A recent study measuring the value (by notional profit) of the world’s major liquor brands found that the world’s most valuable whisky brand is Jack Daniel’s, which comes in at US$2.9 billion. Johnnie Walker follows closely behind at US$2.6 billion. Luxury Cognac producer Hennessey is almost twice as valuable, at US$5.2 billion. Yet the top 3 most valuable spirits brands are all baijiu producers, with Kweichow Moutai in the lead at a staggering US$42.9 billion.
I have done a quick informal survey with most whisky and rum enthusiasts I know. Despite most of them being familiar with the brand, most – including myself – have not in fact tasted a Moutai. It isn’t unattainable, it’s just too much of a Veblen Good here in Asia, a luxury product meant for conspicuous consumption.
A 500ml bottle of genuine Kweichow Moutai costs about S$650 (US$450) in Singapore (*Note that I’m talking about the real stuff labelled “Kweichow Moutai”, not cheaper ranges such as the “Moutai Yingbin”, “Moutai Prince” or “Moutai Bulao”). The masses do not notice how it tastes, they simply notice that you have a bottle on your dining table.
For the most part, true spirits enthusiasts like us think we’re too clever to buy a bottle just because of its luxury branding. I won’t fall for your tricks, Macallan marketers! But my granddad is a baijiu lover, and for his 90th birthday this weekend, $650 for a bottle does not come close to being expensive.
As I poured the clear liquor into hilariously tiny cups that come with the bottle, my grandfather was quick to interrupt me with a history lesson. Apparently, at the 1915 Panama-Pacific World Exposition hosted in San Francisco, a jar of Moutai liquor was accidentally smashed, causing the fragrant aroma of the baijiu to fill the air. This aroma captured the expo judges’ attention and helped Moutai win a Gold medal, and it was then that the rest of the world became aware of this incredible Chinese liquor. Or, so the story goes…
Then in 1972, President Richard Nixon accepted an invitation to Beijing in a surprising turn of events. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai hosted Nixon at a state banquet, honouring Nixon with a tiny glass of Moutai. The toast of warm Chinese liquor marked a turning point in history and the warming of diplomatic relations between the superpowers.
Two years later, the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader: “I think if we drink enough Moutai we can solve anything.” Move aside influencer-marketing campaigns. I’d rather have world leaders endorse my brand!
Jokes aside, such glowing endorsements by people of influence cannot be purchased with any sum of money. They also made Moutai the brand of choice for many elites in Asia, a must-have at business banquets; not merely a symbol of wealth or power, but also a clear message that you hold your guest in high regard.
But glamour and prestige aside, what does baijiu mean to a spirits geek? Well, first you should know that there are 4 major flavour categories of baijiu – Sauce Aroma (酱香), Strong Aroma (浓香), Light Aroma (清香), Rice Aroma (米香). Moutai is categorised as a Sauce Aroma Baijiu, a category appreciated for its complex savoury notes reminiscent of Chinese sweet sauce or soy sauce.
Let’s give this a taste!
Kweichow Moutai 2019 – Review
Chinese Baijiu, bottled in 2019, 53% ABV.
On the nose: Fresh, piquant, estery and savoury.
Its aroma is felt in the room the moment I poured out a cup. Its opening is perfumed, bright, sweet, estery, reminiscent of white rum and Clairin Casimir. There’s a pinch of Jamaican white rum funkiness, a little knob of overripe bananas interlaced with the clean sweetness of fresh Asian peaches.
A bit more freshness develops, and we start seeing bright crisp fruits – Asian pear, lychees and mangosteens. Deeper notes and some complexity begin to show up in the midway, with a very fine, delicate caramelised nuttiness of toasted sesame, shoyu, turning towards richer depths of Chinese beef stir-fry with oyster sauce and the light umami of fried Japanese rice crackers wrapped with nori.
The aromas are multifaceted but well-integrated and balanced. Very boldly directed, but not at all pungent.
In the mouth: Crisp, complex, savoury and smooth.
The first sip is packed with a rich, intense sweetness of honey and nectarines, gradually building towards an almost-but-not-quite solventy kerosene sweetness which lingers on the tongue due to a very viscous, oily texture.
Richness in flavour is counterbalanced by a rather crisp, tart, clean and slightly mineral quality of dry Junmai Daiginjo sakés. Mild mineral brininess begins to make an entrance after a couple of seconds, developing into a mellow, mouth-watering note of light soy sauce that trails off into aromatic temple incense.
Is there any harshness that “Chinese firewater” are notorious for? I don’t detect any. The palate is warm and actually very mellow compared to many cask strength whiskies or rums of similar ABV (53%). I find the crispness and heat here quite comparable to a cask strength Irish whiskey, the likes of Redbreast 12 Cask Strength.
The finish is long, distinct and enduring. The palate is left with fading nuttiness reminiscent of lotus seed paste, before turning to a warm, lingering umami earthiness and echos of sweet Asian peaches and prickly mint emanating from the back of the throat. Some yeastiness at the very end.
Here are some things people have said about Moutai:
“Imagine rotten cabbage, ethyl alcohol, and paint thinner, blended and strained. It smells like ammonia… The taste lingers long after swallowing, shadowing the rest of the meal like a culinary revenant.”
– The Atlantic, “Is This the Best-Selling Liquor in the World?”
“The first time I tried Moutai it tasted like engine oil – fiery and burnt my throat on the way down.”
– A quote on the BBC, “Kweichow Moutai: ‘Elite’ alcohol brand is China’s most valuable firm“
“I’ve never met anybody, even at the heights of alcoholic derangement, prepared to admit that they actually liked the taste … After drinking it, most people screw up their faces in an involuntary expression of pain and some even yell out.”
– Tim Clissold, “Mr China“
So it seems that you and I were lucky to have even been born. By their reviews of the Moutai, the Chinese Premier took a big geopolitical gamble in serving the US President a cup of “rotten cabbage” and “ammonia”. Miraculously, Nixon liked the taste of Moutai and saw that as a gesture of friendship, not an assassination attempt.
I do agree Moutai does leave a very lasting finish and aftertaste during a meal. But that’s as far as the hyperbolic reviews go. I’ve tasted the pudding and here’s the proof: it’s actually very smooth and very drinkable, nowhere as fiery as certain Islay Scotches or barrel-strength American bourbons. And it’s not for nothing that Moutai is currently the most valuable spirits brand in the world. This is objectively delicious and easily one of the most complex and layered spirits I’ve tasted, whether aged or unaged.
Why then, do we hear so many criticisms of Moutai for its apparent pungency and fieriness?
Here is one theory: Many brands of cheap baijiu are undeniably bad and razor-sharp. This could have diluted Moutai’s brand equity amongst English-speakers because the term “Moutai” is often liberally applied by laypeople to both good and bad baijiu à la “Australian Champagne”.
Here’s my other theory: some these self-proclaimed Moutai “critics” do not seem to be drinks writers themselves. I would like to see them distinguish between good whisky or bad whisky.
We continue to live in an interesting, uncertain era. It would be facetious of me to suggest that a mere drink could fix some profound issues or resolve humanity’s sources of division. Yet it was Kissinger himself who suggested the US and China could resolve anything as long as they drank enough Moutai. At a time when the room temperature is a little chilly, it surely wouldn’t hurt to reminisce on better days over cups of warm Chinese liquor.