LONDON/LUZHOU, CHINA – It may be China’s national spirit, but London bartender Ellie Veale can tell from the first swig why baijiu has not caught on overseas.
Veale crinkles her nose as the crystal-clear booze, after some initial fruity notes, reveals its intense, earthy essence.
“I worked on a cattle farm in Australia, and this kind of aftertaste reminds me of the smell of … cow manure, hay and horses,” she said in the bar Demon, Wise & Partners. “It’s not the beverage for me.”
And yet baijiu’s popularity in China has propelled demand — making it the most consumed spirit in the world, and its major producers the most valuable distilleries globally.
“Baijiu belongs to China, but also the world,” said Su Wanghui, information director at Luzhou Laojiao, one of the country’s biggest and oldest brands. “We hope to have people around the world try baijiu, and like baijiu.”
There is just one problem: the taste.
Kinder critics say it evokes truffles or burning plastic. Less generous descriptions have included “industrial cleaning solvent” and “liquid razor blades.”
Ranging from around 35 to 55 percent alcohol, baijiu packs a searing, sickly sweet punch, an intensity that evolved to match the powerfully spicy cuisine of southwestern China, baijiu’s heartland.
Many foreigners in China relate horror stories of being bombarded by baijiu toasts at banquets.
“The foreign view of baijiu is: very spicy, like a rocket blasting to heaven,” Su said at Luzhou Laojiao’s headquarters on the upper Yangtze in rugged Sichuan province.
Most Chinese cannot imagine major celebrations without it, particularly the Lunar New Year holiday, when excessive toasting leaves revelers staggering toward brutal hangovers.
Around 10.8 billion liters (2.9 billion gallons) of baijiu was consumed last year — nearly all in China — according to International Wine and Spirit Research.
That is more than whisky, vodka, gin, rum and tequila combined and would take an hour to slosh over the Niagara Falls, according to WorldBaijiuDay.com.
But baijiu has been on a roller-coaster in recent years.
A crackdown on government corruption, launched in 2012, hit hard — premium brands had become the go-to gift for bribing officials.
Sales fell off a “cliff,” Su said.
And many younger Chinese, exposed to French wine and German beer, shun a rotgut they equate with rural regions and drunken businessmen.
Forced to adapt, manufacturers have found success with milder new varieties and brightly packaged single-serving mixed drinks.
Sales have recovered, igniting share prices.
In 2017 the market value of Shanghai-listed Kweichow Moutai surged past London-based Diageo, maker of Johnnie Walker whisky and Smirnoff vodka, to become the world’s most valuable distiller. Now around 900 yuan ($130) per share, it could become China’s first 1,000 yuan stock.
Emboldened distilleries are now looking abroad, staging tastings and developing smoother, export-oriented brands while touting centuries-old artisanal production methods.
At Luzhou Laojiao, sorghum is fermented for months in deep microbe-rich earthen pits, some in continuous use since 1573.
Staffers, resembling Shaolin monks in bright yellow-and-red outfits and performing all work by hand, distill the fermented mash in steam-belching wooden pot stills. The end product is then aged, sometimes for decades, in giant clay pots in nearby caves.
Water, soil, climate and other factors make baijius from different regions as “different from each other as a whiskey is to a mescal,” said Bill Isler, CEO of Ming River, an export-only brand created by Luzhou Laojiao.
But he says there is a “lot of prejudice” to overcome before baijiu can follow once-obscure “local” spirits such as vodka and tequila and go global.
A wave of “baijiu bars” opened in China, the U.S. and Europe in recent years as a buzz swelled. But many have since closed.
“It’s a challenge for the customers. It hasn’t really caught on in the West yet,” said Demon, Wise & Partners owner Paul Mathew.
The price of top brands is one hurdle. Mathew charges £12 ($15) for a glass of Kweichow Moutai.
“It is also a very unfamiliar flavor for guests, so we need to tell them the story — how baijiu is made, why it has the characteristics it has — before it becomes more accessible,” he said.
Jim Boyce, a Beijing blogger on China’s booze scene who launched the annual Aug. 9 World Baijiu Day in 2015 to raise awareness, said baijiu is hampered by how it is consumed in China: straight up, with food.
“The fact is, people — at least in North America and Europe — don’t drink lukewarm straight 52 percent alcohol, so the people promoting this tend to be really into traditional baijiu culture,” he said.
Boyce advocates creative cocktails or novelties like baijiu ice cream, suggestions that provoke blank stares from Chinese baijiu executives seeking his advice.
“It’s been frustrating, frankly,” he added.
Overseas sales are growing, however. Kweichou Moutai earned 2.89 billion yuan ($418 million) abroad last year, up 27 percent year-on-year. But that is a drop in the bucket of its 73.6 billion yuan overall revenue.
“We’re trying our best to make the world understand, to spread the word about baijiu, just like whisky and red wine are now known within China,” Su said.
“But there is still a long road ahead.”