Quiz: What is the most valuable alcoholic drink brand in the world? And what is the largest spirits category?
The global component of those questions should be a clue. The answer for both lies overseas. And it’s not beer or vodka, whiskey or wine.
Rather, the answer is rooted in Chinese culture. For five centuries the country has produced a white liquor, a distilled spirit made from sorghum and other grains.
This is baijiu (pronounced “bye Joe”). Baijiu translates to “white spirit,” and sells 1.2 billion cases a year, compared with vodka’s 700 million. The category’s top-selling brand Moutai (“mow tie”) was recently named the world’s most valuable alcoholic drink brand at $5.7 billion. This beat both Bud Light ($4.9bn) and Johnnie Walker ($4.6bn).
Baijiu in China is consumed in celebration like scotch. People take a series of small shots (as many as 40) during dinner as a form of toasting. It is both a social custom and a sign of social standing. The quality of baijiu served reflects someone’s socioeconomic stature. A 375-ml. bottle of Moutai can cost $160.
Westerners would be less likely to shoot such an expensive spirit. Instead we prefer to savor premium products. That is part of the strategy of one man who wants to bring baiju out of China and into bars and retail stores across the globe.
Charles Lanthier is the founder of the imported baijiu brand HKB. He was working in China when he first experienced the spirit “the Chinese way.” Seeing opportunity to offer a western take on this popular product, he began researching baijiu production
Lanthier learned that production begins with bricks of closely guarded proprietary grain mixes known as Qu, or “choo.” These are aged for more than a month. Fungi grows in the bricks, which are then broken up and mixed with more grains before buried in mud pits for fermentation.
Distillation follows. Some brands will repeat the entire process many times over. Moutai goes through eight cycles, deepening its flavors and aromas. Lanthier is content with just once through for HKB, which retails for $50 per 750-ml. bottle.
All baijiu is blended, and some are aged. They come in a number of styles classified by aromas. These include light, rice, “sauce,” and strong. HKB is the latter: a spirit with a strong sweet fragrance, tasting of apple, pineapple, grassiness and light grains. Moutai, by comparison, is more densely flavored, pungent, with notes like extreme soy sauce.
“I went with strong because it’s the most suitable for westerners in terms of quality and flavor,” Lanthier explains. He also imagines that westerners will enjoy HKB as they would a premium whiskey or tequila. That is, sipping and savoring the complexity, rather than shooting.
HKB is produced in the Sichuan province of China. It ages for two years and is bottled in Italy for production reasons.
Lanthier has helped lead the spread of baijiu beyond China. HKB is in bars and off-premise accounts throughout New York, London, and Los Angeles. By the end of June it will be in Las Vegas. The mixology movement has caught on and is using baijiu in a variety of craft cocktails. A baijiu bar called Lumos NYC recently opened in Manhattan.
With mixologists and Millennials craving variety, it may just be a matter of time before baijiu catches on here. The name HKB — which stands for Hong Kong Baijiu — foretells such a day. The Chinese city represents the meeting point between western and eastern cultures. Moreover, the literal translation of Hong Kong is “Fragrant Harbor,” which Lanthier also sees as a metaphor for baijiu’s march westward.
While HKB is meant to be enjoyed slowly like scotch, its founder has noticed a number of westerners drinking it as celebratory shots. “That brings it full circle for me, back to the traditional,” Lanthier reflects, “Which is just fine with me.”
Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Cheers Magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @kswartzz.