The media, or “Resurrection,” room set up on the top floor of the Monteleone for Tales is a blessing. It’s a place to sit down and catch up on email and meet people—bloggers, reporters, manufacturers—from around the world who’ve come to cover Tales of the Cocktail. The past few years distributors and manufacturers have taken advantage of it by hosting breakfasts and lunches every day. A captive audience of the world’s cocktail media, notorious cheapskates, can easily be bought for an hour or so with free food and booze.
I wandered up there on Saturday during Tales, taking a break from meeting some of the local Twitterati who had purchased wrist bands for admission to the tasting rooms spread out around the Monteleone and the over at the Royal Sonesta.
Getting off the elevator I ran into Casandra from CraveLocal.com based in Orlando. There was a display of flowers and some bottles on a table by the door, and she told me they were fixing to serve Chinese food for the lunch getting ready to start, it’s for a liquor called Moutai that, as she says she heard “drinks like you’re pouring razor blades going down your throat.”
Thus terrified, intrigued and famished in equal proportions, I entered the room and was seated at a table. This was not going to be the normal free-for-all buffet but a sit down, family style lunch. The whole place was decorated and a large partition was set up separating the tables from the area where the buffet normally resided.
The presentation began. Moutai (formerly “Maotai” but changed to be less scary to Westerners) is a class of baijiu or “white wine.” It’s not actually wine, though, it seems in China “wine” is loosely applied to alcoholic beverages more generally, while in the West, it would never be applied to a distilled spirit, which Moutai most definitely is.
We were being treated by the international outreach arm of the Kweichow Moutai distillery. Kweichow is the province where the city of Maotai, which lends its name to this particular baijiu, is located. We learned it’s made over a three-year period, that it begins with a dry fermentation of sorghum (a grain also grown in the U.S. but not used often as a culinary ingredient). Rather than a large distillation plant, the factory consists of many (hundreds? can’t recall what they said) small stills. This adds to the character of each individual batch distilled that will be blended together later for bottling.
Each table for the event had a host from the cocktail world, brand ambassadors hired for an international marketing effort by the distillery and its French partner, Camus Cognac. They’ve spared no expense: Christine Deussen, David Wondrich and King Cocktail, Dale DeGroff (more on Dale in a later post with T.A. Breaux and the bitters they’ve just put on the market), are helping spread the word along with the host of my table, San Francisco-based journalist and author Jordan Mackay.
Jordan was great, he was very knowledgeable about the product and the drinking culture in China. He explained that what we were drinking, despite its, as I qualified it, “moonshine” characteristics, is rare outside China and is quite expensive, selling for the equivalent of $200-$300 a bottle. The Chinese buy Moutai for holidays and special occasions; Jordan explained that often Moutai, despite its high price tag, is often rationed with customers limited to two bottles when it is available. The price tag also makes it an uneconomical mixer, so it’s not found as an ingredient in cocktail recipes. It’s served at state banquets and most famously by Chou Enlai to Richard Nixon during his ground-breaking 1972 trip to China.
With its international partner’s help, Moutai has been marketed for a few years in duty-free shops around the world but is not generally available. The lunch at Tales was one stop on a tour with Moutai making the rounds and testing the waters to expand into more markets.
We learned how to drink Moutai. It appears as a clear, somewhat viscous liquid with a sharp alcohol scent, making one think of unaged corn whiskey or just plain old “white lighting.” The tiny glasses (about one-half ounce) on the table were for the Moutai, and they were tiny because guests are expected to drink the entire glass at once. Also, it’s considered rude to drink if you are not giving a toast or being toasted and thus started off the festivities by offering a toast to everyone at the table.
In a banquet situation, there are ladies who’s sole duty is to refill the Moutai glasses. They are known appropriately as “demolition girls” and they keep busy as there is no shortage of toasts to be made.
So how does it taste?
The first hit is like what you would expect from its appearance and aroma, very strong and very alcoholic. Almost immediately, however, many layers of flavor become apparent and the tastes mellows after a few moments. It’s after the swallow, when you take in air into your mouth and throat, that the “razor blade” effect becomes apparent. Just as a Curiously Strong Peppermint™ leaves a cooling and stinging sensation when you inhale, the Moutai remnants produce a burning and stinging sensation upon inhalation after swallowing, it’s unpleasant until the third or fourth shot when things become altogether more pleasant. It is, after all, strong stuff and not to most Western tastes. A person without an open mind might reject it outright as “fire water” but that’s ignoring the surprising subtleties apparent in a careful, well-paced, sampling.
Jordan said that there are nearly 300 compounds found in Moutai, produced by the unique fermentation process. That’s quite apparent, and after toast after toast, it also became apparent that the Chinese know what they’re doing, because I would have indeed been demolished had the Moutai been served in Western-size shot glasses.
So I salute the folks of Kweichow and their fiery baijiu, and thank them for the rare treat of Moutai and the opportunity to learn a lot about Chinese drinking culture.