Saturday, March 8, 2008

Moutai: China's Most Famous Liquor

I just returned from the province of Guizhou in southern China, the home of my newly adopted daughter. I was very pleased to learn that Guizhou is the wine-making capital of China. Its most famous product is Kweichow Moutai (茅台酒), China's most famous and best-selling alcoholic beverage.

'Kweichow' is simply an older English rendering of 'Guizhou'--the same way that 'Peking' is the older version of 'Beijing.' Moutai is a small town in the north of Guizhou. I asked my translator and guide to inquire about taking us to Moutai to see the Chinese wine-making process, but the prices drivers were asking turned out to be prohibitive.

Moutai and other related Chinese beverages are often referred to as "Chinese wines," but this is a result of mistranslating the Chinese word 'Jiu' (酒), which simply refers to any type of alcoholic beverage. Because Moutai and other Chinese "wines" are distilled products and are made from grains rather than fruits, they should really be called Chinese "whiskeys."

Moutai is made mostly from red sorghum, which is somewhat like wheat. Some Chinese wines also contain measures of rice and wheat. At 53% alcohol by volume, Chinese "wines" are rather stout beverages. Scotches, bourbons and other whiskeys contain only 40% alcohol.

The flavor of Moutai is not easy to describe. When Jiyuan Yu was passing around ample amounts of Moutai at a Chinese New Year celebration he hosted earlier this year, Jo Anne Brocklehurst suggested to me that Moutai had aromas of chocolate. I thought she was off her rocker, but out of politeness I didn't say so. The following day, however, I bit into a bar of 90% cocoa dark chocolate and I realized that she was exactly right. Like most Americans, the first chocolate aromas that come to my mind are those of milk chocolate. But Jo Anne was thinking of dark chocolate. Other than recognizing a trace of dark chocolate aromas, I am otherwise at a loss to describe the flavor of Moutai. It is like nothing I've ever tasted.

Unfortunately, because of increased demand around the world, the price of Moutai has skyrocketed. It now sells for over $150 a bottle in America. I was surprised to find it for $100 in China. I thought I could find it cheaper than that in China. Other, less-famous Chinese wines can be found for much less. I brought home one such cheaper bottle. So, if you're interested in trying a sample, I can give you a sip at my next party.

Because Moutai is receiving a wider distribution in America, it is beginning to crop up more often at parties in the west. The look of the bottle and the smell of the beverage are rather unusual. But don't be afraid. It is definitely worth a try.


Leigh said...

where did you find it in the US? my dad loves the stuff and I can't find it anywhere.

James Beebe said...

I bought mine in China. Apparently, worldwide demand exceeds production. So, not only can it be hard to find, but it can sometimes be quite expensive because of the demand.

Glen said...

I didn't realize this stuff was famous. I have a bottle in the pantry, from a China trip nearly 20 years ago. I thought it tasted like shrimp moonshine. I'm waiting for enough taste buds to die that I can deal with it.

James Beebe said...

It's definitely an acquired taste.

Anonymous said...

Saw a bottle for $42,000 sitting in a store in Shanghai Saturday, gives one pause.