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Know Your Booze: The Thailand Edition
No matter how many military coups Thailand has—and there has been more than a few—the country remains a famous destination for backpackers, beach goers, and booze hounds alike. And so we here at knowmadic news thought the “Land of Smiles” would make a welcome addition to ourKnow Your Booze series.
While many are probably already familiar (perhaps all too) with Thailand’s mass-produced domestic beers, that’s just the starting point of what the country has on offer.
Why the quote marks? Because most Thais casually refer to any hard alcohol as “whiskey,” and so the term is a bit of a catchall.
The two most common (and competitively priced) varieties are MeKhong and SangSom. Distributed by ThaiBev, both of these distilled liquors are known as Thai whiskey, and yet they are clearly much more like spiced rum.
The extremely popular Mekhong is Thailand’s first branded spirit produced locally, launched in 1941. Produced almost entirely from molasses (rice makes up only about 5% of the total mixture), its flavor is supplemented with a mix of indigenous herbs and spices, to add a bit more complexity to the overall taste. Alcohol content is 35%.
SangSom—which even has the word “rum” clearly printed on the label and is still referred to as whiskey—is similar to but sweeter than Mekhong. At a standard 40% by volume, it is also slightly stronger. Another notable is that it is aged in charred oak barrels for five years before bottling. Introduced in 1977, the rum has since gone on to earn standing as the most popular spirit sold in Thailand.
So, which is better? Personal preference dictates. Whichever one leaves you feeling less crappy the next morning? Many claim that Mekhong smells and tastes vile, so this could explain SangSom’s larger market share.
How to drink: Most popular as a mixer (almost always with cola, soda water, or Red Bull) or on the rocks with a bit of water. If you see nighttime revelers drinking from brightly colored buckets on the beach or Khao San Road, they are most likely enjoying a Thai “whiskey” cocktail.
This is a more “local” distilled rice liquor, referred to everywhere as “rice whiskey.” While it can be found all throughout the country, most Lao Khao is produced in Isaan (a large province making up northeast Thailand). Hovering at about 40% alcohol, it is a potent drink. Just how potent depends on the distiller. The vast majority of Lao Khao is produced by smaller, unlicensed operations (and even at backyard stills), which essentially makes this a Thai version of moonshine. It reportedly accounts for nearly two-thirds of Thailand’s alcohol consumption.
Lao Khao is commonly used as a base for Yaa Dong, which is known as “Thai herbal whiskey.” Besides getting you hammered, these herbs supposedly contribute to the pharmaceutical properties of these drinks. Varying amounts and combinations of herbs, roots, spices, or bark are used in each distiller’s secret recipe. Among the varieties are even some with claims of being an aphrodisiac, the general rule being the more disgusting the taste the stronger the claim.
Here are five varieties of Yaa Dong, along with the “word for word” description of their benefits as it appears on the label:
- Ma-ka Tuam Loang (Active Horse Power): For treated cough chronic, treated beri-beri
- Chong Arang Pa-arde (King Cobra Stand Up): For maintain muscle, maintain health, increase efficiency of sex, help to be healthy
- Suat Soong Chu Kam-Rang (Formula 2 Enthus): For have good appetite, help to be healthy, maintain brains, treated beri-beri
- Kary-Sen (Tendon Release): For treated wasting disease
- Doar Mai Ra Roum (Stand Up Never Die): For increase efficiency of sex, maintain health, help to be healthy
If you see a bottle of liquor with scorpions, lizards, or snakes in it, that too is most likely Yaa Dong.
How to drink: Generally as a shot served at room temperature. You will probably want water (or something) as a chaser.
Dominating the market is Thailand’s oldest brew, Singha (pronounced “sing”) and Chang Beer. Singha can probably be designated as a “classic” 100% barley malt lager, with an alcohol content of 5%. Produced by the Boon Rawd Brewery, it enjoys roughly the same level of popularity among drinkers as Chang Beer.
Chang is the popular new kid. First produced in the mid 1990s, it soon began squeaking by Singha in terms of sales. Part of this success may have had something to do with its higher alcohol content (6.4%) coupled with a lower price (roughly 20% lower than Singha). A notable difference between these two lagers is that the classic domestic version of Chang is brewed with rice in addition to malt. This extra level of alcohol might be why people often talk of hangovers after just several bottles of Chang, when compared to a similar number of Singha beers.
Chang’s other varieties of note are Chang Export, which does not use rice in the brewing process and comes in at 5%. Chang Light stands at about 4.2%, making it stronger than the average beer in China.
Besides the big two, a handful of other popular brews are usually available. These include Tiger, Carlsberg, San Miguel, and Leo Beer. Leo was actually introduced by Singha in an attempt to counter the popularity of Chang.
Imported beers are available as well, but only at larger supermarkets and certain pubs and at a higher markup.
Regarding the sale of beer (or any alcohol), one should note that there are strict regulations in Thailand on times of day when you cannot make a purchase at either supermarkets or convenience stores. These times fall between midnight to 11 am and also 2–5 pm. The shelves with booze will be covered with cardboard and cooler doors locked.
The implementation of these laws contrasts nicely with the Lao Khao stands often set up day or night, on many a street throughout cities in Thailand. These portable booze stands usually double as motorcycle taxi hangouts because sipping on some rice liquor with friends is a common way to pass the time in between giving people rides (not to mention a good buzz while zipping through traffic).
A word to the wise? If you need to get somewhere and want a motorcycle taxi to take you, don’t. The prospect of getting on the back of a bike with a tipsy, glassy-eyed driver is something you probably want to avoid.
Certain public holidays also result in the ban on alcohol sales. Keep in mind, though, that there are always exceptions and contradictions to these rules. After all, this is Thailand—same same but different.