A white liquor

This Asian drink is famous for its strong fragrance
Wednesday, March 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:56 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

As 1.3 billion Chinese know, Moutai, also known as Maotai — China’s most famous white liquor — is a drink with a reputation based on its unique flavor and fragrance.

An anecdote circulated among the Chinese gives an idea of Moutai’s magic:

In the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, Moutai went abroad for the first time, but attracted very little attention due to its provincial and ugly packaging.

Almost desperate, a witty Chinese business man intentionally broke a bottle of the liquor. All of a sudden, the amazing scent of Moutai filled the air and instantly caught the attention of the judges. After tasting, the judges awarded Moutai the gold medal.

“If you have some background knowledge and get used to white liquor’s flavor and fragrance, you probably will like it, especially the aftertaste, which embodies the soul of white liquor,” said Mingquan Wang, former owner of Columbia’s biggest Chinese store, Hong Kong Market. “Several Columbians who have been to China do come to my store to buy white liquor.”

In China, Chinese white liquor is the dominant alcohol beverage. People drink white liquor at important ceremonies, such as the Lunar New Year festival, and at weddings.

“The non-Chinese usually don’t get used to white liquor’s flavor and fragrance,” said Jun Deng, editor of Shanghai Times’ food section.

Esquire’s food and drink columnist David Wondrich is a testament to that statement. In January, Wondrich wrote that Moutai, the most famous Chinese white liquor (“baijiu” in Chinese), is quite strong and “tastes like the bottom of Bluto Blutarsky’s laundry hamper.” He even insists that all Chinese hooch has that same hamper flavor, and he suggests transforming it into a cocktail to make the liquor taste better.

Deng wrote, “Together with gin, whisky, brandy, vodka, rum and tequila, Chinese white liquor is categorized into distilled liquor. However, compared to its Western counterparts, Chinese white liquor’s flavor is hotter, stiffer and more complex. The strong and lasting fragrance is utterly different from Western distilled liquor. These characteristics make white liquor hard to be accepted by Americans.”

There are hundreds of different liquor brands, among which Moutai is the most famous. All are distillates made from grain. It’s the complex production procedure that creates white liquor’s unique flavor and fragrance.

“For example, white liquor is fermented in pottery rather than oak barrel, so don’t expect the fragrance which you will get from whiskey,” Deng explains.

A strong and lasting fragrance is one prominent characteristic of Chinese white liquor. Moutai is a masterpiece in terms of its lasting fragrance.

Xiaomin Liu, an alcohol beverage collector from Shenzhen, China, said, “After you drink a cup of Moutai, the empty cup will still keep the scent of liquor for five to seven days. This phenomenon is called ‘lasting fragrance of the empty cup.’ Though modern science proves that there are more than 100 chemical materials contained in the liquor, which contribute to this characteristic, no one is able to explain it thoroughly.”

In the past, white liquor’s alcoholic strength varied between 90 and 130 proof. “For people who are not very used to Chinese white liquor, like Esquire’s David Wondrich, the flavor may taste too strong, if not weird,” said James Z. Li, columnist of Wine China.

In fact, many Chinese now prefer low-proof white liquor, and many factories have updated technology to produce liquor as low as 40 proof.

Li suggests foreign visitors choose low-proof liquor, which is not too strong for newcomers but still possesses the traditional flavor.

“High-proof white liquors tend to be robust and spicy, with a powerful finish and a stronger sensation of heat. Low-proof white liquors provide a mellower taste and a more controlled experience, but probably at the cost of depth and individuality,” Li said.

Traditionally, the criteria for choosing white liquor includes color, fragrance, flavor and shape. First, the liquor should be absolutely clean and transparent. Second, the fragrance ought to be lasting. Third, if the drinker can feel some subtle and lasting sweetness after swallowing the liquor, the beverage is high quality. Fourth, great liquor shouldn’t feel like just water. To some degree, it should exhibit the feeling of a solid in the drinker’s mouth.

But according to Hua Tong, a drama writer and gourmet from Shanghai, these criteria are too difficult for foreigners. He suggests five very practical methods for choosing quality white liquor:

  • Turn the container (usually a bottle) upside down. There will be a drop of liquor on the bottom. The bigger the drop and the longer the drop is held, the better the liquor.
  • Shake the container heavily and turn it upside down. If the bubbles are small and rise evenly and gracefully, the liquor is of high quality. If the bubbles are big and act chaotically and quickly, the liquor is probably not worth drinking.
  • Drip a drop of oil on the liquor. If the oil expands irregularly, the liquor is low-quality.
  • Expose a cup of liquor in the air for oxidization and wait for about 12 hours. If the liquid remains clean and transparent, it is great.
  • The older the liquor , the better the flavor.

Besides the quality of white liquor itself, the style of drinking it heavily affects how the liquor tastes. The custom of cocktails before dinner doesn’t exist in China. In general, people prefer to enjoy alcohol with a good meal.

Chinese white liquor should be consumed in small cups, mainly to avoid volatilization of fragrance, and should be enjoyed with good Chinese food.

Tong advises, “Eat some food before drinking, or you will get drunk quickly. Take a little of liquor in your mouth, feel it with your tongue, and then swallow it slowly. If it’s quality liquor, you can feel the subtle flavor and scent change after you swallow it. The burning hit that comes with your first sip of the liquor will never be forgotten. ”

Responding to Wondrich’s cocktail suggestion, Tong laughed and said, “Some amateur Chinese grape wine drinkers prefer to mix wine with cola because they think that wine is too sour. They are often ridiculed by mature drinkers like me because they miss the essence of wine. So you can guess how I will respond to David Wondrich’s cocktail suggestion.”

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