Bottles of Maotai

The Lunar New Year of the Ox will be joyfully welcomed on Friday, 12 February. Enter into the celebratory mood at festive gatherings by toasting with traditional Chinese rice or sorghum wine.

The Chinese word for wine, jiu, applies to all alcoholic drinks – wine, liquor and spirits. Therefore, be specific when placing an order. Chinese rice and sorghum wines date back to 2,000BC. They vary in colour from clear to pale yellow to dark brown. Some are sweet and rich, while others are very strong. Shaoxing jiu and bai jiu are well-known types.

Shaoxing jiu is made with water from Jing Lake, Shaoxing city, in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province. The main ingredients are glutinous rice, wheat, a little barley and yeast. The wine is aged in earthenware jars for at least one year before being sold, though many are matured for more than five years. Some of the most famous brands are Hong Zhuangyuan (Red Scholar) which is dry and well-balanced; sweet, aromatic Zhu Ye Qing (Bamboo Green); and fragrant Huadiao (Carved Flower). The latter is often used in cooking to enhance flavours, as I can happily verify.

Bai jiu is one of the most well-known sorghum (cereal grain) types. Ingredients are numerous, always containing starch and sugar, such as sorghum, barley, corn, millet and potatoes. Bai jiu is made throughout China. In the north, gluten-free sorghum is used and in the south, glutinous sorghum. In general, bai jiu is fragrant, with a complex taste, and reputed to aid good health.

Maotai is one of the many bai jiu types, named after the town of Maotai, County of Renhua, in the mountainous and landlocked south-west Guizhou Province. Traditional brewing and long aging give this very popular spirit its distinctive bouquet. Maotai is comparable to French brandy, with alcoholic strength stronger than pure vodka.

Chinese rice wine is best enjoyed warm, by standing the wine container in a pot of hot water before serving. Once opened, the wine should be consumed within a week. My preferred choice is aromatic Nu’er Hong (Daughter Red) for its dry, spicy, yet sweet nuances and long aftertaste. Sorghum spirits are customarily served at room temperature.

When eating Chinese food, normally only one type of jiu is served during the meal. Jiu is traditionally drunk from a small porcelain cup held in the right hand, with the thumb and index finger on opposite sides of the rim, the small finger on the base of the cup. To lift the cup with both hands is courteous, the left hand simply supporting the underneath of the cup. It is polite to top up others’ cups before attending to your own.

For general toasting during a meal, the cup is held in both hands, up high, to the long drawn-out shouts of, “Yam Seng!” (Cantonese, “drink for success”).

Happy Lunar New Year! Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Excerpts from “Chinese Etiquette – A Matter of Course” by Raelene Tan, Landmark Books.

Born in Adelaide, Raelene Tan is an etiquette consultant and a food and travel writer. She has authored five books and has been a regular guest on radio and television.