Baijiu - The Most Commonly Consumed Spirit in the World!
Insights into one of the world's most commonly consumed spirits, Baijiu.
Vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, Scotch, tequila, considering the amounts that are published on these spirits, the outside reader would imagine that these are the most consumed spirits in the world. Research shows that when put together these known western spirits don’t get close to the consumption of Baijiu in China and suggest that Baijiu is the highest volume spirit consumed globally.
Chinese Spirits Consumption
With alcohol consumption growing in China more than 70% since 1990 (The Straits Times July 2019) to 11 litres of pure alcohol with men consuming 2.5 times more than women at 7 litres/head/year and women, the influences of the growing middle classes can be clearly seen. With a 5,000-year heritage Baijiu naturally scores heavily as the first choice of the domestic market.
The Baijiu Domestic Market
The Baijiu market was measured as worth $286.5M in 2018 sustaining massive value increases of 38.5% on the back of the 72% increase in retail prices since 2017 (Forbes 2018). This suggests that the Baijiu market demonstrates the Veblen effect, almost unknown for such a widespread market product. This known economic model shows that as the quantity demanded increases, the price increases, which denies the usual demand curve which declares that as price increases demand falls. However, there may be other forces at work.
Retail of Chinese Spirits
Taobao & Tmall the e-commerce platforms operated by Alibaba Group give a strong indication as to the overall pattern in China and shows that the other categories of spirits, whisk(e)y, brandy, rum, gin, vodka, tequila combined only contribute one-third of the Baijiu consumption.
JD online is the strongest channel for spirits online retailing and sports a larger number of brands across each sector, than its more widely known competitor Taobao/Tmall by some considerable distance.
Taking a closer look at the statistics shows that the number of brands participating in each sector is relatively disproportionate, for example taking the two platforms together (JD&Taobao/Tmall) whisky has 523 brands; whereas Baijiu has 829 brands. This clearly demonstrates the maturity, in western market terms, of the Baijiu activist marketing strategies in each sector imported spirits versus Baijiu.
Mature consumer markets divide and innovate as they become more mature, as consumers seek the next better experience, with each brand being reflective of a ‘new’ audience refracting consumer differences as competitors challenge for market share. Over time economic cycles flush out weaker players and leave an existing core group.
The Millenial generation leads to Chinese consumption, which is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it indicates that the Baijiu market is still a young market with some distance to travel to maturity, unlike western spirits markets. With much to learn about the category and mature western markets eager for new, yet sustainable, experiences and products, and a strong existing supply chain then Baijiu could become a powerful force internationally and not just focused on the domestic market.
Secondly, the Chinese are proud of their heritage and history, which in turn motivates them to re-tell the story as they travel further and more frequently than any other Chinese generation.
Baijiu Goes Global
However market economics are relatively new in China, and products have been developed to be functional rather than luxury consumer goods. That may well be changing, as the demand curve for Baijiu in 2018, discussed earlier, demonstrates.
Baijiu is becoming more known as the Chinese population travel more and cross-cultural experiences are shared. Although the Moutai brand dominates the Chinese market with a massive 63%, followed by the Wuliangye brand with 26% (Forward- The Economist 2017), there is evidence that the remaining 11% are seeking other routes to commercial success.
Amongst the old brick alleyways and ginnels of Beijing is Capital spirits – a Baijiu distillery and bar dedicated to the fiery spirit, which can range in strength from late 30% ABV to a more common 50-55% and up to 65% ABV. Their approach in Chinese and English, their host of international mostly American sponsors, the mix-up production and serving offer strongly points to their appeal for a tourist and domestic market.
Further, it is clear that mixologists are beginning to take the Chinese spirit and create cocktails from it. There are even a small band of ‘Bai-ologists’ in the USA.
Baijiu itself is a terroir-based drink based on Sorghum grain and Qu, one of the most important ingredients in Chinese cuisine. Made of yeast and mould carefully developed with grains and shaped into cakes or balls. Qu forms a key part in the production of rice wine, soy sauce, vinegar and bean paste. In the production of Baijiu, unlike other spirits, Qu allows for the sugar release and fermentation simultaneously.
This fermentation is created in long formed – sometimes centuries-old – pits, which bring their own seasoned character to the continuous production process. The mash is then loaded into pot stills for distillation. The oldest distillery in China was founded in 1573, using this method which was founded in the Sichuan province in 1425.
There are many expressions of Baijiu which are based around the four types or ‘aromas’ of baijiu Sauce, Strong, Light and Rice. The source of the sorghum is particularly important ranging from very specific regionally sourced Chinese grown to the ‘imported’. Age is a significant contributing factor to the value perception and quality.
These are only the basics. The detail and art of the distiller are profound and have many other expressions, and it is these that suggest that Baijiu can be of great interest to international markets, where knowledge, tradition, and artistry are valued as quality measures over pure volume.
Baijiu has its detractors in western societies, with it being known by some as rather unpalatable, but one person’s umami is another’s bitter or sour. Ultimately it’s a question of taste, habit, and familiarity. With Baijiu’s extensive history and intricate production artistry, together with its embryonic global market and reputation, it would seem that there is a much to be interested in if not invested in. Baijiu means ‘clear liquor’, and may come to mean clear opportunity in the near future.