The other night my classmates and I had the…ahem…pleasure… of taking part in an asian spirit tasting. This tasting was mainly examples of Chinese White Spirit (CWS), or Baijiu. My classmate, Chen, has connections with Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Company (TTL) so he was able to get us a number of different examples to represent the style.
Taiwan has a population of about 24 million people and each year they consume 10 million liters of Chinese White Spirit and 18 million liters of whisky. This small country is the number six export market for Scotch Whisky, behind The United States, France, Singapore, Spain, and Germany. The whisky market in Taiwan is something of an anomaly as the sales are almost an even split between blended and single malt products. This is heavily contrasted with the world market sales that sit in the neighborhood of around 9:1 blended to single malt.
Chinese White Spirit is consumed primarily by the older generations, however, major producers have been aggressively marketing towards younger markets. Traditionally, Chinese White Spirit is a major part of New Year celebrations, business dealings, and family-oriented events.
Chinese White Spirit Production
I found CWS production fascinating. The process is something of a mix between Belgian lambic and traditional whisky fermentations. Several different bacterial species are used during the production including Aspergillus sp., and Lactobacillus sp. as well as several yeast species namely Saccharomyces and Brettanomyces.
Fermentation begins with the creation of a cake. A wheat cake. This cheese-wheel-looking mass is seeded with Aspergillus oryzae. This breaks down the starch for fermentation by other microbes later on in the process. Second, ground sorghum is cooked to provide additional starch for fermentation. Once cool, the sorghum is mixed with the wheat cake additional yeast and bacterial cultures to create a fermentation “substrate.” This substrate is fermented in open concrete pits for 1-4 weeks at ambient temperature.
Distillation is carried out in a still roughly resembling a stainless steel pressure cooker. Very little, if any, copper seemed to be used in this process. The first portion of distilled liquid, the heads, the main portion of liquid, or hearts, and the final portion of liquid, the tails, are all collected and stored separately. Maturation takes place in 300-400 L clay pots, during which time 5-8% of the spirit evaporates per year. Blending is accomplished by combining hearts with portions of heads and tails to create the desired flavor profile. Age statements are indicative of the age of the heart portion of the spirit.
There are a number of differences in CWS examples depending on the region or origin. Each spirit is described by one of six characteristic flavors: soy-sauce-like, mature-rich, light-fragrant, rice-honey, herbal-rooty, xi-feng (sweet/sour/spicy).
Here are some of my tasting notes:
The Original Cellar, 5yo
Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Company
Nose: Nail Polish, flowers, EARTH
Taste: “this is what the Earth would taste like at 52% abv.”
Very interesting first taste of this style. Big nail polish remover aroma, combined with fresh cut flowers, and earthy undertone. For all the abrasive flavors and aromas, this thing finishes butter smooth. Would not have another.
The Original Cellar, 8yo
Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Company
Nose: perfume, very much like single grain Scotch Whisky
Taste: very sweet, viscous, same earthy undertone
Finish: Like butter
This is packaged in a nice looking ceramic bottle. Ceramic is associated with premium quality in the this culture I’m told. On the bottle is a picture of Jade Mountain the highest peak in Taiwan. This is much more drinkable than the first sample. Tasty.
Mao Tai, 1yo
Soy Sauce Style
Nose: sour apple jolly ranchers, sweet, wow…
Taste: viciously sweet
I am told there was no added sugar to this but I’m skeptical. The Mao Tai style is beloved by older generations. 99% of Mao Tai from the original distillery goes directly to the Chinese government, making this a rare experience for us.
Apex of Jade, 16yo
Nose: somewhere between sour apple (#3) and perfume (#2).
Taste: earthy dirt, peachy, fruity
I enjoyed this quite a bit. This is packaged in a clear glass bottle, resembling a premium vodka. The price of this bottle sits at around 190 GBP or 313 USD, however, more intricate ceramic bottles will fetch a price of nearly 800 GBP or 1,320 USD. Would not ever pay that much for this…
Chinese white spirits are markedly different from any western spirit I’ve ever had. Heavily dominated by medicinal, earthy, and sometimes cloyingly sweet flavors, these are not for the feint of heart. Seven drams of 52% alcohol spirit will leave anyone foggy in the morning, but I felt like the highly congeneric nature of these particular drams made me feel especially rough. I can’t begin to wrap my mind around paying 1320 USD for a bottle of this stuff, but would happily sip on a dram if it was presented to me.