Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
Maotai (茅台酒), also spelt moutai, sometimes mao-tai or mao tai, is a type of baijiu
that's China's most prestigious spirit. Many Chinese place maotai alongside Cognac and Scotch whisky as the third of the world's great spirits.
Like Cognacs and Scotch, rare maotais can sell for vast sums - a 1958 bottle raised well over 1,300,000 yuan (more than $200,000) at auction. And like Cognacs and Scotch, they rely on terroir.
Typically consumed at formal banquets, state occasions, weddings and anywhere status is required, the prevalence of fake maotais led China to bring in the first of its new DOC-style regulations in 1999. Like champagne, maotai may be made only in one place - the province of Guizhou, home to the town of Maotai which gives the spirit its name. China's most famous maotai, Kweichow Moutai, is still produced here, and the town is a mecca for domestic spirits tourism.
Maotai is typically sold high in alcohol (52-54%abv is typical), and belongs to the class of (soy) sauce-fragrance baijiu. There are wide variations in style, but typically the nose is sweet and sour with soy sauce and nail varnish remover notes, the palate is sweet, herbal and earthy, and the long aftertaste has definite umami notes.
Like other baijiu and unlike Western spirits, maotai is solid-fermented and solid-distilled - it never goes through a wash stage like a whiskey. It gains much of its character from qu (麯), a Chinese fermentation agent that's made from grains and pulses naturally fermented with a host of wild microorganisms, moulds and, typically, relatively little yeast, then dried into a brick ready for use.
During the labour-intensive process the sorghum grain (or sorghum-dominated mix) undergoes repeated cookings, coolings, mixings and additions of qu, new grains and water, for multiple (often eight) fermentation-distillation cycles. Typically, a fermented batch is steam distilled, then new grain and more qu is mixed with the paste left after distillation, to start the cycle again.
This process takes many months and sometimes as much as a year. The distillates that are produced at each stage have their own unique characters and their own Chinese names; they are graded, stored and aged separately from each other before blending. As many as a hundred different aged spirits may be compounded into the finished maotai.
Some distilleries ban metal tools, some insist (or at least allege) that women trample ingredients with their bare feet at certain critical stages, but the element that is at the heart of moutai is qu: each production area has its own microclimate and microorganisms, which make for unique flavour and fragrance profiles. There are hundreds of maotai producers in Guizhou: only Kweichow has any interest in the market outside China.