You know your Balvenie from your Bruichladdich and your Bordeaux from Burgundy, but have you met Moutai?
While not yet common on Canadian shelves, Moutai is actually the most widely consumed spirit in the world, owing to its popularity in China. Described as China’s “national spirit,” it is served at all state banquets in China, and plays a role at official celebrations as well as special occasions and important moments for private citizens. In 2017, Kweichow Moutai Co. Ltd., the sole producer of Moutai, surpassed Diageo as the world’s largest and most valuable liquor company.
What it is
Moutai (pronounced “maou-tie”) is a type of spirit known as baijiu (pronounced “bye-joe”) which means “white liquor.”
Like the strict appellation of Cognac or Champagne, only baijiu produced in the town of Moutai in the Guizhou Province can be labelled as Moutai, and even more specifically, only baijiu produced by the state-run Kweichow Moutai Co., Ltd. Other Maotai produced in the region is referred to as Maotai Town baijiu.
How it’s made
Production and consumption of baijiu dates back more than a thousand years and involves the mixing of a culture known as qu (pronounced “chew”) with grain, which is then steamed and distilled. Qu is the secret to producing a fermented spirit like baijiu, and can be compared to the koji used in sake and shochu production or the sourdough starter used to make bread. The use of qu was discovered around 200 A.D. during the Han Dynasty; it was first employed to make huangjiu, or “yellow wine.” This process was subsequently refined to produce baijiu.
For the production of Moutai, the qu is composed of damp grains that have been left to grow yeast, fungi and other microorganisms. This mixture is combined with red sorghum and is then put through nine distillations, eight filtrations and seven fermentation sessions. The distilled baijiu is left in large earthenware vessels to mature. Unlike spirits like scotch or bourbon, this aging period is intended to remove impurities rather than impart flavor or colour (as with a wooden barrel). The final product is then blended and tempered with water, resulting in a spirit that comes in around 50 – 60% alcohol. The entire production cycle takes five years and is done entirely by hand. Finished Moutai can be aged anywhere from one to 30+ years, with the older varietals being more prized.
The town of Moutai is located on the southeast bank of the Chishui River, a major tributary of the Yangtze. Chishui means “red water river” due to a rich sediment content, which may play a role in the unique flavor of Moutai baijiu. The altitude of the town is around 400 m and is flanked on three sides by tall mountains. The climate is characterized by low wind and rainfall combined with high temperatures and humidity year-round—the town itself has been likened to a giant steamer.
Due to major demand, Kweichow Moutai Co., Ltd. attempted to increase production of Moutai by building a production facility upstream of the town, but found that they could not replicate the quality and flavours despite using identical technique and ingredients. It is speculated that there are over 2,000 types of microorganisms unique to the air of the town which contribute to Moutai’s unique terroir.
Kweichow Moutai Co. Ltd. boasts of over 155 unique flavour notes in their product, including grain, fruit, yeast, chocolate, caramel, smoke, grass and floral tones. Baijiu is often classified by its smell: Moutai is described as being a “sauce-fragrance” spirit, and this dominant soy-sauce note is remarked upon frequently.
How to serve
Moutai should be served between 20-25 degrees celsius. Traditionally it is served in small tumblers, facilitating many refills and toasts. Moutai pairs well with Chinese cuisine and food rich in umami flavours, such as mushrooms, caviar and soy-sauce marinated steaks.
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