($330 for 500ml, 53% alcohol; screw cap)
Moutai is a smallish city in Mao country, way out in Guìzhōu Shěng in south-west China: a generally impoverished upland plateau province of both humidity and drought.
The hills of Moutai developed a thriving network of specialist baiju distilleries over 2000 years. It must have been like the absinthe business in rural France, until the threat of a wowser revolution replaced thousands of village distillers with the absinthium-free products of the Pernod and Ricard families.
Run by triads after the Opium Wars, Guìzhōu had its doors opened when the Burma Railway arrived during World War II. Soon after, local Communists hoiked Mao into power, and nationalised these artisan employers by amalgamation into one factory which now trades as Kweichow Moutai Co Ltd.
Forget Pernod-Ricard: it’s small fry. This rural China outfit recently nudged the humungous Diageo aside to become the world’s most valuable liquor company, estimated by Fortune in January to have a market value of more than $A190 billion.
Billion. For reference, Australia exports about $A1 billion worth of wine into China, which includes Hong Kong.
Moutai – the dragon, the Flying Fairy – is made from sticky sorghum syrup and wheat, both grown locally. Maybe some rice. A confounding series of wild yeast ferments and nine distillations over two years produces a powerful spirit which then matures and cold-settles in big ceramic pots for three years. Every step of the harvest and manufacture is done according to local organic procedures and the cycles of the Moon.
I have smelled bits of this complex bouquet over vats of fermenting cheese, and yoghurts, and in breweries. Fermenting tofu. Fermenting rice. It’s heady and estery, with tropicals like plantain and carambola and slices of fresh Comice, Bosc and Rocha pear soaking in kirsch. Bilberry and the rhizomes, ginger and turmeric. It is confronting to the raw ocker nostril; to my bottle-scarred hooter it’s as clean as a whistle yet as complex and fascinating as China itself.
When the official website advises “there are over 2000 types of microorganisms in the air in the town of Moutai”, you better believe them, and include a major margin for traditional Chinese modesty. Keep a bag of zeroes handy.
The region’s boundaries limit the annual production to around 60,000 tonnes. Like a Premier Grand Cru, the appellation is rigorously guarded.
More than any recent millennial revisiting of the amphorae of the past and the modernist western fad of so-called “natural” ethanol manufacture, this product proves you can be both natural and perfectly reliably clean at huge volumes.
Moutai is China’s official toasting fluid, and comes very much in handy as a government door-opener. Ninety-five per cent of is it consumed in China. Quickly. It sells out. I love it.
So, having been aromatically braced, then seduced, try your drink in the kisser. The texture is slightly winy-viscous, like a Fiano; the flavours ethereal, a little nutty like the distinctive benzaldehyde of good amaretto, but fleeting. It quickly dances away, leaving the vaulted olfactory halls vibrating with choral harmonics and a naughty miasma which tells you it’s due full respect in the voltage division but as the best things do, also dares you to do it again.
It’s like that sparky alerting click! when you first plug a Telecaster into a cranked Twin Reverb: it’s threatening, and tingly, but re-entry becomes increasingly blithe. Once you realise that, it’s too late: you’re done for. The mayor knows he’s got your investment, and goodness me, look at that: you still have eight officials queued up with their shot glasses loaded for toasts.
Just hum the Billy Joe Shaver couplet “The devil made me do it the first time, second time I done it on my own” and get on with it. Rock ’n’ roll.
Food? Well Chinese food, of course.
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