Chinese Alcohol Broken Down: The Facts You Never Knew

Chinese Alcohol Broken Down: The Facts You Never Knew
Nov 27, 2010 By Andrea Scarlatelli ,

Chinese Alcohol Broken Down: The Facts You Never Knew

Alcohol is simply a part of life here in China. It plays a role in weddings, funerals, ceremonies, and friendships. It can jumpstart a relationship or seal a business deal. But how much do you really know about the alcohol you’re guzzling during your countless gambei toasts?

Chinese liquor production: the process

The word jiu (酒) in Mandarin is used to mean all alcohol, so the name of any alcoholic drink will always end in that sound. While China produces many different kinds of alcohol, the most common ones you’ve likely run into are baijiu (白酒) and huangjiu (黄酒). Both of these liquors have a distinct taste that cannot be found in any other alcoholic beverages. This is due to three main factors: the grains, the water, and the liquor starter.

The grains used in alcohol production can vary depending on the region in which it’s produced. For example, northern China typically uses barley, wheat, or sorghum, while southern China almost exclusively uses glutinous rice. The grains are then "acidified" to prevent any organisms from growing, which is a major step in giving Chinese liquor that unique burn.

Taste is also affected by the water used, with cleaner water obviously giving it a better flavour. The final step of Chinese alcohol production involves the liquor starter, which can be either a cake or a paste made of molds, bacteria, and yeasts (don’t worry; it’s not nearly as disgusting as it sounds). This then converts the starch in the grain to sugar, which eventually turns into ethanol.

There are three types of starters which can be used exclusively or in combination with one another to create different flavours. The only thing that differentiates the different liquor starters is the types of mold they use:

1) Small starters - Used mostly in the tropical areas of southern China.

2) Large starters - The most commonly used throughout the country.

3) Red starters - Tint the liquor a deep purplish red.

Chinese Alcohol Broken Down: The Facts You Never Knew
Erguotou comes bottled in many shapes and sizes. Photo:

The different types of liquor

While almost all Chinese liquors have these three ingredients in common, it certainly does not mean that all alcohol is created equally. The most well-known Chinese liquor is baijiu, a powerful drink that has been the bane of many an expat’s existence. Baijiu literally means "white liquor" and is sometimes referred to as shāojiǔ(烧酒"hot liquor") – anyone who has actually tasted baijiu will surely know how it gained that nickname. There are eleven types of flavored baijiu and eight types of unflavoured, all of which usually contain more than 30% alcohol by volume. The grain used in baijiu is typically sorghum, although you can find a rice baijiu (米白酒mibaijiu) that uses rice as the main ingredient instead.

Baijiu is classified by its fragrance, of which there are six:

While it may be a bit difficult to taste the differences at first, with practice, baijiu can become as subtle and flavorful as different types of wine:

1)  Sauce fragrance (酱香jiàng xiāng) - Has a strong ammonia smell and is commonly served with pickled food. The ever popular Maotai (茅台) belongs to this classification and is considered the best of its kind (according to "Shanghai Finance," Maotai even won a gold medal at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in California, USA in 1915).

2)  Heavy fragrance (浓香nóng xiāng) - Sweet and mellow flavored.

3)  Light fragrance (清香qīng xiāng) - A bit drier and lighter.

4)  Rice fragrance" (米香mǐ xiāng) – A subtle rice aroma.

5)  Honey fragrance" (凤香fēng xiāng) – Lightly sweet and aromatic.

6)  Layered fragrance - A combination of "sauce," "heavy," and "light" fragrances.

Some popular baijiu brands include:
Moutai 茅台酒 (38-53 deg) - Price: 750 RMB and Up
Wuliangye 五粮液- Price: 800 RMB and Up
Fen Jiu 汾酒 - Price: 120 RMB and Up
Ergoutou 二锅头 - Price: 25 RMB and Up

Moutai 茅台酒

The other popular Chinese liquor is huangjiu (黄酒), which differs from baijiu in a couple of ways. First of all, the grains used to make it are typically rice or millet instead of sorghum or barley. Secondly, huangjiu is not distilled, which means it contains less than 20% alcohol per volume (hence giving it a somewhat milder taste than baijiu). While huangiu literally means "yellow liquor," the colour can actually vary from clear to a brownish red. 

