Today was a crash course in the art of Bai Jui, Chinese white spirit. I thought I’d be visiting a Chinese distillery and sampling Chinese white spirit, instead I was given a 0-60 lesson in Chinese corporate drinking culture. The whole purpose of the week I added on to my Japan/Taiwan whisky tour was to be introduced to Bai Jui, a Chinese white spirit that accounts for 1/3 of the distilled spirits in the world. I learned a lot today about the scope of the industry, how it’s made and most crucially its cultural reference. Can you say Gam Bai?
My driver picked me up from my hotel in downtown Chengdu around 9:00. I say around 9 (I think the actual time was closer to 9:40) because nothing happens exactly on time in this country, it happens exactly when it intends to. Nearly 1/3 of the two hour drive consisted of getting out of Chengdu, the +14 million person metropolis which is my base for this leg of the tip. Raining and overcast the rest of the drive was a bore, with the lush thick hedges along the road only occasionally providing glimpses of rice patties and small vilages. Our destination was Qionlai, a town by Chinese standards at just 600,000 people, in the heart of the “wine region”, which produces China’s finest Bai Jui.
Bai Jui is the single largest spirits category in the world both by volume and by value, yet it is almost unknown in the West. The native white spirit is only produced within China’s borders, and the vast majority of that in Sichuan province. The two largest brands, Maotai and Wuliangye account for 75% of the Bai Jui market and are state owned behemoths. They have a leg up on the more 1000 other producers because of their link to the Communist party, and especially in the case of Maotai their patriotic links. China is one of the fastest growing spirits markets in the world, and yet Bai Jui accounts for 99% of the total sales. The last 1% is the value of all other spirits categories combined.
On arrival I met the local Moet Hennessey brand team and toured their impressive facilities. From the word go there were stark contrasts between the modern stylish offices of Moet and the surrounding neighborhood. The operation consists of several workshops where the product is produced, maturation warehouses for the spirit, offices, a museum, a brand store and a Maison (or Brand House). Wen Jun is Moet’s only Maison in Asia, and there are but two in all of North America. The fact that they have moved into the market is confirmation of its already impressive size and the growth potential they feel it has. Moet’s Wen Jun Maison consists of 3 villas, a traditional Opera stage, dining room and reception. The facility is a blend of traditional Chinese culture, architecture and furnishing with a tip of the hat to modern western luxury style.
There are few overt similarities between the distillation techniques at Wen Jun, and even traditional distilling techniques in the west. The same principles are put to work though in strikingly different ways. The earliest versions of the process date back some 5000 years, with historical references to it first emerging 3000 years later. The modern process employed has changed little in the last 400, save for the replacement of bamboo by stainless steel and the introduction of machinery to aid the process. Even the aging process is drastically different with the spirit almost hermetically sealed into clay vessels rather than oaken barrels.
Most fascinating is the dry fermentation process as opposed to the wet/liquid fermentation processes used by most distillers in the west. A mix of grains: rice, glutinous rice, wheat, sorghum and corn are milled and blended and then mixed with the fermenting agent or “Qu” which consists of wheat and barley. Part of the previous batch is also mixed with the new grains to encourage consistency and help the process along. The mix of grains is then placed in a concrete pit 2 ½ meters deeps where it is sealed by a layer of clay. This keeps the alcohol from evapourating away from the mash. The fermentation continues for 70-120 days depending on the time of year and climatic conditions. This is considerably longer than most other producers and makes for a better quality product.
The distillation process is also drastically different from western methods with the whole mash dropped into a large pot where it is heated with steam. The steam causes the alcohol to evapourate into a mist which is channelled into a condenser. This is perhaps the only portion of the process which bares any significant similarity to western techniques. Though curiously there is no copper component to the metalwork. From what I can tell the alcohol’s flavour is not so much influenced by the manner of distillation, but rather by the qualities of the fermentation. As with single malt whisky production some Bai Jui producers, like Wen Jun, don’t take the full spirit run. The first alcoholic vapours to come off the still are unsafe, and others components of the spirit run have unpleasant falvours. Only 20% of the spirit is kept for aging and the rest sold on as industrial alcohol or to less discerning Bai Jui producers. The average strength of the spirit off the still is between 68-72%.
The best Bai Juis are matured for at least 3 years if not longer, in earthenware pots. The spirit does seem to mellow and change character in the pots, but exactly how is a mystery, at least to me. There post are fairly well sealed, meaning there is little to no evapouration and almost no interaction between the spirit and its environment. Oak matured spirits can rely on the oak to add character, remove unwanted impurities and interact to change each other. I did see some older Bai Juis while I was there and some of these did seem to have darkened slightly, presumably leaching elements from the vessel.
There are three principle types of Bai Jui: Soy Fragrance, Rich Fragrance and Light Fragrance. 70% of Bai Jui production is Rich Fragrance, and that style is generally considered the best quality. Wen Jun has two variants: Wen Jun and Tianxian. The regular Wen Jun is a premium product bottled at 52%, it comes in a very stylish decanter. Mainly composed of 3 year old spirit, the firms renowned Master Blender Madame Wu will blend spirits up to 38 years of age. Tianxian, its ultra-premium older brother is matured longer but also bottled at 52%. The blend for Tianxian consists of spirit up to 50 years of age. In both cases only very small quantities of the older spirits are used, added to give depth and balance.
Bai Jui is not a drink produced to be sipped, savoured or consumed like whisky or cognac, it is very much a social lubricant. It is a drink to be shared among groups of friends, family or most importantly business associates, and in prodigious quantities. Chinese business culture is all about relationships, and those relationships supersede even contracts or the western handshake. Relationships are built around communal drinking and treating your friends or associates to a bottle or three or four is a way of showing you respect and value your relationship with them. The drink is not sipped, it is drank in the form of shots while consuming food. It is not unusual for individuals to parties to consume a bottle/person or more in a single sitting.
It is all well and fine to be told about this cultural experience it is another to become a part of it. You’ll recall the guest villa I mentioned earlier? After a day immersed in Bai Jui education, including a comparative tasting I found myself back at the villa for dinner. Moet Hennessey uses the villa, its only Maison in Asia to host important customers and key influencers. It is a form of marketing that acknowledges the role relationship building plays in Japanese business. Just as I was being hosted so too was a group of men from a wealthy province in the North West of China. The big man, both literally and metaphorically, was an importer of liquor into the province whose brands also included Wen Jun. With him were a number of subordinates, his Moet Brand ambassador and some government officials.
Towards the end of dinner, a Chinese operatic magician came in to entertain us. By this time we’d all had a lot to drink, and the curious Chinese wanted to drink with and get to know me too. Within a matter of 45 minutes well more than a dozen shots of Bai Jui were consumed, with each of them wanting to Gambei with me. The Big Man and I must have had six shots together—maybe more, at least 3 each at two different times. By the end we were all good friends and the Big Man and I discussed how we might do business with each other. The main government official, in charge of tourism in his state was also insistent that I should come see it. Maybe another trip, while I’ve grown an appreciation for the tradition, and how to recognize a good Bai Jui, one epic Gambei session per trip will be enough for me.