Why the world went crazy for baijiu

It’s the sought-after Chinese spirit you’ve probably never heard of – but baijiu’s finest vintages command well into six figures, says Alice Lascelles

The rare 2016 Year of the Monkey Kweichow Moutai Feitian
The rare 2016 Year of the Monkey Kweichow Moutai Feitian | Image: Paul Mathew

It’s the biggest-selling spirit in the world, yet there are still many people who have never heard of baijiu. Often dubbed “China’s national liquor”, this robust-tasting, grain-based spirit has been distilled across the country for centuries. But in recent years, a new, secondary market for top-end baijiu has emerged that is dominated almost entirely by one brand – Kweichow Moutai (or Maotai). And it’s a market that’s increasingly attracting interest outside China. 

A WuXing Export Trade 1958 fetched about £69,650 at Christie’s Shanghai last year
A WuXing Export Trade 1958 fetched about £69,650 at Christie’s Shanghai last year | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2018

Produced at a state-owned distillery in Moutai Town, in the scenic southwestern province of Guizhou, Kweichow Moutai is rich in symbolism. “Moutai was the favourite drink of Premier Zhou Enlai, Mao’s longtime number two,” explains Derek Sandhaus, a contributor to the drinkbaijiu.com website and author of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. “He made Moutai the baijiu served at all official state dinners.” Legend has it that Red Army soldiers used it to cleanse their feet on the Long March, while in 1972 Zhou Enlai and President Nixon were famously pictured toasting each other with it. “So it became the baijiu of China’s elite,” adds Sandhaus. 

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Baijiu’s high proof and strong, savoury flavour – which can encompass fermented bean, sesame, grain and yeast notes – might be offputting for uninitiated palates. But among aficionados those characteristics are prized, and graded into four key styles: strong, light, sauce and rice aromas. Kweichow Moutai is distilled from sorghum – other varieties use rice or wheat – and aged in clay pots before blending and bottling. But maturity is not the chief factor in determining a bottle’s value, says Sandhaus – rarity, vintage and authenticity tend to be more important. “Baijiu from before the 1980s is particularly rare, because under Mao it was rationed and few distilleries or drinkers thought to set aside bottles. Pre‑communist baijiu is even rarer.”

A 1958/1988 blend went for £55,720 at Christie’s
A 1958/1988 blend went for £55,720 at Christie’s | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2018

So while a half-litre bottle of the current signature 53 per cent abv Kweichow Moutai Feitian (or “Flying Fairy”) retails for around Rmb2,370 (about £260; available in the UK at Wing Yip online for £237.60), a bottle of Lay Mau – a predecessor of Moutai – distilled in the 1940s sold for about £220,000 in 2018 at Xiling Yinshe auction house in Zhejiang (the record is held by a 1935, sold in Guizhou for about £1.16m in 2011). Christie’s Shanghai and Sotheby’s Hong Kong had already joined the fray in 2017. The Sotheby’s Kweichow Moutai sale was the first by an international auction house, and its collection – spanning 1974 to 1996 – achieved an average of HKD34,300 (about £3,350) per half litre. “Just two or three years ago, it was still a very insular market,” says Adam Bilbey, head of wine for Sotheby’s Asia. “I expect in five to 10 years we’ll see avid Moutai collectors all over the world.” Nick Fleming, head spirits buyer at Harrods’ Wine & Spirits Rooms, agrees: “It’s popular with our international customers, but also gaining traction with locals.” Kweichow Moutai is becoming a key focus at Harrods, the only retailer in the UK to offer the 15-year-old vintage (£1,200), which Fleming describes as having “extra complexity with more pronounced floral and fruit notes”. The nine-year-old variety is more widely available (£165 at The Whisky Exchange), as are the five- (£135) and three-year-old (£94.95) versions. Another good source for vintage Moutai is Poly Auction Hong Kong.

Nine-year-old Kweichow Moutai, £165 at The Whisky Exchange
Nine-year-old Kweichow Moutai, £165 at The Whisky Exchange | Image: The Whisky Exchange

Londoner Paul Mathew became interested in Moutai after living in Beijing with his diplomat wife. “It’s the only spirit with a really strong umami character, but I’m also fascinated by its cultural significance,” says the owner of City bars The Arbitrager and Demon, Wise & Partners, where he lists seven baijius, including Kweichow Moutai Feitian. “It’s for sipping, but a dash in cocktails gives a more savoury note – it’s great in a Bloody Mary.” He owns such rarities as a 2016 Year of the Monkey Kweichow Moutai and a Kweichow Feitian signed by the brand’s chairman. He also slightly bashfully admits to having a Kweichow Moutai he blended himself at the distillery, which has a picture of his face on it. 

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Logistics and investment business owner Paul Dunn, based in Hong Kong, started collecting Kweichow Moutai 18 years ago. “Back then it was an ordinary ‘table wine’ with a very cheap price tag,” he says. “I started buying it simply because I loved it.” Today, he estimates he has around 1,000 bottles, ranging from five to 80 years old, with a value of about £1.75m. Dunn’s family connections to Guizhou helped foster a relationship with the distillery that meant he could buy many bottles “ex-cellar” – a key advantage in a market where provenance is very important. But the most valuable item in his collection is a limited-edition set from 2015 marking the 100th anniversary of the distillery’s first gold medal at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition: “The original release price was Rmb750,000 [about £85,700]; today’s market value is Rmb5m [about £582,000].” He is trying to track down a 1956 vintage: “My birth year, and also uniquely 55 per cent abv instead of the more usual 53.” 

Over the past year shares in Moutai have more than doubled. And despite revenue growth slowing slightly in the third quarter, and share price wobbles in the past, as a vintage collectable, at least, all the signs are that Kweichow Moutai is standing firm. 

Alice Lascelles is Fortnum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019. @alicelascelles.

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