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Spotlights and Deep-Dives

The Trendsetting Liquor That Takes 400 Years To Brew: Luzhou Laojiao Baijiu

Distillery Spotlight: Luzhou Laojiao Distillery

Region: Luzhou, Sichuan, China

 

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles break down how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their spirit. Click here to learn about the 4 different categories of baijiu and our favourite brands and distilleries.

 
Centuries-old mud fermentation pits at Luzhou Laojiao Distillery (Source: Luzhou Laojiao) 

 

While Jamaican rum has dunder pits, the baijiu world has something similar called LaoJiao (老窖). "Laojiao" - an enigmatic term which seems to make perfect sense to old Chinese connoisseurs, but in parts of Southeast Asia and Taiwan, sounds quite similar to a popular curse word.

But within the realm of baijiu, these Laojiaos hold profound significance and prestige. "Laojiao" is incorporated into the brandname as a reference to the ancient fermentation pits that the distillery is renowned for, some of which have been continuously active for more than four centuries.

These pits have an essential role, hosting a thriving microbiome that acts as the secret ingredient to the liquor's distinctive aroma and complexity. Cooked grains and the fermentation starter are placed in the pits. The starch in the sorghum, the primary grain for baijiu, is transformed into sugar, then alcohol, through simultaneous saccharification and fermentation. During this process, the microbes contribute to a series of aldehyde, acid, and ester formations, further enriching the bouquet of fragrances.

 

The mud cellar pit where sorghum is fermented supports a complex ecosystem of beneficial microbes. The older a pit is, the more microbes multiply, and the more fruity and fragrant the resulting baijiu made from the sorghum becomes. 

 

An interesting phenomenon in this fermentation process is the correlation between the age of the pit and the aroma of the baijiu. As the pits mature, the microorganisms multiply, enhancing the fragrance of the resultant liquor. A science and sensory delight, indeed!

Boasting over 1,600 fermentation pits, Luzhou Laojiao inherits some of these from other distilleries, including their prized over-400-year-old 1573 National Cellars (they use a classier term, "cellar", to refer to their pits), which have been fermenting grains since the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). This undoubtedly cements Luzhou Laojiao's status as the originator of the Strong Aroma baijiu category.

  
Worker shovelling grains at Luzhou Laojiao Distillery (Source: Ming River)

 

Luzhou Laojiao's fermentation pits are held in high esteem within the baijiu industry, recognised for being the oldest and best-preserved. From these fermentation pits, the distillery releases a range of product lines of various grades. 

The core range baijiu expressions made from the distillery's younger cellar pits are labelled Luzhou Laojiao "Erqu" or "Sanqu" - meaning "Second Grade" or "Third Grade". A yet higher grade expression, made from pits aged for several decades is called Luzhou Laojiao "Touqu" - meaning "Head Grade".  

 The expression we have today comes at the next level, calling itself Luzhou Laojiao "Tequ", or "Special Grade" - meaning that it had been made from pits that are over 50 years of age. 

So let's give this Special Grade product a taste!

Luzhou Laojiao Tequ Grade Baijiu (泸州老窖特曲), 52% ABV – Review

 
Never mind the small "Ma La Colada" I tried that was made with Luzhou Laojiao. It tasted pretty much like the base spirit. 

 

Nose: Sweet, balanced and delightfully clean. Lush florals interwoven with sour plums heady scent and funkiness of overripe peaches and lychees. Underneath the fruitiness, there’s also a layer of freshness and yeastiness reminiscent of clear daijinjyo.

Palate: Refreshing, sweet and mellow. Opens with an expansive and distinctive fruitiness found in the nose – once again plums, overripe peaches and lychees all at once, alongside light nuances of a mellow earthiness and anise seed in the middle. Texture-wise, the entry is smooth and the mouthfeel medium-bodied.

Finish: Long and lingering, a rather intense rose-water like aroma intertwined with a delicate sweetness that fades ever so gradually.

 

My Thoughts

Emoji Rating: 🩰 Rich, harmonious and very well-coordinated – like a troop of Russian ballerinas or Chinese synchronised swimmers.

This Luzhou Laojiao Tequ Grade baijiu stands out due to its remarkable flavour equilibrium. In my experience, cheaper Rich Aroma baijiu inevitably seem a bit contrived due to some lack of flavour coordination or proportionality. Certain dimensions could overpower others. This could be too much sweetness for instance, or too abrupt “cellar fragrance” that interferes with the quiet enjoyment of the spirit. In contrast, this bottle is very harmonious, very well-coordinated. The various flavours are well integrated and play out like a proper orchestra – rich in aroma and sweetness balanced by a mellow, very acceptable cellar fragrance.

This is a definite step-up and better integrated spirit compared to one-grade-under Luzhou Laojiao Touqu Grade (头曲). An interesting contrast in style but not quality would be with the Luzhou Laojiao ‘Purple Sand’ Daqu Grade (紫砂大曲). While both are enjoyable the Tequ is a little less complex in flavour, but is fresher and brighter (think biting into overripe peaches).

National Cellar 1573 Baijiu (国窖1573), 52% ABV – Review

 

Now, this next expression is called the National Cellar, or "Guojiao", and it is the most prestigious core product line from Luzhou Laojiao. This is also considered by many as amongst the best-tasting baijius in China.

It is named after the claimed founding year of the distillery and is considered a prestige baijiu due to the fact that it is made from fermentation pits that have been continuously fermenting grains for over 100 years.

While the idea of consuming something from a 100-year-old pit may not sound appetising, this expression is said to be one of the most candied and fruity baijiu expressions ever made. Let's give this a taste:

Nose: Presents a fresh, floral, and surprisingly mellow aroma. Inviting and fruity sweet notes of white peaches and grilled pineapples emerge clearly and set the tone.

Palate: Bright, pure and intense. Opens up with a fantastic burst of candied sweetness alongside an almost citrusy or effervescent tanginess, reminiscent of Sprite and Sakuma Drops, especially the Lemon (translucent colour) and Pineapple (yellow) hard candies.

The flavours soften into a moderately tangy mouthfeel, gentle spices, mellow floral sweetness, complemented by a fleeting bitterness and a hint of pine resin – a sensation that might best be captured by the Mandarin flavour term 'gan' (). Amid the exceptionally candied notes, a very subtle cellar fragrance ("窖香" (jiào xiāng)) emerges, lending a noticeable but rather quiet contrast in the palate.

Finish: Very lasting and pleasant. The initial subtle dryness persists, moving into lightly tangy sour plums and a twist of honey in the mouth. Some liken this to good grappa and I do see some resemblance.

 

My Thoughts

Emoji Rating: 🍾 Gorgeous Champagne-like vibrance.

It stands as an epitome for Rich Aroma baijiu amongst the non-limited edition expressions (there are yet rarer ones that are priced in the thousands). It isn’t very complex, but the sheer candied quality would impress any drinker and more than compensates for this.

This is an expression that you can confidently offer a new drinker, and if they wouldn't take it, you can be sure that baijiu isn't their thing.

Ganbei!