Huangjiu is not categorized by smell but by flavour. Anyone who is somewhat knowledgeable about wine will find that these categorisations sound very familiar:

1) Dry (gan) - Contains less than 1% sugar, leaving the mouth feeling, well, dry.

2) Semi-dry (ban gan) - Has a sugar content of 1%-3%. This is the variety that can be stored the longest and is therefore the most popular huanjiu export from China.

3) Semi-sweet (ban tian) - Contains 3%-10% sugar and becomes darker the longer it’s stored. Huangjiu with a sugar content of 10%-20% is considered

4) Sweet (tian) – Has a sugar content of 10%-20% and can be manufactured all year long.

5) Extra sweet (nong tian) - Any huangjiu containing more than 20% sugar.

Some popular huangjiu brands include:
Guyuelongshan 古越龙山酒 - Price: 20 RMB and Up
Shikumen Shanghai Rice Wine  石库门上海老酒 - Price: 20 RMB and Up
Shaoxing Rice Wine  绍兴加饭酒- Price: 15 RMB and Up

Chinese Alcohol Broken Down: The Facts You Never Knew
Guyuelongshan 古越龙山酒

Like wine, the year in which the huangjiu is stored makes a large taste (and price) difference because of how long the ethanol is allowed to ferment. It can be drunk either hot or cold, although many Chinese like it between 60 and 70 degrees Celsius. While popular baijiu brands can be found from all over China, huangjiu production is mostly confined to Shaoxing. Shaoxing huangjiu actually won a gold medal in its division at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in California, USA, the same year Maotai won in its respective division.

There is also an offshoot of huangjiu called choujiu, which can be traced back all the way to the Tang Dynasty. Instead of being made from plain rice the way huangjiu is, choujiu is processes using glutinous rice. This gives it a milky, thick consistency that is often an acquired taste. If you've been to Xi'an, chances are you've seen or tasted it, as this city is known for its excellent choujiu.

With your newfound knowledge of Chinese alcohol, you'll be sure to impress your friends next time you ganbei! 

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Keywords: Chinese alcohol facts Chinese alcohol how Chinese liquor is made Chinese liquor


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Alan, i am in southern china with some of the most hard core piss heads i have ever met. Wealthy and drinking Couvosier at dinner like wine. mate, i can put it away and i was embarrassed!!!. Had to be taken to the toilet. They all thought it was hilarious to get a "ghost" legless

Sep 11, 2011 18:40 Report Abuse



the next day after drinking Baiju, do some mild exercise and you can taste it in the back of your throat, u got to drink a lot tho, i miss it bad, it tastes like great food, beautiful people and good times!!!

Sep 11, 2011 18:37 Report Abuse



After being in China (Changsha) for 3 years now, I find the Chinese to be absolute pussies when it comes to drinking. They can't handle their booze for a puff!!!
I'm just really disappointed, maybe I need to go north...

May 17, 2011 11:04 Report Abuse



Larry, I have found a way around the Bai Jiu drinking problem.

I just say that my Doctor has told me, "No Bai Jiu". You will not offend the host, as people respect 'Doctor's orders'. And there are many many Chinese who have had such orders from their doctors.

You can then over compensate by drinking other, more palatable, booze.

This works for me every time.

Jan 08, 2011 23:02 Report Abuse



I am a scotch drinker, avid but not an expert!! In fact any good liquor can be consumed staight without mix! I CANNOT STOMACH MOUTAI (baiju). It leaves a vile aftertaste that makes me burp again for hours afterwards. As a business person I get forced into consuming some Baiju from time to time and found a cure for the burps and aftertaste. Lots and lots of Chinese beer. Seems to drown it out but otherwise no thank you!!!

If you want to punish your Chinese hosts get some vodka or other real hard liquor and gambai your heart out. Watching a Chinese with a hangover is the best!!!

