The first time I drank Moutai was at a wedding. It was a few months after I arrived in China. My host told me that it was the most famous brand of baijiu, the liquor made from sorghum and wheat.
We were served baijiu in small glasses that we later raised for a toast to the bride and groom to wish them a happy marriage. Of course, I thought, we had to toast with the best-quality liquor for this special couple's moment.
I'm from Mexico, a country where tequila is not just an alcoholic beverage, but a symbol of our traditions, so I completely identify with the importance of baijiu in China. Both Mexicans and Chinese use tequila and baijiu, respectively, to accompany our moments of joy with special people.
Four years after my first contact with Moutai, an opportunity to visit the distillery came. A group of eight foreigners, all from different countries went on a trip to Maotai, Guizhou province. As you might have guessed, it is the home of the precious liquor and where the name of the brand originated.
This liquor that contains 53 degrees of alcohol and costs around 800 yuan ($123) a bottle is highly valued not only because of its high amount of alcohol, but also because of the long period of time needed to produce a Moutai liquor, which takes up to five years to complete. During that period, the liquor will be kept in storage and mixed up to six times to get its unique flavor. The techniques and proportions of ingredients are kept a trade secret. The producers claim that the taste lies not only in the formula, but in the place where it is produced.
Due to high consumer demand, there have been attempts to increase the production of Moutai in other distilleries. Nevertheless, none has managed to produce a similar flavor.
Moutai is produced with the water from the Chishui River. In addition, the combination of climate and soil where sorghum and some local ingredients are grown, gives Moutai its origin denomination, protected under Chinese laws. The production process combines traditional techniques and the use of modern machinery. In addition to that, the production standards are also based on environmental protection awareness.
The Chishui River has historical value since it was a key stage of the Red Army's Long March in the 1930s.
It is claimed that the army led by Mao Zedong, crossed the river four times to defeat the enemy. The story is also linked to Moutai because the liquor was used to heal the wounded soldiers.
In 1951, two years after the founding of the New China, the State-owned Kweichow Moutai Co was founded, by bringing together various distilleries in the area. Kweichow was the romanization of Guizhou before pinyin was used.
Since then, Moutai has been known as the national liquor of China. It is offered at diplomatic events and State banquets.
In the Moutai Culture Museum, there is a bottle especially designed in honor of Mexico. I was stunned and impressed when I saw my country being honored in this way because I was aware that not many Mexicans had the opportunity to visit these lands.
Along with all other seven foreigners, we were given access to explore the Moutai plant and see the production process.
Recruitment into the company is highly competitive and most workers are local residents. This is mainly because the salary in Moutai is better than other jobs in the area.
All the workers we talked to were proud of their local brand. They spoke not as Moutai employees, but as members of a Chinese prestigious family.
As their guests, we were invited to taste their liquor. It is difficult to describe the taste. My first impression was that it left an aroma of almond mixture, vanilla and pear, but accompanied by the acidity of soy. The liquor warms the throat and part of the chest. The more you drink the softer it feels.
The bottles have holograms to verify the authenticity of the brand. To combat counterfeiting, Moutai is sold only through authorized dealers.
Annually 38,700 tons of Moutai are produced, but the company has developed different sub-brands of liquor at lower prices to meet the market demand.
Kweichow Moutai has 32 subsidiaries that also produce beer, wine and ventures in areas such as real estate, insurance, tourism and banking.
Moutai is the second-most valuable alcoholic beverage in the world, according to the 2015 ranking of independent consultancy Brand Finance. However, its value is measured mostly by the domestic market rather than the international market. In this regard, my question to An Huailun, general manager for exports at Kweichou Moutai, is about the company's plans to seek overseas consumers. To my surprise, Moutai has dealers in the United States, France, Australia and other countries. However, its mainstream market is overseas Chinese.
In this sense there is a long way to go and a huge market opportunity among Western consumers. To the extent that consumption of baijiu is positioned among consumers abroad, not of Chinese origin, Moutai could potentially become a leading international brand.
(China Daily 04/13/2016 page18)