In Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage there is a bohemian character called Cronshaw who had “pondered for twenty years the problem whether he loved liquor because it made him talk or whether he loved conversation because it made him thirsty.”
It’s a dilemma that likely stirs the brain cells of Ji Keliang too. Ji is the purveyor of one of the world’s most sociable liquors: Moutai, the beverage of choice for Chinese banquets and celebrations. Furthermore, the 71 year-old has come up with an eye-popping calculation. He thinks he’s downed almost two tonnes of Moutai over the course of his life.
“As a chief sommelier, wine tasting is part of my work requirement and in life I also like to take a sip,” Ji told Business Magazine. “Looking back, for nearly 50 years, I have drunk 150 grams of Moutai every day, amounting to more than two tonnes. Till now I am in good health and my liver function is sound.”
Ji – who is Moutai’s group chairman as well as chief sommelier – has even published a thesis on the Chinese wine’s health benefits. “Some say my contention that Moutai is conducive to human health is a challenge to the medical profession,” he admits. Given Moutai’s 53% alcohol content, it sounds like a fair point. “But I think it relates to our process and ingredients. A bottle of our wine – from raw materials to bottling – takes at least five years; the brewing process is very intricate [boiled nine times, fermented eight]. Relatively speaking, Moutai contains very few volatile substances, and also contains some useful components for the human body, so it causes less irritation and is favourable to health.”
Ji is not alone in classifying the drink as a healthy one. Former Premier Zhou Enlai made similar claims for the fermented sorghum liquor, telling President Nixon during his 1972 visit: “On the Long March, Moutai was a cure-all medicine, used to wash wounds, cure pain, and even cure colds.” (On the same trip an alarmed Alexander Hague warned staff to keep Nixon away from the Moutai during his banquet with Zhou. But ‘Tricky Dicky’ was soon throwing it back).
On its website, the Kweichow Moutai Distillery names its beverage as one of the three most famed liquors in the world – alongside Scotch whisky and Cognac.
But Moutai lays claim to being older than both of its peers, originating in the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), but becoming especially popular by the Ming period (1368-1644).
Ji believes that Moutai is a “living fossil” of China’s winemaking tradition. Its distillery is still based in the same mountain town in Guizhou (which somewhat confusingly is usually spelled Maotai), where there is access to fresh waters and herbs. Ji says the geographical location gives the drink its unique taste and aroma (the French might term it ‘terroir’) and says no other region has been able to match it.
Ji himself is not a local – hailing instead from Nantong in Jiangsu province. But in 1960 he studied food fermentation at the Wuxi Institute of Light Industry, and on graduation was assigned to the Moutai Distillery. It took him five days to travel there and he arrived to a plant experiencing hard times. Annual output was down to just 220 tonnes, and the company was racking up heavy losses.
Zhou Enlai had originally wanted graduates like Ji to help turn around Moutai’s operations. But by the mid-sixties, China was plunged into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and Ji was designated a member of the ‘stinking ninth category’ (i.e. an intellectual) and thus demoted to mail clerk. It wasn’t till the next decade that Ji would return to the production department and start rebuilding the company.
The worst of the Cultural Revoluion may have been over, but Mao was still leaving an indelible mark on the distillery’s operations. That’s because in one of his many proclamations he had declared that output should be upped to 10,000 tonnes per year.
By 1977 Ji’s team was producing a record 763 tonnes, and in 1983 he was made the factory director. He finally hit Mao’s 10,000 tonne target in 2003. Massive celebrations ensued. “This was the happiest moment of my life,” recalls Ji, who by then had combined the roles of chairman, chief engineer, chief sommelier and Party secretary, making him the walking embodiment of Moutai. He’d also obtained a local stock listing for the group, bought a brewery and diversified into the grape wine industry.
As for the Moutai istelf, Ji sought to further raise its prestige, not just in China but internationally. He began to market more aged versions (a 15 year-old, 30 year-old, 50 year-old and 80 year-old etc). It seems to have been a success in encouraging demand from a growing band of wealthy Moutai connoisseurs. The the 50 year-old now costs Rmb20,000 a bottle and the 80 year-old goes for Rmb128,000.
By 2009, Ji had stewarded Moutai to a net profit of Rmb4.13 billion. He now estimates output can be upped to 40,000 tonnes by 2020. The golf-lover plans to retire this year, but says “It’s still too early to predict when Moutai’s peak will come… If a 100 million families drink one bottle per year, that is tens of thousands of tonnes.”
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