Collecting guide: Maotai — China’s ‘national liquor’
What does a new collector need to know about the ultimate brand of the world’s most widely drunk spirit? Specialist Ned Zhang offers a few pointers, illustrated with lots from Treasures of Chishui River — Kweichow Moutai on 21 September
1. What is Maotai?
In China, Maotai (or Moutai) is known as ‘the national liquor’. It is made from a grain called red sorghum at Kweichow Moutai Co, Ltd, the country’s most famous baijiu (Chinese spirits) distillery. Maotai is served at all Chinese state banquets and often presented as a diplomatic gift.
2. Where in China is Maotai produced?
Maotai is produced in Maotai Town, which is located within Guizhou (Kweichou) Province. Like champagne, only the baijiu produced in Maotai Town can be called Maotai, and more specifically only the baijiu produced by Kweichow Moutai Co, Ltd. Other Maotai is called Maotai Town baijiu.
Exactly when the first formal liquor production sites in the town of Maotai were established is not known, but one source dates a distilling workshop to 1599 during the Ming dynasty.
In the early 1950s, local government merged Chengyi, Ronghe and Hengxing to establish the state-run Moutai Distillery. Since then, it has undergone multiple expansions.
Today, the share price of Kweichow Moutai Co, Ltd continues to rise. According to a report by Fortune, ‘Maotai baijiu’s fiery flavour and potential to appreciate in price is driving blistering demand. That in turn has pushed its market value to more than $145 billion, well past British whisky giant Diageo Plc.’
3. The terroir
Maotai Town has a particular climate: mild winters and hot summers, low wind and rainfall, but high temperatures and humidity. The Maotai Town distillery region is located at the upper reaches of the Chishui River, where the water is the purest and there is a high concentration of micronutrients, which gives the liquor its unique, savoury taste reminiscent of soy sauce.
4. How is Maotai made?
The liquor is distilled from fermented hongyingzi sorghum. During harvesting, only golden grains that are hard, plump, uniform and thin-skinned are selected.
The fermentation begins with the making a qu — a ‘starter’ containing yeast — which is then mixed with the sorghum. The fermenting mixture is distilled seven times a year, with each batch stored in a separate container. The distilled baiju is then stored for three to four years in earthenware jars which allow the alcohol to ‘breathe’.
Following this storage period, the basic Maotai distillates will go through an elaborate blending process. Master blenders, relying on their personal tastes and techniques passed down over hundreds of years, make use of a few or tens of basic distillates in search of the ultimate balance and depth in taste.
5. What considerations go into a nuanced appreciation of Maotai, and what foods does it pair with best?
Maotai should be tasted at a temperature between 20 and 25°C, in tulip-shaped glasses to concentrate the aromas. Pinch your Maotai glass at the base with all five fingers to avoid altering the temperature, and hence the aroma of the liquor, with the heat of your palm.
Soy sauce-flavoured baijiu usually has a mild yellow hue, ranging from clear to light yellow, pale yellow, and emerald green.
Fresh notes of soy sauce are pronounced at first. The main aroma is multifaceted, with fine notes of fruit, plants and grains, mixed with floral and yeast notes. Maotai pairs well with any Chinese cuisine, but also with Korean grill, Japanese sashimi, and caviar.
6. What excites collectors of Maotai?
Collectors are interested in quality, but also in the strong price appreciation for Maotai. It is common knowledge that older Maotai tastes better, while the the rarity of special limited editions mean they are highly coveted.
7. What are the key facts that determine the value of a bottle of Maotai, and how much does a good bottle cost?
The key attributes are the quality of its appearance, the vintage (older equates to better and more expensive), rarity and authenticity.
At auction, prices can range from RMB 2,000 (around $290) to more than RMB 300,000 (around $43,600) a bottle. In our Shanghai auction, we have two bottles from 1957 and 1958 (above), which are very rarely seen on the market.
8. What should new collectors be aware of?
When it comes to selecting a quality bottle of aged Maotai the first thing you should check is whether the bottle is in good condition. Look out for stains or mould on the seal or the registered trademark, and beware of marks indicating exposure to sunlight. The level of liquor in the bottle must be high. When the liquor is swirled in the bottle or poured into a glass, good-quality bubbles should be evident. By noting how long the bubbles last, one can discern the age of the liquor and the conditions in which it has been stored.