1974 Case of Chinese Liquor Brand Kweichow Moutai Sells for Nearly $1.5 Million at Auction

A case of the prized Chinese liquor Kweichow Moutai that was nearly half a century old went for close to $1.5 million at auction on Friday, exceeding the expectations of even seasoned experts, according to CNN. While the auction house, famed fine arts and real estate broker Sotheby's, did not publicize the identity of the buyer, it did reveal that they were an Asian collector.

The case contained 24 bottles of 1974 "Sun Flower"-brand Moutai, CNN reported. Thanks to fierce competition between 14 bidders, it sold for an impressive £1 million—more than double the high estimate of £450,000 (about $627,000 USD)—in London, becoming the most expensive single lot of the spirit ever sold outside China. Nine years ago, one bottle of 1980 Moutai sold for $1.3 million, according to a 2012 Newsweek article.

"We have seen some spectacular results for Moutai sold in Hong Kong, but this momentous price takes the baijiu spirit's standing amongst collectors to new heights," Sotheby's representative Paul Wong said in a statement. Wong is the broker's Moutai specialist, according to CNN. "Whilst current travel restrictions may prevent our clients from moving around, this has proved no impediment to the growing momentum of Moutai's popularity outside Asia."

The official national liquor of China, Moutai, also spelled "Maotai," has an alcohol content as high as 53 or 60 percent, prompting CBS reporter Dan Rather to compare the taste to "liquid razor blades" in 1972. But the beverage isn't only a simple means to inebriation; it's also a bona fide fixture of the country's cultural history. Reportedly, Red Army soldiers who passed through the town where Moutai is manufactured would pour the spirit into their open wounds to prevent infection. It's a story as widely told in China as that of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln spending his formative years in a log cabin in the U.S.

More recently, the sorghum-based alcoholic beverage has been present at historic interactions between Chinese and U.S. state officials. In 1972, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong offered Moutai to then-President Richard Nixon. Chinese President Xi Jinping presented then-President Barack Obama with a bottle of the spirit at a 2013 dinner in California, according to The Washington Post.

"People outside of China don't understand it," author Zhao Chen told Newsweek in 2012. "It's not just a drink; it's a piece of Chinese culture."

Domestically, demand is so high that cases of Moutai routinely sell for millions of yuan, China's official currency. For context, one yuan is roughly equal to 15 cents USD.

Bottles of baijiu are produced in China.
Bottles of the Chinese spirit baijiu are produced in a factory in 2019. A case of Kweichow Moutai, which has been called the world's only socialist luxury brand, sold for $1.4 million at auction on June 18. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images