Rice wine, Thai beer and other alcoholic drinks from Southeast Asia that are among the region’s finest and most notorious – snake wine, anyone?

  • In Laos, Mekong River Eel Wine is made by fermenting rice with river eels and ginseng roots. Similar concoctions include those containing cobras and scorpions
  • For many Thais, Sang Som ‘whisky’ (it’s rum) is the drink of choice, while the most popular alcoholic drinks in Malaysia are Tiger and Carlsberg lager beers

If you’ve travelled widely in Southeast Asia, the chances are that at some point you’ll have had a strange alcoholic concoction thrust at you, backed by a bleary-eyed smile. Usually, it’s wise to decline such offers, although hospitality can be tough to turn down.

Alternatively, you may have an exotic bottle – an impulse buy at some market or other – gathering dust at the back of your drinks cabinet. With international travel in Asia on hold, now may be the time to crack it open, for a taste of somewhere temporarily unreachable. 

Many of these drinks are rice-based liquors guaranteed to blow your taste buds to the moon and back, and sometimes their ingredients are more shocking than their taste.

When it comes to strange liquors, Laostakes some beating, although the more bizarre offerings are generally intended for tourists rather than locals.

Of the numerous rice-based and fermented “whiskies and wines” to be found across Laos, Mekong River Eel Wine is the best known. More of a lightly golden-coloured spirit than a wine, it is made by fermenting rice with river eels and ginseng roots, and has a throat-burning, shudder-inducing snare to it.

A number of “whiskies and wines” in Laos contain creatures like snakes and scorpions. Photo: Shutterstock
A number of “whiskies and wines” in Laos contain creatures like snakes and scorpions. Photo: Shutterstock

Similar concoctions in bottles or huge jars on Laotian store shelves include those containing cobras, scorpions or just about any other venomous beast you can imagine. Mostly consumed by the brave or the already inebriated, reptile- and insect-infused wines and whiskies are also common in Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Thailand.

Luckily for the squeamish, Laos has a national beer – Beer Lao, which is one of the finest in Southeast Asia. In its most common form, this is a mellow tasting lager beer brewed from jasmine rice and imported malt. Beer Lao Dark is a heavy and stronger beer, and there is a light version as well as several limited editions, including fruit beers and currently an IPA.

Beer Lao is one of the finest beers in Southeast Asia. Photo: Steve Thomas
Beer Lao is one of the finest beers in Southeast Asia. Photo: Steve Thomas

In neighbouring Thailand, the go-to sundowner is lao khao, a sticky rice-based spirit. This fermented, clear drink is often known as “white whisky” or “Thai whisky”, although it tastes nothing like Scotch whisky.

Lao khao is cheap, readily available and usually sold in brown bottles. It averages around 35 per cent in alcohol content, although there are illegal home-brewed versions that are best avoided.

For many Thais (and tourists), Sang Som “whisky” is the drink of choice, yet it is actually rum. With a strong but sweet taste, Sang Som is generally mixed with copious amounts of carbonated water and ice, or is served in buckets with cola and other mixers in tourist bars.

Thailand’s Sang Som “whisky”. Photo: Shutterstock
Thailand’s Sang Som “whisky”. Photo: Shutterstock

Thailand also has some decent lager beers, with Chang the best known and the cheapest of the big three. Also popular is Leo, a smoother and more malty tasting beer, and one that it rarely seen outside Thailand. Singha beer is the third major beer brand. It has a smoother taste than the others. Beer is generally served over ice in Thailand, so be sure to do likewise if you’re pouring one at home.

Being an Islamic country, Malaysia doesn’t have a huge drinking culture, and alcohol carries a heavy levy (apart from on the duty-free islands of Langkawi and Labuan). The most popular alcoholic drinks in Malaysia are Tiger and Carlsberg lager beers, which are brewed locally, under licence.

Singha beer is one of three major beer brands in Thailand. Photo: Shutterstock
Singha beer is one of three major beer brands in Thailand. Photo: Shutterstock

However, in East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo – Sabah and Sarawak) the local rice “wine”, known as tuak (pronounced “twar”), is extremely popular, particularly in the longhouse and rural village communities, where it’s often home brewed.

Tuak is best known in its clear distilled variety, and is often drunk in shot form to welcome visitors, with the bottle being passed around the group until it’s empty. With a strong yet smooth taste and high alcohol content, tuak is similar to less refined sake, although it seems not to cause excessive hangovers.

In some rural areas you will also find a milky looking and softer version of tuak, which is drunk before it’s fully fermented and is not distilled. At this stage, it is slightly fizzy and has a lower alcohol content. Versions of tuak are found in neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines.

Visitors to Sri Lanka may have returned with toddy or arrack. On any given morning on the island, visitors will see “toddy tappers” climbing coconut palms to extract the sap from the unopened flowers of the trees.

Sri Lanka has some rather good beers, with the Lion brand being a particularly highly regarded lager. Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sri Lanka has some rather good beers, with the Lion brand being a particularly highly regarded lager. Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This sap is fermented and transformed into a sweet liquor with around 4-5 per cent alcohol content that is widely consumed throughout the Indian subcontinent.

When the fermented sap is distilled it becomes arrack, which could be considered the national drink of Sri Lanka (it’s produced in several regional countries, in different forms). Arrack is a much stronger and sweeter liquor, with up to 90 per cent alcohol content, and has varying infused tastes and quality grades. It could be described as a coconut-flavoured rum-like whisky.

Sri Lanka also has some rather good beers, with the Lion brand being a particularly highly regarded lager, although locals often prefer the heavier “strong” or stout versions.

By : Steve Thomas – SCMP

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