Firewater Shots and Moutai Worship: A Baijiu Pilgrimage to China’s “Liquor Golden Triangle”

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8:01 AM HKT, Thu August 9, 2018 5 mins read

Yibin, Luzhou, and Zunyi are three cities in southwestern China that you could be forgiven for never having heard of. There’s (almost) very little to distinguish them from other nth-tier sprawls in the country, other than some beautiful surrounding scenery and some excellent food (thanks to the trio’s location around the border between Sichuan and Guizhou provinces, both known for spicy, flavorful cooking).

What makes them stand out however, and will bring knowing smiles from many a Chinese drinker when their names are dropped, is that these three locations form the corners of China’s “Liquor Golden Triangle”.

Last year, I spent some time driving around the Triangle. To mark World Baijiu Day, below are some highlights from the trip, but first a brief explanation of the Day and the drink.

World Baijiu Day has been held on August 9th (because 8/9, or “ba jiu” in Chinese, sounds almost like baijiu) for the past four years. The celebration of the world’s most-consumed spirit (representing one-third of global spirit sales, according to WBD organizers) is aimed at helping people beyond its home market get familiar with the fiery Chinese grain alcohol.

With a pungent flavor that’s much-maligned among non-Chinese drinkers, baijiu typically comes with a high alcohol content; 30% represents the lower rung, but far more likely are ABVs of 50-60%. That can lead to a lot of grimacing for first time drinkers and some not-too-positive comparisons to paint thinner, but as with most drinks there are good and bad varieties.

(Here’s a quick look at the various types of baijiu from RADII’s Thana Gu. For an in-depth guide to the drink, check out Derek Sandhaus’ book on the stuff.)

When it comes to the good varieties, the roughly triangular area between Yibin, Luzhou, and Zunyi is the main source. The region is home to more liquor production facilities and distilleries than any other part of the country, and hosts four of China’s most famous drinks brands: Wuliangye, Lang Jiu, Luzhou Laojiao, and — the most internationally well known — Kweichow Moutai.

While to the uninitiated Moutai (or Maotai to give its pinyin name) is sometimes used as a by-word for all of the many varieties of powerful grain-based liquors that are produced in China, locals in and around the Liquor Golden Triangle are keenly aware of the different brands. They’re usually also keen to foist their own brand on you.

Red sorghum drying in a village in Guizhou

In many of the villages and towns that make up the region, you’ll see red sorghum (one of the key ingredients) drying in the sun and raked out across pavements, basketball courts, roofs or any other available flat surface. Stopping beside the road to photograph one such scene part way through my trip, I was accosted by an elderly lady who asked if I wanted to buy some of her homemade baijiu. She pulled a door to one side to reveal two large stone pots that came up above my waist. When I asked how she sells the alcohol, the distinctive smell of which she wafted toward me, she said by the bottle and waved a plastic petrol canister.

Touring around the Triangle, such small-scale operations are commonplace. One resident in the picturesque town of Maotai, told me that it has some of the most expensive real estate in the country because of the value attached to the brand which takes the town’s name — set up a distillery on a scrap of land here and you’ll be able to put Maotai in your company name, which in turn will boost sales, goes the logic.

As with much of the area, there are occasional nods to its past as a former Communist stronghold during the war with the KMT — in Maotai’s case, it’s a People’s Army-built bridge that crosses the Chishui river, uniting the two sides of the town — but the town is more a celebration of Moutai than Mao (and sometimes both, given a fable of “The Great Helmsman” using the liquor to toast the founding of the PRC).

maotai china moutai liquor baijiu

A wall painting in Maotai

The brand has been served at Communist Party banquets ever since, but has also turned itself into an “aspirational product”, as Bloomberg recently put it. Sales took a hit in the initial stages of Xi Jinping’s “corruption” and “graft” crackdown, but they’ve since made a roaring comeback — so much so that in January Fortune reported stocks were running low due to the high demand, while Kweichou Moutai’s capitalization has overtaken Heineken and Diageo in the past three years.

