc. It is even used beyond consumption as building materials or biofuels. It is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world, as of 2016, behind the other more familiar grains (corn, wheat, rice, etc…).
Because it is gluten-free, the grain has begun appearing in the United States as a substitute. Lakefront Brewery, Inc. (Milwaukee) produces a gluten-free beer called “New Grist,” which is made from sorghum and rice. Anheuser-Busch (St. Louis, Missouri) also has their “Redbridge” beer, which is a sorghum-based, gluten-free beer that is nationally distributed in the U.S.
Kaoliang wine, also known as Gaoliang wine, is one type of the distilled baijiu spirit made from fermented, distilled sorghum. Historically, this alcohol has been around since the Ming Dynasty, and is sold in China, Taiwan, and even Korea today. One of the largest distilleries of sorghum today is Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor, Inc. (KKL). KKL itself first produced baijiu in 1952 as a government distillery. They initially encouraged farmers to grow sorghum by allowing them to barter their sorghum harvest in exchange for rice, and this relationship contributed to the local economy over the next several decades.
Baijiu is made over a period of over two months. After producing the yeast from a wheat/water mixture, the cooked sorghum is then distilled twice with a month of fermentation in between. Afterwards, first and second distillations are blended to the strength and quality required for the brand. It is traditionally served at room temperature in some variation of a small glass typically smaller than a shot glass.
What’s interesting is that baijiu is classified by its aroma in the Chinese government, starting in 1952 (modified in 1979), despite the fact that other variables such as farming, ingredients, production, etc. are typically considered as part of the quality classification. Currently there are over 10 classifications of baijiu, but the primary four categories that are produced are the strong aroma (nóngxiāng), light aroma (qīngxiāng), sauce aroma (jiàngxiāng) and rice aroma (mǐxiāng).
Cost is quite reasonable for this type of spirit, and recently, Kinmen Kaoliang received several awards at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, winning gold (“38% Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor” and “Baoyue Spring Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor”), double gold (“Treasure Collection of Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor”), and even “Best Baijiu of the Year” for its 58% Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor.
Since KKL was established, many people have opted to buy and store the liquor to sell at a later time after being aged for a number of years. Cost of older produced baijiu can be marked up significantly after being aged in bottle, sometimes over 40 or 50 times the original cost depending on when it was first purchased!
I recently had the opportunity to try a 35+ year Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor aged in bottle. Clearly the aging helps to diminish the harsh alcohol tendency as is with many distilled spirits. The baijiu was smooth and complex, perhaps even as complex as whiskey typically is.
Next time you’re at a liquor store looking for something new to try, see about searching for a baijiu! It is a unique experience that you might not find in other spirits.