One thing that most spirits devourers can tell you about baijiu is that it’s a liquor unlike anything else. It’s commonly known as a pungent drink, but very few people have actually nailed down its exact taste. This is because there are various elements that go into making this well-rounded drink.
Factors like the type of grain used and the fermentation process all play a vital role in the flavor (and intensity) you get from the final drink. In this post, we’ll explain what baijiu tastes like and the flavor compounds behind creating the drink.
What Is Baijiu?
Baijiu is a grain-based clear spirit manufactured in China. The word baijiu means “white liquor”, and the spirit is known for its strong fruity aroma and punchy taste. A typical bottle of baijiu has up to 62% ABV (124 proof). One of the defining characteristics of baijiu is its aroma. There are various flavors and they are categorized as follows:
- Light aroma: Light aroma is a lot smoother on the pallet, and it gives off floral and dried fruit aromas.
- Strong aroma: Even though this variety is one of the strongest, the flavors you’ll often get from this spirit are floral and fruity.
- Rice aroma: Rice aroma, as the name implies, gives off a (steamed) rice smell. When you take a sniff (and sip) you’ll get a moldy grain-like aftertaste. The base of this variety is rice wine, so you might pick up notes of cherry and honey.
- Sauce aroma: When you think of a predominant sauce in China, the first thing that comes to mind is soy sauce. And that’s the taste you’re most likely to get from this variety.
What Is Baijiu Made From?
The liquor is typically made from sorghum, but wheat, corn, barley, and rice can be used to make the beverage. Parts of northern China also use sweet potato and peas to manufacture the spirit because these ingredients tend to be cheaper, and they produce a very light spirit.
This article goes into more depth on exactly what baijiu is made from.
What Does Baijiu Taste Like?
The taste of baijiu can be described as an overwhelmingly punchy pineapple and floral-like flavor, with very high-proof alcohol. Others have described the taste as ranging between rotten fruit and burnt rubber with a sweet tropical flavor. Pretty complex, right?
Because of its very intense flavor, it pairs well with heavy meat and oily dishes.
Flavor Compounds Present In Baijiu (And Why!)
The microorganisms (in the air) that interact with the grain during fermentation account for a majority of the taste and aroma you get from baijiu. Here’s an explanation of the processes and ingredients at play that brings forth the spirit’s flavor profile.
1. Flavor From Fermentation Pits
The traditional method of making baijiu involves fermenting the steamed grains in a fermentation pit. The grains are fermented in a solid state and this allows for the Qu (mold, bacteria, and yeast) added to the kernels to interact with the mush and convert all the starch into sugars. During this interaction, the sorghum develops complex moldy grain-like aromas which are imparted in the final drink.
2. Flavor From Sorghum
Sorghum is mainly used to make baijiu. This is because it gives off intense fruity notes of pineapple and has a higher alcohol content.
3. Flavors From A Multigrain Mash
Other grains can be combined with sorghum to create what is called a multigrain mash. This includes grains like wheat, rice, barley, and corn. It’s best to use grains with a high starch content when making the mash because they easily convert to sugar during fermentation. This combination develops floral and spicy aromas, which are well-known varieties in the baijiu world.
Is Baijiu Aged?
Aging baijiu in clay jars is a common practice in China. The aging process doesn’t necessarily affect the taste and aroma of the spirit, but it does allow the liquor to stabilize. This aging process is also believed to produce a smoother and well-rounded final product.
What Does Baijiu Taste Like Straight?
Anyone who’s had a sip of this mysterious drink will tell you that baijiu is very strong. Though the taste varies from spirit to spirit, when drunk straight, it’s generally harsh at the back of the throat, with floral and pineapple notes.
What Does Baijiu Taste Like When Mixed?
If the taste of neat baijiu makes you feel like vomiting, then maybe you’d enjoy it mixed. Most additions to the drink make for a smoother and sweeter drink. Baijiu fuses well with lemon juice and liqueur, which gives it a delicate finish with less of a burn. Having mixed baijiu is almost like having a soft drink with a little bit of alcohol added to it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1. Does baijiu taste like vodka?
It makes sense to compare the taste of baijiu to vodka given the similarity in ABV (40%), but it’s nothing like vodka. From the first sip, you’ll be presented with a kick and burn that you’ve never experienced in other spirits. If there’s a drink that you can liken baijiu to, it has to be Korean Soju.
Q2. Why does Baijiu taste so bad?
Baijiu tastes vile because it uses a fermentation process called solid or mold-state fermentation. The grains used to make the liquor are steamed, then there’s mold added to it, and the whole concoction is then fermented underground. This helps achieve the desired intense taste of the final product.
The grains used to make baijiu are attributed to this very robust, unusual-flavored spirit. The process of fermenting in pits while the grains are in a solid state all contribute to the taste you get when taking a sip. From the sweet floral notes to the deep soy sauce taste, you might find a variety that’s to your liking. You can experiment with the spirit and conjure a cocktail from it since it’s more appealing to the palate when mixed. Although the taste of baijiu is rather intense for the western palate, it should not put you off from trying the drink entirely.