The culture seems to drink like the US college kids with non stop binge drinking!! Nobody understands a social evening of prolonged drinking! They are good for an hour and a half and then done!!! Drunk and sleepy.

Jan 08, 2011 20:25 Report Abuse



BTW... a very interesting article and good information!!

Jan 08, 2011 20:26 Report Abuse



I really don't understand the infatuation with mou tai. Not worth the money. 12 year old scotch is cheaper and much more flavor.

Dec 06, 2010 16:44 Report Abuse



I guess it is a matter of taste. Let's face it, most of us pulled a face, gagged or even choked at our first try of liquor.

This implies an acquired taste thing is at play, as well as personal taste. And with taste, in this sense of the word, it is more than just gustatory.

I was bought up to avoid hooch that had a lingering aftertaste, and that the lack of aftertaste leaves a clean palate. Here, one of the signs of a good bi jiu is a lingering aftertaste. Its just a different set of values of what makes a good hooch.

Then there is personal taste. I am from UK but cannot drink Scotch, but I will drink brandy until it comes out of my ears.

Talking of Scotch, have you seen the price of a 30yr old these days? There is a shortage. I saw a bottle of 37yr old Glenfidich for nearly £7000 2 years ago. Almost anything of 30yrs is going to cost £300+. Gone are the days of 75Yr olds on the optics in small Scottish inns.

Dec 06, 2010 18:31 Report Abuse



I properly like drinking beer, but biajiu does make you go nuts. it's a laugh once in a while though.

Dec 02, 2010 00:17 Report Abuse



Chinese alcohol culture is really crazy... some guys die every year because they cannot drink alcohol...

I actually like the way we drink in China, always very friendly... but it is quite difficult to hold on drinking almost every day, as you write...

Nov 29, 2010 16:03 Report Abuse



My employer told me that I am stupid because I do not drink wine... I do not want to drink wine, I don't like the feeling- my skin turn red and hot... I observed that they drink wine almost every night!

Nov 28, 2010 09:58 Report Abuse



There's nothing wrong with being stupid sometimes, as long as your not dumb and falling for that reason not to drink it.

Nov 28, 2010 20:24 Report Abuse



Your employer is the stupid one. Why should everyone in the world drink poison? If my employer said that to me, i would go off on a tangent unlike any they have never heard before. Alcohol kills, both quickly and slowly.

Nov 29, 2010 18:33 Report Abuse



Baiju is similar to poison, the only difference is that, it takes awhile longer to kill you.
This stuff has ruined many lives in China, along with families, whose husbands have been addicted to this horrible stuff.

Nov 28, 2010 06:51 Report Abuse



The same is true for all alcohol across the world.

As a point of fact, alcohol is a toxin and will poison/kill in large enough quantities. Easy to forget this.

Nov 29, 2010 17:53 Report Abuse



You are a faggot sir! And this is true...Drinking is a man's pleasure, and if he dies in the wake, so be it...

May 17, 2011 11:09 Report Abuse



my father is addicted to it, but when i was a child ,my parents taught me never drink. when i entered senior middle school,i found there were many situations that you had to toast others ,birthday party ,New year's day,and any other festivels ,you have to admit that wine play a very important pary in chinese lives. when i entered college ,i knew that i should learn to toast to others ,from then on ,i ignored my parents' words.i started to drink.

Nov 28, 2010 03:07 Report Abuse



The 1st two sentences above sound really, really creepy.

Nov 27, 2010 20:51 Report Abuse



ha, i mean below (in the 1st comment on this article)

Nov 27, 2010 20:52 Report Abuse



In May, I went to meet my future wife. I had not asked her yet, but we were in love. I learned a lot about Chinese society and Alcohol. She taught me some Chinese customs and I bought a factory load of alcohol gift sets for her uncles and such. If the gift set with the glass ship in the bottle would have made it back to New Orleans in one piece while on the plane, I would have bought one! Does anyone know who makes this gift set and what type of alcohol it was. I purchased it in Shenzhen. It was clear alcohol. I never did get to try any of it, but I wondered if it was like 190 here?

Nov 27, 2010 18:44 Report Abuse