Our resident chef samples unusual beverages from the four corners of the earth…and survives to tell the tale
Holding a shot of Thai rum inches from my nose, my new Chinese friend grinned and shouted, “Gan bei! Gan bei” into my ear, trying to make himself heard above the Thai metal band’s screaming guitar. “Gan bei!” he screamed again, “It mean finish glass!” And with that he and his entire crew of thirty-something Chinese tourists threw yet another oversized shot glass of Sangsom down their throats, carefully watching to ensure I followed suit.
I tossed back the shot—the fifth in less than 15 minutes—fully aware of the consequences that I knew were as inevitable as the sunrise that would accompany them. But this was no time for pondering consequences, this was a time to drink, and these guys were drinking as if they were going to win something.
We didn’t share a culture and we certainly didn’t share a language, but we did have a common understanding of what it means to share a drink, and the near universal delight in that seemingly small, but powerful sociocultural act. Having a drink, specifically an alcoholic drink, is so commonplace around the world, it nearly qualifies for what Claude Lévi-Strauss referred to as a “cultural universal” or something that is common to all cultures, worldwide.
In fact, the act of feeding your head with alcohol goes back to before humans even existed. Our capacity for metabolizing alcohol originated in some of the first primates about ten million years ago when an enzyme called ADH4 showed up to party—and by party I mean the ability to digest and enjoy the effects of alcohol.
Those early primates got their buzz (and much needed calories) from fermented fruit or palm nectar, but modern hominids all over the globe have put an enormous amount of investigation and creativity into producing a variety of head-spinning spirits. This means that almost anywhere you go in the world, there will be someone with a bottle of the local, magic elixir that they are itching to pour into a small glass.
If you’ve been to Thailand, you’ve certainly had Sangsom—an extremely popular, hangover inducing, sugar cane based liquor that’s blended with grain alcohol and infused with herbs, spices and the tears of 1000 backpackers. If rum and whiskey got into a fight in your glass, and rum peed itself—that’s what Sangsom tastes like.
But if you start poking around deep inside Thailand’s homebrew rabbit hole you’re bound to pull up a glass of Yadong. Yadong is a frighteningly potent, herbal Thai moonshine that’s made by fermenting lao khao, (a white rice liquor that tastes like prison sake), with herbs and roots. After putting down five, 15 baht shots (about 50¢ US each ) of this throat-shredding, apocalyptic liquid at a roadside bar cart in Bangkok, I temporarily lost control over the impulses normally curbed by legal disincentives and social inhibitions.
Yadong should be served room temperature with a bowl of peanuts and bail money.
If you love cheap draft beer, then Northern Vietnam, particularly Hanoi, is calling your name. Bia hoi, which loosely translates to “fresh beer,” is a feather light lager that’s made fresh every night, delivered to bars and shops at daybreak, and sold out of plastic jugs before it turns to rancid mop water the following morning like Cinderella’s chariot fridge champagne.
At about 8,000 Vietnamese dong per glass (about 35¢ US) it’s the world’s cheapest beer, which explains the literal, heaving sea of humanity that descends on Bia Hoi Corner in Hanoi’s Old Quarter every night to sit on ground-level plastic stools, laugh with friends and wash down spectacularly good street snacks with this very drinkable, very unique beer of questionable origin.
While you’re in Hanoi, stop by the small village of “Lê Mât” which, I believe, translates to “Noooo!!!” from the Latin for “Hell Nooo!!” Lê Mât is known as the snake village, because the locals have spent generations catching snakes and shoving them into bottles of rice based grain alcohol filled with a variety of lizards, insects, birds (with feathers), bones, or ancient mythical creatures to make “snake wine.”
Drink it straight or have a snake wine and fresh cobra blood shot, then chase that down with a fresh cobra bile and snake wine apéritif. The turpentine taste and muscle cramps means it’s working.
Although one-fifth of India’s 1.2 billion people live in states where drinking alcohol is banned or restricted, determined tipplers regularly travel across state lines to enjoy the country’s vast assortment of readily available, local and imported spirits.
Goa, for example, is home to a unique liquor called Cashew Feni that’s made from cashew apples and spent plutonium. This stuff is STRONG with a capital RONG and tastes like a combination of fruit, grain alcohol, and death. Mix it with a splash of bitters, or a twist of lime to help prevent total palate destruction.
In the northeastern state of Assam you can find a fermented rice beer called Apong. To create this intriguing beer-ish beverage, rice is roasted until it burns black, then fermented before being preserved with one of the hottest chilies in the world, the Bhut Jolokia pepper.
Apong is perfect for the drinker who likes their beer toe-curlingly potent with a sweet, mace-like finish.
Mongolians love horses. They ride them, they eat them, and they milk them (don’t get ahead of me). Airag is the traditional, national beverage of Mongolia and yes, it’s made from mare’s milk. The milk is filtered through a cloth, then poured into a cow’s stomach and hung on the left-hand side of the entrance of the yurt until it gets to about five percent alcoholic content.
