The sen­si­tive se­crets of a mas­ter blender

China’s most loved liquor makes its way to cus­tomers only af­ter rig­or­ous test­ing, and re­port.

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE -

Zhong Lin stopped wear­ing cos­met­ics and per­fume in her 20s. She also swore off spicy food, which was tough for some­one who grew up in Guizhou, a south­ern prov­ince where the chili is king.

Yet deny­ing her­self th­ese ev­ery­day plea­sures for two decades has helped make her one of the top bai­jiu blend­ing masters in China.

The job re­quires a height­ened sense of taste and smell. “If you gave me two cups of bai­jiu with slightly vary­ing al­co­hol lev­els, it’d be easy for me to tell which is higher, or any other tiny dif­fer­ences,” she said with a con­fi­dent smile.

Zhong has worked for Kwe­i­chow Moutai Co, the most fa­mous brand of the Chi­nese liquor, since 1995, ris­ing from a grad­u­ate re­cruit to a Class 1 taster.

She is one of 10 blend­ing masters who are re­spon­si­ble for the qual­ity and con­sis­tency of the 100 met­ric tons of bai­jiu pro­duced daily at Moutai’s dis­til­leries, which em­ploy more than 20,000 peo­ple in the small Guizhou town from which the com­pany takes its name.

“For the past 20 years, I’ve tasted the best bai­jiu in the world al­most ev­ery day. It’s been amaz­ing,” she said, adding that she be­lieves it has done won­ders for her liver and stom­ach, and that her skin is bet­ter than most women her age.

“Moutai is great for your health,” she said, re­peat­ing a state­ment of­ten heard from work­ers at the com­pany, al­though the pub­lic per­cep­tion is per­haps a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.

The com­pany’s bai­jiu is made from sorghum, wheat and wa­ter from the Red River, which runs through Moutai town, “with no chem­i­cals or ar­ti­fi­cial yeasts”, Zhong says.

The wheat and sorghum is first mixed to fer­ment for a year be­fore be­ing cat­e­go­rized by taste and stored in large, earth­en­ware con­tain­ers for three to four years. Af­ter that, each batch is fur­ther tested to de­ter­mine the right blend to pro­duce the trade­mark Moutai fla­vor.

“The most dif­fi­cult — al­beit ba­sic — part of my job is to make sure the bai­jiu pro­duced in dif­fer­ent sea­sons and dif­fer­ent years all tastes roughly the same,” she said.

Zhong is now at the peak age for tasters, 40 to 45, when the senses of smell and taste are be­lieved to be at their keen­est. How­ever, ac­quir­ing the skills to be a blend­ing mas­ter was not easy; it took years of prac­tice.

At first, Zhong said she did not take her ap­pren­tice­ship se­ri­ously enough and found it hard keep­ing up with the tir­ing train­ing sched­ule, which of­ten stretched into the late evening.

When her first chance to take the bai­jiu taster ex­am­i­na­tion rolled around in 2000, she failed. “I was young and fool­ish, and I do re­gret it (not putting in the ef­fort) be­cause it de­layed my ca­reer,” she said, ex­plain­ing that the test is held only ev­ery five years.

The fail­ure in­spired her to ded­i­cate her­self to im­prov­ing her skills, which in­volved smelling and tast­ing glass upon glass of bai­jiu, each one slightly dif­fer­ent from the one be­fore.

“You have to stop ev­ery now and then, take a walk to re­fresh the nose and drink some wa­ter to cleanse the palate.”

Her hard work paid off. She rose through the ranks and even­tu­ally gained a Class 1 cer­tifi­cate, the high­est achieve­ment for a blend­ing mas­ter, last year. For that test she was blind­folded and asked to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween var­i­ous cups of wa­ter, in­clud­ing tap, min­eral and pu­ri­fied.

“I smelled, but smelled noth­ing; I tasted, but didn’t taste bai­jiu,” she said, re­call­ing her sur­prise at the exam. “But I passed, and at least I got to know that I’m ca­pa­ble of dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween dif­fer­ent types of wa­ter.”

Asked to demon­strate her dayto-day work, Zhong put on a clean, white lab­o­ra­tory coat, washed her hands, and took out a col­lec­tion of bot­tles and mea­sur­ing glasses.

“Look at the color first,” she said, ex­plain­ing the process, which takes up to one hour per sam­ple. “Smell it from a short dis­tance, and then take a sip to spread the bai­jiu on your tongue.”

Moutai was first pro­duced dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911). Since then, the tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion meth­ods em­ployed at the com­pany have re­mained rel­a­tively un­changed.

How­ever, Zhong said out­put is kept lim­ited to en­sure the high qual­ity of its bai­jiu, which was named the “na­tional liquor” in 1951.

A stan­dard 500-mil­lime­ter bot­tle of Moutai costs about 900 yuan ($138) from stores in the town, but that can rise to 2,000 yuan in other cities be­cause sup­ply is low and de­mand is high. Last year, an 80-yearold bot­tle of Moutai bai­jiu fetched a record 10.7 mil­lion yuan at auc­tion.

“The only thing that’s changed (in pro­duc­tion) is that we’ve built blend­ing vats with a ca­pac­ity of 120 tons, re­plac­ing those used be­fore 2008 that could hold only 5 tons,” Zhong said. “We still rely on wa­ter from the Red River, so pro­duc­tion of our bai­jiu can never leave Moutai town.”

Al­though an es­tab­lished brand in China, the liquor man­u­fac­turer has been work­ing to more widely pro­mote its prod­ucts abroad, as well as ex­plore on­line retail pos­si­bil­i­ties.

As part of ef­forts to keep with the times, Moutai as­signed Zhong to head a team of five mas­ter’s grad­u­ates in de­vel­op­ing bai­jiu- based cock­tails. The group is col­lab­o­rat­ing with Western mixol­o­gists and has or­ga­nized sev­eral pro­mo­tional events over­seas, in­clud­ing in Italy, the United States and Rus­sia.

“I’m en­cour­aged to see Western peo­ple re­act pos­i­tively to our new prod­ucts, and some of them placed or­ders straight away,” she said, adding that she hopes more peo­ple around the world will get to know and love Moutai.

“There are no lim­its on the cock­tail team, it’s just given the space to make things hap­pen.”

Con­tact the writ­ers through yan­dongjie@chi­


Moutai was first pro­duced dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911). Tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion meth­ods em­ployed at the com­pany have re­mained rel­a­tively un­changed.

Zhong Lin is one of the top bai­jiu blend­ing masters in China.

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