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Introduction to baijiu

What is baijiu?

It's one of the biggest selling spirits on the planet with over 17 billion litres produced every year yet, outside of its native China, very few people have heard of it. It's a clear spirit with the most celebrated styles boasting pungent and complex aromas.

Baijiu enjoys its position as an honoured cultural symbol in China together with silk, tea, ceramics, martial arts and calligraphy.

How do you pronounce it?

Baijiu is one of those words that's hard to form in a western tongue. But we have it under good authority that, if you assume the sound "bai" is pronounced as an English person would say the word "buy", and the sound "jiu" is pronounced as an Italian would say "gio" in the name "Giovanni", then you're just about on the right track.

Why are we talking about it now?

Well for one, we've just welcomed in the Year of the Ox, and what better way to celebrate than by picking up a slice of Chinese food and drink culture? But more importantly, we're starting to see baijiu appear more and more in bars and on the shelves of shops like The Oxford Wine Company.

How is it made?

Baijiu is produced from different grains, most often sorghum, but also rice, corn and wheat. It's made in a similar way to most spirits you've heard of with the unique addition of a special product called Qu, which helps with fermentation before the distillation process gets underway.

Once baijiu has been distilled, rather than oak, it's matured in large ceramic jars from anything up to 50 years. Over time it develops a range of interesting flavours from sweet citrus to nuttiness and more savoury, umami, characteristics.

It's produced in a wide range of categories defined by aroma, but there are four key styles to be aware of. These are Strong Aroma, Sauce Aroma, Light Aroma and Rice Aroma. Baijiu can get a little intense so in the UK, you're more likely to find the lighter styles more widely available.

How should you drink it?

Baijiu has entered the British market via its use in cocktails, something that's becoming increasingly popular. Traditionally baijiu is consumed throughout the meal and is seen in China as an important component in business interactions as well as for celebrations. Serve baijiu either at room temperature or even slightly warmed up.

How can you get your hands on some?

We've partnered with Fenjiu, China's oldest producer with 6,000 years of history, who make traditional style baijiu in the Light Aroma style using organic sorghum in the Shanxi province.

With an incredibly fresh nose of cut grass, nettle, thyme, lime and peppermint Xin Li He Fen is a style of baijiu best suited to use in cocktails and mixed drinks. On the palate, you get herbal notes that round off to burnt toffee, ginger and nutmeg. The finish is sweet and warm.

Next up we have the more savoury Fen Chiew. Aged for 10 years, this baijiu displays notes of soy, spice and prunes with underlying honey and a delicious nuttiness. For an off-piste pairing, we recommend trying this baijiu with steak and black pepper sauce.

Third on our list is the bamboo infused Zhu Ye Qing Jiu, also aged 10 years and with delightful aromas of coffee, honeysuckle, almond, rice and jasmine on the nose. On the palate, this baijiu is richer than you'd expect with tropical and spicy flavours on top of more floral and honeyed characteristics.

Finally, Qing Hua is infused with blue flower and aged thirty years producing the most complex baijiu on our roster. The nose is clean and fresh with orange peel, cinnamon, quince and acacia. On the palate, there's a remarkable balance between tangy, herbal, starchy and sweet flavours.

The wrap up

While there's still plenty more to say on this topic, we hope this little intro has sparked some appetite to try this immensely popular yet little known piece of Chinese cultural heritage. To find out more check out the awesome drinkbaijiu.com or, better yet, pop into The Oxford Wine Company shops and pick up a bottle for yourself.