Luliang Baijiu, The Most-Produced Chinese Liquor with a Delicate Floral Aroma is Crossing Continents

Baijiu is a clear Chinese liquor obtained from the distillation of grains, most commonly with sorghum and occasionally rice, corn, millet or wheat with a 35% to 60% alcohol by volume (ABV). Yes it is strong and it can be regarded as razor sharp but it gives a clean mouthfeel, varies in character and exudes a multitude of complexity of aromas from delicate, floral, sweet, honey, nutty up to being savory. Although unknown to most of us, baijiu is actually the most produced liquor in the world, way more than any other liquor, with roughly 17 billion liters, all consumed within the country and just a fraction exported to other countries. This is because it has a very long history in the country that can date back to the Neolithic age. Among the Chinese, it is a national symbol, not just a drink that's ever present on their tables. And this time, baijiu is finally crossing continents and gaining popularity in the western world. Are we ready?

Produced all over China, the production techniques differ significantly by region and style so there are different types and aromas. The four main types are classified by their aromas: Qingxiang (light aroma) is characterized by delicateness with a smooth and light floral aroma; Mixiang (rice aroma) is characterized by its floral and light flavor; Nongxiang (strong aroma), the most popular style, is characterized by a strong taste of pineapple, banana and anise; and Jiangxiang (sauce aroma) which imparts its characteristic umami flavor.

How is Baijiu Made?

Baijiu is made by fermenting cooked sorghum or sometimes with other kinds of grains. For about 8 hours, the grains are steamed until they expand and become jelly-like. They are then mixed with a brick-shaped fermentation starter called jiuqu or qu, a mixture of barley and gray peas, which is the same kind of fungal microorganism used to make miso, sake and soy sauce. When these microorganisms come in contact with the grains and they secrete the enzymes that break down the macromolecules of the grains. The starch is converted to sugar which then turns to alcohol, and the rest transform them into a complexity of flavors. The fermentation takes place in a pit or a pottery jar for one to three months.

After the fermentation, the next stage comes which is the distillation. The solid fermented grains are transferred to a specialized stainless steel still in layers wherein the first batch is distilled once. Hot steam passes through the grains, carrying with it the extracted flavor and aroma compounds, then it is condensed in a cooling tower. More fermented sorghum is added for refermentation for the second batch. The batches are blended together and aged and stabilized in earthenware jars with varying the lengths of time from six months to an average of three to five years and even longer with some.

The Luliang Baijiu

While baijiu has a production of national scope, the city of Luliang in the western Shanxi province has a number of producers who decided to expand their market by going outside China. One of these countries is Italy and in the city of Rome, I had the chance to try the Luliang Baijiu which they produce in the style of Qingxiang or light aroma. This style ranks next to Nongxiang (strong aroma) by production volume.

Luliang of the Shanxi province is located in central China and has a total area of 21,143 square kilometers with a population of more than 3 million. Although the city is best known for its coal, iron, and aluminum deposits which has strengthened its economy considerably, its historical tradition of baijiu production of six thousands years remains intact. It has a terrain that characterized by rollings hills and deep gullies, high in the northwest and low in the southeast with an average elevation of 1,414 meters above sea level. It has a warm temperate monsoon climate which is characterized by distinct four seasons, abundant sunshine, mild winters, cool summers and moist air. These climatic and ecological environmental conditions create an optimal setting for the production of Qingxiang Baijlu.

With the Luliang Mountains on its back and the Jinzhong Basin in front, Luliang's position in the Loess Plateau is substantial. The Loess Plateau is a distinctive landscape overlain by a mantle of loess, a yellowish alluvium silt-like fine-grained sediment, deposited by the wind. Loess soil, with its active microbial flora and abundant trace elements, is among the most fertile in the world. The soil is also attributed to its abundance of silt particles which ensure a good supply of plant-available water, good soil aeration, extensive penetration by plant roots, easy cultivation and seedbed production. The refreshing aroma of Luliang Baijiu is nurtured by the fragrant loess. 

Water is the pure essence of the baijiu and Luliang is equipped with an abundance of high quality natural water. As the water passes through the limestone formations, it undergoes natural filtration, greatly enhancing its quality. The water becomes pure, crystal clear, transparent and fragrant. Since ancient times, it has been renowned with the praise, "Even the mulberry trees in the east bank of the river cannot match its sweetness, and the pears of Luyu in spring are incomparable for their clarity and purity." The water contains high levels of elements such as strontium, iodine, zinc, calcium, molybdenum, magnesium, and iron. It is naturally slightly alkaline with a pH value which is suitable for making the baijiu. 

Organic red sorghum is the main raw component of baijiu which gives the elegant and mellow aromas. This full and plump local red sorghum grows abundantly along both banks of the Fenhe River. The grains are rich in essential minerals and have an abundant starch content which yields exceptionally high alcohol production rate. In addition, its well-balanced content of tannins and anthocyanins, after steaming and fermentation with qu made from barley and gray peas, can develop into phenolic compounds like vanillic acid, giving Luliang Baijiu its unique fascinating aroma.

As a result, Luliang Baijiu gives out delicate aged aromas, red apples and delicate notes of Chinese roses and jujube flowers with a light, smooth and dry mouthfeel.

