A selection of bottles of moutai, including rare stock of Kweichow Moutai

Collecting guide: Moutai, 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 offered at Christie’s

1. What is moutai (or maotai)?

In China, maotai (or maotai) 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. Moutai is served at all Chinese state banquets and often presented as diplomatic gifts.

President	Richard	Nixon	and	Chinese	Premier	Zhou	Enlai	toast	each
other with Moutai at	a	banquet	in	the	Great	Hall	of	the	People, Beijing, in February 1972. Photo	John	DominisThe	LIFE	Picture	CollectionGetty	Images

President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast each other with Moutai at a banquet in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, in February 1972. Photo: John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

2. Where in China is moutai produced?

Moutai is produced in Maotai Town, which is located within Guizhou (Kweichou) Province. Like champagne, only the baijiu produced in Maotai Town can be called moutai, and more specifically only the baijiu produced by Kweichow Moutai Co, Ltd. Other Moutai is called Maotai Town baijiu.

Only baiju produced in Maotai Town, on the southeast bank of the Chishui River, by the Kweichow Moutai Co, Ltd can be called moutai. Photo	Qilai	ShenBloomberg	via	Getty	Images

Only baiju produced in Maotai Town, on the southeast bank of the Chishui River, by the Kweichow Moutai Co, Ltd can be called moutai. Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.

Wuxing Moutai 1959. 1 bottle per lot. Sold for CNY 960,000 on 13 January 2022, Online

Wuxing Moutai 1959. 1 bottle per lot. Sold for CNY 960,000 on 13 January 2022, Online

Wuxing black bottle Moutai, 1980s

Wuxing black bottle Moutai, 1980s

Today, the share price of Kweichow Moutai Co, Ltd continues to rise. According to a report by Fortune, ‘Moutai 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 $395 billion in 2022.

3. The terroir

Maotai Town has a particular climate: mild winters and hot summers, low wind and rainfall, but high temperatures and humidity. The distillery 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 moutai made?

The liquor is distilled from fermented hongyingzi sorghum. During harvesting, only golden grains that are hard, plump, uniform and thin-skinned are selected.

A wicker scoop filled with red sorghum, the key ingredient in the making of moutai. Photo Qilai ShenBloomberg	via Getty Images

A wicker scoop filled with red sorghum, the key ingredient in the making of moutai. Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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’.

Steamed sorghum is spread out before the fermentation process begins. Photo	Qilai	ShenBloomberg	via	Getty	Images

Steamed sorghum is spread out before the fermentation process begins. Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Following this storage period, the basic moutai 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.

Feitian screw cap Moutai 1993. 6 bottles per lot. Sold for CNY 192,000 on 13 January 2022, Online

Feitian screw cap Moutai 1993. 6 bottles per lot. Sold for CNY 192,000 on 13 January 2022, Online

5. What considerations go into a nuanced appreciation of moutai, and what foods does it pair with best?

Moutai should be tasted at a temperature between 20 and 25°C, in tulip-shaped glasses to concentrate the aromas. Pinch your moutai 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.

Only sorghum grains that are hard, plump, uniform and thin-skinned are used to make moutai at	the	Kweichow
Moutai	Co, Ltd distillery. Photo	Qilai	ShenBloomberg	via	Getty	Images

Only sorghum grains that are hard, plump, uniform and thin-skinned are used to make moutai at the Kweichow Moutai Co, Ltd distillery. Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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. Moutai pairs well with any Chinese cuisine, but also with Korean grill, Japanese sashimi and caviar.

6. What excites collectors of moutai?

Collectors are interested in quality, but also in the strong price appreciation for moutai. It is common knowledge that older moutai tastes better, while the the rarity of special limited editions mean they are highly coveted.

Zhenpin screw cap Moutai 1986. 2 bottles per lot. Sold for CNY 96,000 on 13 January 2022, Online

Zhenpin screw cap Moutai 1986. 2 bottles per lot. Sold for CNY 96,000 on 13 January 2022, Online

7. What are the key facts that determine the value of a bottle of moutai, 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 CNY 2,000 (around $300) to more than CNY 300,000 (around $44,000) a bottle.

8. What should new moutai collectors be aware of?

When it comes to selecting a quality bottle of aged moutai 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.