THE air in Maotai was cooling, with mist shrouding the hilly town, protecting it in a mysterious veil.
We were here in the southwestern Guizhou province to learn more about Moutai baijiu, which is famed as the national liquor of China.
Baijiu is Mandarin for white wine but it is not to be confused with the wine produced from grapes.
Here, baijiu refers to the colourless alcoholic beverage distilled from sorghum.
As we got closer to the Moutai factory operated by Kweichow Moutai Co Ltd, a distinctive smell soon filled the air. The sour, fermented scent was similar to that of Marmite.
In the dim but airy workshop, we were told that the brewing cycle of Moutai takes one whole year.
The sorghum, mixed with wheat, is boiled and steamed nine times throughout the cycle, while the base liquor produced is retrieved seven times.
The concept of yin and yang is applied in the production, which exemplified the wisdom and cultural charm of China.
Yang fermentation refers to an open air process, where the sorghum is left on the ground to react with the micro-organisms in the air.
Yin fermentation, or closed fermentation, occurs when the grains are sealed in pits to “absorb the aura of the earth.”
The base liquor is then merged by experts and aged in clay barrels for at least five years.
The factory stays true to the age-old techniques, although some steps have been taken over by machines. A Kweichow Moutai employee explained that certain steps, such as aerating the grains, had to be done manually or the results would not be as satisfying.
He said an experiment was once done to replicate the entire production process in another town, but it just could not yield the same top quality liquor that is produced in this factory nestled in Maotai.
This has definitely lent a mysterious edge to Moutai baijiu. The people believe the liquor is the result of the harmonious unity of heaven, earth and human; or the unique interaction of the elements that exist in the area.
The water, used in the production, comes from the Chishui River that runs through Maotai; the grains are planted in an adjacent town; and the red purplish earth used to build the pits is also sourced locally.
Chinese baijiu, like vodka, is known to be feisty. With an alcohol content of 53%, Moutai leaves a burning sensation down your throat, especially after several rounds of ganbei, or bottoms-up in Mandarin.
Packaged in its signature white opaque ceramic bottles and served in tiny goblets, Moutai is often downed in a quick, decisive gulp. It is the way our enthusiastic hosts insisted we drink the intoxicating brew.
The taste of Moutai is described as “sauce fragrance”. The consistency of the brew is thicker than plain water, and the liquor is packed with salty and sourish flavour. Personally, it reminded me of preserved plums.
Hu Jingshi, 63, who retired from the production department and is now in-charge of researching and compiling the history of Moutai, described Moutai as “elegant, refined and delicate.”
“When you drink Moutai, the enjoyment is the same as the pleasure from engaging in a conversation with a scholar or dating a fine lady from a prominent family,” he said.
Often served during diplomacy banquets and presented as gifts to foreign dignitaries, Moutai has a distinguished status in Chinese society.
Moutai also appeared in the history of Malaysia-China ties, as told to The Star in earlier interviews.
In 1973, former MCA deputy president Tan Sri Michael Chen was tasked by then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein to look into the delay in normalising relations with China.
He met representatives from the Chinese national news agency Xinhua for this matter in Hong Kong, and he remembered being mindful of what he drank during the dinner. He said he only sipped Chinese tea, while his hosts downed Moutai, so that he could stay alert.
Tun Hanif Omar recalled that Moutai was served during a dinner with then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and the Malaysian delegation during the historic trip to Beijing to establish formal ties in 1974.
“Zhou went around table-by-table toasting everyone with Moutai. But he found many of the delegation could outdrink him in spite of the Moutai!” Hanif, who was the Deputy Inspector-General of Police then, said.
Last year, Hai-O Enterprise Bhd became the distributor of Moutai in Malaysia.
As a top officer of Kweichow Moutai put it, “To me, Moutai tastes like friendship and culture.” It is very true indeed, given the important role played by Moutai in China’s diplomacy.