Tourists making the pilgrimage to the headquarters of China’s most valuable drinks company can explore a sprawling museum complex which examines the various types of Chinese grain alcohol and their production processes. The exhibits also attempt to play up the spirit’s scholarly credentials via scrolls depicting famous baijiu drinking moments throughout history (example: “The Mu Duke of Qin Dynasty Presenting Liquor to People Who Stole His Horse”). Further on in the leafy grounds stand statues of famed drinker and poet Li Bai, Mao Zedong, and — slightly oddly — Zhou Enlai with Charlie Chaplin:

At the gift shop, tour group leaders collect their parties’ ID cards and queue to hand them over in return for 500ml bottles of Moutai, which are limited to one per visitor and priced at 1,299RMB (190USD). On my visit, several of the rarer, more expensive varieties were all sold out by 11am. Some bottles can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“People in this town really understand alcohol,” Mr Chen, who runs a shop back on Maotai’s main drag, told me as he poured out taster shots of his various own-brand liquor. “Even small kids can enjoy a glass here, they appreciate it. And it’s all good quality — we have clean water and good sorghum.”

That may be so, but it’s not uncommon to see the town’s alcohol-themed statues and monuments joined by passed out tourists who have taken their appreciation for the drink a little too far.

Mr Chen

Maotai’s commercialization and (sometimes hangover-nursing) tourist influx have not gone unnoticed by other brands and local governments in the Triangle.

In Sichuan, Luzhou (the northeast point of the Triangle) is now home to a Luzhou Laojiao museum, effectively a scaled down version of Moutai’s main tourist attraction. Naturally, you exit through the gift shop where all visitors receive a free shot (regardless of the time of day, apparently) and a funny look if you explain you can’t touch any because you’re driving.

Part of the factory site in Luzhou; “Laojiao” means “old cellar”

In Yibin, also in Sichuan and the northwestern point of the Triangle, Wuliangye’s entire production site is open to the public. The size of a small town, it has its own bus service, a school, and dorms for the company’s workers. For visitors, there’s a “cultural museum”, a gift shop (of course), and some giant renditions of liquor bottles and packaging.

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Other baijiu brands in the region are looking to cash in too. In Erlang, home to the Lang Jiu label and roughly in the middle of the Triangle, the roads are dotted with construction traffic. Luxury hotels, office buildings, restaurants and other alcohol-related attractions are on the way.

Lang Jiu’s base is one of two enormous production facilities that face each other across the Chishui river, or the “beautiful alcohol river” as it’s also known thanks to its location at the heart of the Triangle. On the Guizhou Province bank sits the Moutai-owned Xi Jiu factory, a well-known label which happens to share its main character with Xi Jinping. On the Sichuan side (the river also forms a provincial border) is Lang Jiu.

A river runs through it: Xi Jiu on the left; Lang Jiu further up on the right

“There’s a friendly rivalry,” an employee for Lang Jiu told us, adding that she grew up surrounded by the smell of baijiu. “But really Xi Jiu is completely different in flavor. Our drink is actually the same as Moutai, it’s just that they have the brand and can therefore charge the prices they do.”

Nevertheless, Lang Jiu is one of the country’s most famous liquor brands as well, and expects to surpass 10 billion RMB in annual sales for 2018.

High above the main distillery, the scale of the company’s operations are displayed in the form of thousands of 5-foot high earthenware pots that line the mountainside, basking in the sunshine. They comprise phase one of a three phase plan which a giant billboard declares will eventually see the area house 40 million liters of liquor.

The hilltop site is an accompaniment to the company’s karst cave-set storage area, usually off limits to the public and only opened for VIP consumers (and, apparently, RADII writers who manage to talk their way in). “Some visitors say this is better than the Terracotta Warriors,” the employee told us matter-of-factly.

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Such a comparison may seem hyperbolic, but the people behind Lang Jiu — along with the area’s numerous other major drinks brands — clearly feel there’s a big market to be tapped for baijiu-themed tourism. And with an estimated 20 billion bottles of the stuff being consumed each year, they may well be right.

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