Brewing Trouble

A look at the long history, troubled present, and murky future of China’s national liquor.

In Maotai Town, liquor is a way of life. Towering statues of bottles rendered in bronze populate the town, even marking the entrance to one elementary school. A local waterway, revered for its indispensable contribution to alcohol production, has been nicknamed the “river of liquor.” Vast warehouses dot the rolling hills — some abandoned, others concealing the national treasure that slowly matures inside.

Baijiu, a liquor made from fermented sorghum and other grains, has been a quintessential part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. The drink is a traditional fixture at formal occasions of all sorts, from weddings to business banquets. In 1972, then-Premier Zhou Enlai served the national liquor when he met with Richard Nixon, the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China. Nixon was said to have become glassy-eyed after a few too many toasts.

Maotai is home to some of the best-known — and priciest — baijiu. The most prestigious brand, Kweichow Moutai, became the world’s most valuable liquor company in April 2017. Historical records show that baijiu production defined the town as early as the Han Dynasty some two millennia ago, but in recent years, trouble has been brewing.

From lawsuits among distilleries, to industrial runoff polluting the water source for liquor production, to a crackdown on luxury spending that has seen sales plummet, the celebrated spirit and the town that was built on it face uncertain futures.

Chapter 1:
‘Baijiu’ Boomtown

Chapter 2:
A Brand Worth Suing For

Chapter 3:
River of Liquor

Sixth Tone reporters Zhang Liping and Li You, along with photojournalist Wu Huiyuan, traveled to Maotai in southwestern China’s Guizhou province to see how the town and the national liquor are reinventing themselves.