Huáng Jiǔ (黄酒 - Yellow Alcohol)
Modern society in China consumes, in general, four types of alcohol. While whiskey and cognac are up-and-coming, they have yet to compete with the popularity of these four (in order of popularity): pi jiu (beer), bai jiu (distilled grain spirits), huáng jiǔ (brewed grain spirits) and putao jiu (wine). Of these four, huáng jiǔ holds the richest and most ancient tradition. Like most long-standing Chinese skills, the production of huáng jiǔ is an institution and an art in and of itself. Like much of Chinese cultural nomenclature, the correct names and traditions surrounding huáng jiǔ are often the bone of contention.
Outside of China, huáng jiǔ is more commonly called Shaoxing (Wade-Giles: shao-hsing) wine after a city in the Zhejiang province. In reality, every province in China has had large-scale facilities for making huáng jiǔ, many of them centuries old. The making of huáng jiǔ has long been a family affair, occurring in any household which has access to grain. Over time, however, the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Jiangxi have become regarded as the best producers of huáng jiǔ. This is owed, at least in part, to their high quality grains and well-regarded springs.
The renown of Shaoxing in particular for its wine is probably due to the local tradition of burying huáng jiǔ when a daughter is born and subsequently digging it up at the time of her wedding. This obviously gave the huáng jiǔ time to age and, therefore, improve. Over time, it became part of the tradition for the wine to be buried in ornately decorated jars. Today, this variety of wine is known as huādiāo jiǔ (花雕酒), meaning "flower carving alcohol" when it is sold in these beautiful containers. Other huáng jiǔ that has been buried in the Shaoxing tradition is referred to as nǚ'ér jiǔ (女儿酒), or nǚ'ér hōng (女儿红), meaning "daughter wine".
For the most part, mass-produced huáng jiǔ is brewed and subsequently aged, but some grades and varieties use distillation in part of the process, including some types which begin with a distilled base alcohol or add distilled spirits to increase the alcohol content of the end product.
In general, however, huáng jiǔ encompasses a broad range of different techniques and ingredients. While Western alcohol products are generally classified most broadly by the manufacturing process, this is more difficult with huáng jiǔ, since brewing, distilling and age fermentation are all employed to increase the alcohol content of the final product. Huáng jiǔ, like bai jiu are made from some of the traditional five grains. Since other distinguishing characteristics seem to fail, this is likely to be the reason why they are named for their color.
Often, subclassification of huáng jiǔ is done across the boundaries of residual sugars (dry, semi-dry, sweet, disgustingly sweet), the method of brewing (淋饭 - lín fàn, 大饭 - dà fàn, 摊饭 - tān fàn), or the class of fermentation agent (曲 - qū) used in the process.
By taste, most bai jiu tastes something like a viscous vodka with the sickly scent of formic acid and ethylene. In contrast, huáng jiǔ seems far more palatable, ranging in flavors from an almost soy sauce flavor to that of a dry, white wine all the way out to the crisp, warm taste of Japanese sake. It is probably for this reason that huáng jiǔ is used in cooking and is often given as gifts, while bai jiu is often used to sterilize surgical instruments and strip furniture.
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