China has a drinking culture that goes back over 9,000 years, and based on current archaeological findings, is home to the oldest alcohol ever documented.
Throughout history, various forms of Chinese liquor seeped into all aspects of life and social classes. Emperors and poets alike have long praised the virtues of alcohol and its uses have ranged from religious ceremonies to enlightenment in literature and art.
Today, alcohol maintains an integral role in the social fabric of Chinese society where it is often presented as a gift, a ritual, a toast, and most commonly, a meal pairing. From beer to baijiu, from east to west, we’re diving in to six of China’s favorite libations.
Mijiu, which translates to ‘rice wine’, is a milky beverage made from fermented glutinous rice, commonly called sticky rice, and is primarily served throughout southern China. Mijiu generally has an alcohol content of less than 20% and offers a balanced sweetness and tanginess that can be enjoyed with a meal or on its own. It can also be served as a dessert, infused with floral flavors, most commonly osmanthus or jasmine. Of course, the best way to try mijiu is by traveling around Southern China, but the next-best option is Beijing’s Nouyan Rice Wine House, serveing up twelve different types of mijiu in a flight for easy tasting.
Huangjiu, which translates to ‘yellow liquor,’ is a spirit made from fermented grains, millet, and rice. It dates back 2,500 years – specifically to the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600–314 BCE) making it one of the oldest alcoholic drinks in the world alongside wine and beer. Despite its name, huangjiu can take on a variety of hues depending on the distillation process – ranging from amber to beige to clear. The alcohol content usually falls between 15%-20%, and the flavors are often described as sweet, pungent, umami, tangy, and sometimes bitter. As a beverage, huangjiu is most commonly consumed warm during the winter. Huangjiu also holds a prominent role in cooking, with the most famous variant of huangjiu, shaoxing wine, used in many Chinese recipes.
Grape wine (葡萄酒)
China’s winemaking has ancient origins that trace back thousands of years. For much of history, China’s alcohols were derived from cereal grains, up until the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), when the country imported its first grape, the Vitis Vinifera, from Central Asia. This helped spread the beverage across the country via the Silk Road. But it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618 AD – 907 AD) that wine-drinking really took off and became interlaced with culture, language, and the arts.
In recent years, the north-central region of Ningxia has grown to become China’s wine capital and a hub for independent wineries. Alongside Ningxia’s growing wine industry came China’s taste for grape wine, and in 2020, China was the sixth largest consumer of wine worldwide.
Russia, Germany, Poland, and Japan eventually brought a revival of beer to China in the late-19th century. Modern-day beer – most notably, in the style of pale lagers – are widely produced in breweries in Qingdao and Harbin. The green-bottled Tsingdao, arguably China’s ubiquitous lager, has spread in popularity even beyond China, and can now be seen, and enjoyed, all over the world.
China’s international beer influence makes its most notable appearance, however, with its role in the inspiration for Dogfish Head Brewery’s Chateau Jiahu Ancient Ale. This modern-day brew is a recreation of the oldest alcohol known to man, identified by extracting trace residue from a 9000-year-old pottery vessel found in Jiahu, Henan.
Highland barley wine (青稞酒)
A journey to the ‘Roof of the World’ is not complete without a customary drink of highland barley wine. Called “qiang” in Tibetan, this lightly flavored, sweet and sour liquor is derived from the region’s native crop – highland barley. The barley type, high-elevation climate, and glacial waters of the region are all integral components of creating qiang.
Qiang is most commonly seen at local festivals and celebrations and there are many origin stories around the liquor. One traces back to the Tang Dynasty when it is said that qiang came in to existance as the cultural biproduct of the union between Princess Wencheng and Songtsen Gampo.
The most beloved of all alcoholic beverages in China is baijiu, which translates simply to “white alcohol”. With an average alcohol content of 30% and higher, bajiu packs a good punch. Typically sorghum-based, it has a distinct, clear color and is widely served at celebrations, business banquets and family dinners. It was first developed in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD), adopting local style and variations. Baijiu eventually got its resurgence during the Communist era when modernized distillation, in tandem with an evolving drinking culture, contributed to its soaring popularity across the country, which has remained stable ever since.
The most famous, and most expensive brand, served to foreign dignitaries including former U.S. President Nixon, is the award-winning Maotai, produced in its namesake Maotai, Guizhou.
WildChina Book Club: Baijiu And The World’s Oldest Drinking Culture With Derek Sandhaus
For our June book club, join us in learning about the history, culture, and traditions around China’s most famous spirit – baijiu. On June 24th, we’ll be chatting with author and Ming River Baijiu founder, Derek Sandhaus. He’ll also be treating us to a “Sichuan Mule” cocktail lesson during the chat.