The Luliang Baijiu Producers

Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fenjiu
Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fenjiu is the subsidiary directly under and wholly invested by Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fenjiu Distillery. Its predecessor is Shanxi Xinghua Cun Fenjiu Distillery established in July 1992. It was the first import and export enterprise in the liquor industry nationwide. Fen Jiu, Zhuyeqing Jiu and the product series have been exported to more than 50 countries.

Shanxi Fenyangwang Wine Co.
Founded in 1988, Shanxi Fenyangwang is a private enterprise producing Fen-flavor Daqu liquor. It is one of core liquor enterprises in Luliang area and the largest production bases of Fen-flavor liquor in China. Its leading brand is Fenyangwang. The traditional brewing craft of Fenyangwang liquor has been recognized as the first batch of intangible cultural heritage in Shanxi Province,
and has won many honors including the gold medal of China Agricultural Exposition, China’s high-quality liquor, one of the top ten historical and cultural famous liquors, Sanjin time-honored brand and so on. In 2014, Fenyangwang was named as "China's Famous Trademark".

Shanxi Xinjinshang Winery Group
Shanxi Xinjinshang Winery Group is located in the core production area of Xinghua Village, the first famous wine village in China. It is the earliest liquor winery established and operated in China's liquor industry. The company is committed to keeping the Jinshang culture in Xinghua Village with clean flavors.

Shanxi Xinghua Liquor Brewing Industry Group
Shanxi Xinghua Liquor Brewing Production Industry Group is a collective enterprise in Jiajiazhuang Village, Shanxi Province. For hundreds of years, the enterprise has been adhering to the philosophy of keeping the heritage of craftsmanship that has been for thousands of years and conscientious brewing pure grain liquor. In 2019, they won gold medal in the Brussels International Spirits Grand Prix competition.

Shanxi Pangquan Winery
Shanxi Pangquan Winery was established in 2011 and located in Pangquangou in Luliang City. It assumes the history, culture and technology of Luliang Fen-flavor liquor core producing area, and combines the innovative development mode of modern intelligent liquor making. Pangquan Winery not only creates pure, authentic and clean fragrant liquor, but also builds an eco-cultural tourism project integrating ancient brewing experience and winery theme tourism.

Shanxi Yu Chenglong Liquor
Shanxi Yu Chenglong Liquor Company was established in 2014 and is located in the Fangshan county. Aside from the production of baijiu, its business is extended towards the production and sales of more products like fruit wine, dew wine and blended wine, as well as dried fruits and fresh fruits and vegetables. The company established the quality management system in 2021, and passed the pure grain solid liquor fermentation certification.

Zongjiu (Shanxi) Group
Zongjiu (Shanxi) Group is located in Xinghua Village in Shanxi. It was founded in 1988, covering an area of more than 120 hectares. Known for its famous trademark in Shanxi, the "traditional brewing process of Zong liquor", an approved provincial intangible cultural heritage. It has won the title of "brewing technology research and development center" at a provincial level.

Shanxi Guxiang Centennial Liquor
Shanxi Guxiang Centennial Liquor Company was established in the core liquor production area of Shanxi. The company adopts the production technology of solid fermentation of pure grain, specifically to improve the product quality by prolonging fermentation time. In addition, there is a high quality sorghum planting base in Tuquan, in Inner Mongolia, and the original liquor is stored in porcelain jars unique to the north. Through rigorous testing at all levels, the noble liquor products has a unique taste and pure fragrance. They have won the Qingzun Award at the 2021 Expo. 

Shanxi Fenyang Distillery
Founded in 1954, its predecessor was the state-owned Fenyang County Distillery established by a public-private partnership. It is a medium-sized enterprise leading the production of Fenzhou brand Baijiu. The company adheres to the integrity of Shanxi merchants and to the philosophy of promoting Fenzhou liquor culture and creating the future of Fenzhou liquor. Their Fenzhou liquor has won a gold medal at the 1994 Paris International Food and Beverage Liquor Expo. Old Fenzhou Liquor, Fenzhou Craftsman, Fenzhou Fujiu, and Fenchuan Liquor won two gold and two silver medals in the 2019 Brussels International Spirits Competition in Belgium.

Shanxi Liangquan Liquor Industry
It is a provincial-level poverty alleviation leading enterprise and a municipal agricultural industrialization backbone enterprise. It follows the practice of the brewing technology of the light aroma Baijiu using high quality sorghum, adopting segmented extraction and graded storage techniques and zero additives. The product has a pure fragrance, soft texture, sweet and refreshing taste, and a clear and long lasting aftertaste. Shengshi Liangquan Liquor won the silver medal at the 2019 Brussels International Spirits Competition and the gold medal in the 2021 China Liquor Industry Association's first Luliang Cup Clear Bottle Award Competition.

The conference in Rome, "China Qingxiang, World Renowned", was promoted by the municipal government of the city of Luliang and organized by CADA (China Alcoholic Drink Association) with a Chinese delegation of baijiu producers and authorities such Zhang Guangyong, the Mayor of Luliang; Li Bingfeng from the municipality of Luliang; Liu Zhenguo of CADA and Hai Zhenming, also from CADA.