It seems that Chinese collectors aren't only driving the prices for Chateau Lafite or Chateau Cheval Blanc to new heights, they're also on the hunt for rare tipples from a bit closer to home. This week, a bottle of 1958 Maotai baijiu sold for 1.45 million yuan (US$218,510) at auction in Hangzhou, setting a new record for the traditional Chinese spirit.
Baijiu is big business in China, with the country consuming some $27 billion worth of the clear liquor per year and consumption rising 20% a year for the last five years, according to the Wall Street Journal. But despite the popularity of high-end baijiu -- which can often run into the tens of thousands of dollars per bottle -- among China's elite, it's rare to see the same exuberance for a bottle at auction that we'd expect to see at a grape wine auction.
Part of this comes down to the rarity of this 1958 bottle. Maotai baijiu is one of the most lucrative products manufactured in the relatively poor province of Guizhou, which was hit particularly hard by the Great Famine of 1958-1961. But, as one would expect, during those tragic years, production of Maotai -- which requires at least 12 jin (13.23 pounds) of precious sorghum grain per bottle -- was strictly limited, and these vintages are naturally much harder to come across nowadays.
According to the auction house that sold the record-breaking bottle, "This bottle of 1958 Maotai is in excellent condition, and is extremely rare. Even though it's more than 50 years old, the packaging and labels are completely intact." An auction representative added that the bottle is one of the first in the auction market to be marked with a precise production date (in this case, February 12, 1958), and that it's the oldest bottle of Moutai to ever go to auction. Additionally, even after 52 years, the alcohol volume remains at more than two liang (12 ounces), indicating the bottle was kept in ideal conditions, and that the aging process has undoubtedly improved its quality.
The auction representative suggested that there are less than 20 bottles of comparable Moutai left in China, and that the Moutai factory itself has only a few bottles left in its cellar.