Mao Tai is China’s national drink and was designated as such in 1951, two years after the founding of People’s Republic of China. It is named after the town of Mao Tai in Guizhou province (in south west China) where the drink originates from. It is made from wheat and sorghum with a unique distilling process that involves several fermentations.
Attempts were made to start distilleries in other parts of China, but the resulting liquor did not taste the same. It is believed that the Red River that goes to make the drink is a contributing factor to why it can not be made anywhere else.
When Mao Tai was designated China’s official liquor, Premier Zhou Enlai – to preserve the purity of the water used to make it – banned any development or competing distilleries for a hundred or so kilometres upriver of the Mao Tai distillery.
Mao Tai is distilled from fermented sorghum and is not for the faint hearted. It is classified as jiangxiang (sauce fragranced) because it offers an exceptionally pure,mellow soy sauce-like aroma that lingers after it is consumed. The alcohol content varies from 53% by volume down to 35%.
Sorghum is a species of grasses, some of which are raised for grain and many of which are used as fodder plants either cultivated or as part of pasture.
Sorghum comes from the same family of plants as sugar cane and can be made into sorghum syrup or sorghum molasses.
It’s also used for biofuel. It’s the 5th most important cereal crop grown in the world and in North China it was ground into flour and used as an alternative to wheat in the past.
Mao Tai has often been used on official occasions in feasts with foreign heads of state and distinguished guests visiting China. It is the only alcoholic beverage presented as an official gift by Chinese embassies in foreign countries and regions.
According to legend the widowed Empress Cixi was known for her profound liking for Mao Tai. Every summer when the lotuses bloomed, she asked her maids to add nectar from the freshly blossoming flowers into the drink. Apparently this drink helped her maintain her youthful and beautiful looks.
Mao Tai received additional exposure in China and abroad when Premier Zhou Enlai used the liquor to entertain President Richard Nixon during the state banquet for the U.S. presidential visit to China in 1972. During their meal, Zhou showed Nixon how liquor could be set aflame.
Nixon was fascinated with the trick and took two bottles of Mao Tai home with him. At home in the White House, Nixon attempted to astound his wife and daughter with the same trick. Unfortunately the bowl that contained the spirit heated up and cracked, setting the tablecloth ablaze.
The heat set off the fire alarms in the building and the incident gave root to the story that is still remembered today.
Another well-known tale recalls the meeting between Charlie Chaplin and Premier Zhou. Both men were known to withstand large amounts of alcohol. Chaplin took a liking to the Chinese brew and called it the drink of ‘real men’.
I am hoping to try Mao Tai for myself whilst in Hong Kong – I enjoy my whiskey so hopefully I won’t find Mao Tai too daunting a prospect!