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Historic liquor helps ancient town prosper

Akhil Parashar
Updated: Apr 13,2016 8:48 AM     China Daily

Workers use traditional technique to mix steamed sorghum with yeast.[Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily]

Moutai, known as the national liquor of China, is 53 percent alcohol by volume. But the drink is far from rough-it is renowned for its rich, mellow taste and “sauce-scented” bouquet.

Normally, it is enjoyed during family celebrations, business negotiations and holidays. It is also offered when foreign guests are present.

Du Kang, the god of liquor who was said to teach people how to make baijiu, is highly respected by the locals in the town of Maotai-where the liquor is produced-in Guizhou province. As the story goes, Du Kang stored cooked sorghum beans in a hollow tree stump one winter day. Rain filled the stump, and in the spring he noticed a fragrant aroma coming from the stump. He discovered the process of fermenting the beans to form an alcoholic drink, now known as baijiu or white spirit.

Newly distilled liquor is put into ceramic jars to age. The process before it goes to the market takes about five years.[Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily]

A visit to the Moutai sorghum processing plant is an unexpected experience in today’s machine-driven processing world. One is struck by the mix of traditional methods and state-of-the-art technology that is used in the production.

“Today Moutai’s daily output is about 2.7 million bottles and more than 300 varieties produced by 12 assembly lines,” said Liu Qinglang, manager of the packaging department.

At the factory, women in white uniforms intently observe the red-on-white bottles that pass through four assembly lines. Each of the women, like most workers at the plant, average a six-hour shift each day, five days a week. Their wage is about 100,000 yuan ($15,420) per year, more than the average starting salary in big cities of China.

Producing Moutai is labor-intensive. There are nine separate steps in simply adding the red ribbon to the bottles.[Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]

Home to dozens of other liquor brands, Guizhou also serves as a hub for liquor traders across China. There are some 157 villages surrounding Renhuai city, where sorghum for Moutai is cultivated. Sorghum is the main ingredient used to make Moutai. The workers at the distillery, and the farmers that supply raw ingredients, certainly embody many of the hallmark characteristics of the nation.

Yang Daiyong, deputy general manager of Kweichou Moutai Group, said, “Moutai is the pride of the nation because of the environment where it is produced, its special techniques and the assured quality.”

He said the local economy is dependent to a large extent on Kweichow Moutai, which employs about 70,000 farmers in the province in addition to more than 20,000 workers in its production facilities. About 70 to 80 percent of the population’s income is derived directly or indirectly from the baijiu industry.

Du Kang, the god of liquor who was said to teach people how to make baijiu, is highly respected by the locals in the town of Maotai.[Photo by Wang Zhangfei/China Daily]

Unique techniques

According to Deng Qingqing, a certified wine taster and plant manager at Moutai, the brand stands out because of its unique processing techniques.

She explained the process of making Moutai: “The workers steam the sorghum, and let it dry for a while and then put it in the pits where they mix it with yeast. Afterwards, they leave it in the pits for 30 days, take it out and repeat the process twice. After that they put it in the distilling machines to get the liquor. It is then put in barrels, where it stays for three years. After this period, experts test it to make sure everything is right. It takes up to five years to produce the liquor. It is a long process, but it is needed to get the best Moutai according to our own standards.”

Moutai has been an important part of the country’s politics in past decades. Chinese leaders have played an important role in promoting the beverage. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, founding fathers of the new China, helped nurture the brand to its present-day popularity. In 1949, Zhou proposed Moutai be the main liquor served at state banquets.

It was poured during visits by US President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, as well as at Sino-British negotiations on Hong Kong when Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher toasted. Chinese leaders continue to serve Moutai to guests from around the world. President Xi Jinping toasted Barack Obama with Moutai during the US president’s state visit in June 2013.

“Moutai is looking abroad to expand its export market,” said An Huailun, general manager for exports at Kweichou Moutai. He explained Moutai has been stepping up efforts to go global in recent years. It already has a growing network extending from Asia to North America, Europe and Australia. There are increasingly encouraging signs on Moutai’s way to international recognition. In 2015, it won a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, placing it among the best liquors globally.

Moutai in foreigner’s eyes is not just a beverage but something that represents a nation and has a history. After spending a long time in Guizhou province, I can certainly say this national drink holds a special place in the hearts of Chinese people. After hearing so much of its appreciation and surrounded by the irresistible aroma of the white spirit, it was simply not possible to return home without a bottle of Moutai. I was not previously a big fan of Chinese liquor but Moutai created a very different impact and I ended up buying four bottles.