Baijiu is the largest-selling spirit category in the world – an estimated $23 billion was spent last year according to one estimate – with almost all being consumed in China where it is distilled. Made primarily from sorghum, the hundreds of iterations can also include (based on regional preference) wheat, rice, barley, rice and corn and other starchy ingredients
Usually high-proof (around 50 ABV) with very assertive and pungent flavors and aromas, the spirit is not usually considered appealing to most Westerners. Baijiu is primarily a celebratory spirit, consumed in tiny cups of less than an ounce, drunk in one shot after another as part of a toasting ritual that goes on throughout a meal.
Baijiu comes in a variety of styles: the best known is called sauce aroma, but others include light aroma, sesame aroma and rice aroma.
Moutai is the world’s best known brand, made from sorghum and barley in a process that involves eight fermentations and seven distillation. Recently, newer brands meant for the export market have been developed. Currently, HKB has hired a full-time brand ambassador for the U.S., who has recently been conducting in-store tastings. CNS Imports offers fact sheets about this and their other baijiu brands, with branded goblets, a magazine and branded shopping bags.
5 & 6. Shochu and Soju
Shochu is a spirit produced in Japan, originating in the southern part of Kyushu Island. Probably brought to the island nation from China or Korea, shochu comes in two versions. The most common is made from corn, rice, rye, sweet potatoes or sugar in pot stills and is light and delicate, usually consumed straight or with ice, and sometimes infused with fruit.
The other version is made from molasses in a continuous distillation process, distilled many times, yielding a mostly tasteless and mixable vodka-like spirit. Shochus can range from 20 to 45 percent alcohol. The many Japanese shochus are primarily food beverages, found in fine dining Japanese restaurants more often than retail.
Soju, on the other hand, is the Korean version of one of the world’s most popular beverage alcohol products, originally a distilled type of saké. These days it’s made from barley, rice, sweet potatoes or other starchy grains. Crisp and clean, soju is usually consumed straight or over ice, and like with the Japanese version, the ABV ranges from 20 to 50.
Soju, like shochu, has become popular in states like California, where both a large ethnic market exists and where on-premise establishments can more easily obtain more easily licenses to serve beverages under a certain proof. Jinro is one of the world’s largest spirit brands and the volume leader in the U.S.
Poteen or poitín (pronounced “po-CHEEN”) is a traditional, un-aged Irish spirit made in small pot stills that provide its name. While many presume poitin to be a potato spirit, grains and sugar were as likely to be the source of distillation in the past when it was considered an illegal spirit, much like moonshine in the U.S.
The poteen still was a wash of fermenting barley or potatoes in a small copper pot, heated by turf fires; today it’s produced in legitimate distilleries. Made for at least 400, and perhaps as long as 1400 years, non-commercially produced poitín often hits very high alcohol content levels of up to 80 ABV.
In 1661, a tax was levied on private use distillers, and in 1760 a further law made it illegal to operate a still without a licence, forcing poitin further underground. Today, it is protected by law, and in the U.S., brands include Bunratty, Knockeen Hills, Glory Irish and Glendalough. Mad March Hare will soon launch in selected markets. BD
Jack Robertiello is the former editor of Cheers magazine and writes about beer, wine, spirits and all things liquid for numerous publications. More of his work can be found at www.jackrobertiello.com.