This is the side that represents masculinity, which makes sense since men can usually be counted on to do something questionable like ferment mare’s milk to get drunk.
Mongolian hospitality dictates that each visitor be presented with a bowl of Airag. Your amygdala dictates that you take a sip to avoid insulting your hosts when you’re hundreds of miles from anything, sitting in a yurt, surrounded by Mongolian nomads.
The taste can vary depending on factors such as the food the mares eat and the age of the stomach it’s fermented in, but imagine a thin, slightly chunky, soured yogurt with an equine piss finish. Protip: if not fermented properly, Airag causes whatever solids are inside you to shuffle on down your intestine and head for the southern exit with no concern for the lack of toilets on the Mongolian steppe.
Srah Srang, Cambodia is the last place you’d expect to find an Icelandic traditional schnapps, but five minutes after I met Benedikt and Ásgeir from Borgarfjörður, a bottle of Brennivín had been produced from their backpack. Ten minutes and three shots later, I had a clear idea of why this drink is referred to as “Black Death” and had to resist the urge to smash the bottle over my skull while singing Icelandic death metal songs about puffins.
Brennivín is a schnapps-ish beverage distilled from potatoes, which doesn’t sound too bad, but caraway seeds have been added, seemingly for the sole purpose of making it taste like mild rye licorice and bubonic plague. It’s often paired with Icelandic fermented shark (hakarl), because Brennivín is perfectly engineered to make you forget the taste of fermented fish urine and rotted shark meat. If you’re into akvavit or the taste of liquid bleurgh, Brennivín might be your thing.
Björk makes so much more sense to me now.
Any trip to Greece isn’t complete without ouzo. In fact, I believe part of the 1954 NATO enlargement agreement states that anytime small fresh fish, olives and feta cheese appear on a NATO member state plate, it must be accompanied by a glass of the anise flavored aperitif (enforcement is, unfortunately, limited).
Ouzo is considered by many Greeks to be an abiding symbol of Greek culture; many visitors, however, consider ouzo to be an abiding reminder of tongue-ravaging flavors and devastating Greek island hangovers.
Ouzo is distilled from grapes and good ouzo (not the Greek island party fuel) is known to come from Lesvos. Ouzo emerged when Greeks started flavoring tsipouro with a variety of herbs and spices such as anise, fennel, cloves, and a bouquet of other aromatics. It’s very strong—about 45 percent alcohol—and the flavors deliver as much of a punch as the alcohol, so there is wisdom in the strategy of drinking it traditionally—with Greek food.
Try it with grilled small fish, olives and a good feta and keep NATO off your back.
The one thing you don’t want after a full day of sloth-spotting, volcano climbing, and prostitute dodging, is an aggressive drink, pushing its agenda on your taste buds. Cacique Guaro, the official liquor and national pride of Costa Rica, is there for you, prepared to accept whatever you throw its way with a welcoming smile and warm liquid hug.
But don’t let the “pura vida” attitude fool you into thinking this drink is only for tour bus aunties and spring break butt-chuggers. Manufactured from sugar cane juice, Guaro is potent, crystal clear, and tastes like mildly sweetened paint thinner. Although some take it neat, it’s usually mixed with juice, fruit, or soda rather than thrown back in straight shots.
I recommend the sweet, basil and mint bite of a Guaro Sour, but if you insist on doing shots, the chiliguaro made with casique, lime juice and hot sauce will get you on the fast track to oblivion faster than you can say, “No puedo encontrar mis pantalones!”
Remember way back at the beginning of this article when I was drinking with those Chinese guys in the northern Thai rock bar? That night took a Tarantino turn when an unassuming red labeled bottle was pulled from a messenger bag with the enthusiasm of a magician pulling a rabbit from a top hat.
“Tezhi Sanbian Jiu,” he said, passing me the bottle with an almost guilty grin. The guy next to me leaned in and matter-of-factly translated the label, “Chinese Three Penis Liquor. Made with seal, deer and dog penis,” because, of course, one penis liquor would just be silly.
I knew that Chinese medicine had used animal schlongs as all-natural Viagra for centuries, but had no idea that some brilliant booze connoisseur had concocted the perfect way to get completely Chevy Chased without the depressing side effect of whiskey wick.
Apparently, those specific animal winkies were chosen for their particular ability to give that extra boost of vitality a single human penis sometimes can’t muster on its own. Just what I wanted for a night out on the town, an unsolicited full salute when there’s been a clear “at ease” command.
There are vast expanses of time missing from that night’s memory, but the moment I took a shot of this penis palliative is crystal clear to this day. It was a tad sweet with molasses undertones and I detected a slight hint of fruit—at first. But then, a taste of sherry that had been distilled in a 19th century bathhouse jumped to the front of the line, dragging a prolonged smoky finish with it that brought out all the gamey flavors of the penis trifecta.
Because if you’re going to drink penis liquor, you want to know there’s penis in there and you haven’t been ripped off by someone trying to pass off one or two penis liquor on unsuspecting three penis customers. That would be a real turn off.
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