Samui Wining & Dining
Secular Spirits

There’s nothing ghostly about these spirits from Thailand!

 

12-13It’s all part of the deal. A sunshine holiday on a tropical island. Clear blue skies, a shimmering sea and lots of time to do nothing at all. Eat, drink, lounge about and relax. And ‘be merry’ – don’t forget that part! Nibbling and tippling go hand-in-hand, as in ‘food and drink’ and, naturally, ‘wining and dining’. And an important part of the island lifestyle (some would say the important part) is being able to enjoy a good drink.

    And that leads us directly to what your Samui choices are. Cocktails are a fun option and there have been more than a few visitors to our island whose holiday objective has been to sample every single cocktail on the menu – and then head outside to further add to their collection! And then there’s wine, but here you’ll immediately discover a snag. There’s no point in looking out for your usual bottle of plonk at around the €5 mark. Most Thai people don’t drink wine, and it’s considered to be a luxury item; one which attracts a whopping 300% government tax. All imported items are taxed substantially, but this one – the wine tax – seems to be a world record-breaker.

      Which brings us on to the heady arena of spirits, or ‘hard liquor’ as our American friends would say. You’ll find no shortage of whiskies, brandies, vodkas, gins and rums, with all the well-known names on show, but at premium prices. In actual fact these’ll probably cost about the same as you’ve been paying back home. By all means sip until you’re satiated (or/and fall over smiling). And then, when you’ve recovered somewhat, take a look at what Thailand has to offer.

      The first point to note is that, when it comes to general quality and pedigree, then this is a nation where distilling traditions are rooted in agriculture rather than in aristocracy – just take a few swigs of the eye-watering rice wine (lao khao)if you need any convincing. But, having said that, the well-known Thai ‘whiskey’ (actually it’s a kind of rum), Sang Som, has won numerous distinctions and gold medals in European liquor competitions over the last 20 years. You won’t exactly find the supermarket shelves lined with Thai brands; in fact there are just a handful of commercially available Thai-produced spirits, and two of these are forms of rice wine. But there’s a thriving cottage industry in the locally-produced herbal liquors that are known as yaa dong, and these are a different matter altogether. It’s never been possible to obtain any facts and figures about its production or consumption, although this is one genre of alcoholic beverage that’s hugely popular – but more on this in just a moment.

       Thailand’s main commercial producer is the huge ThaiBev corporation, which is also well-known for its Chang beer. But when it comes to Thai legends, up there with the folklore of heroes and villains is the name Mekhong. This was the first commercially-brewed Thai liquor, and was initially introduced in 1941 with the intention of competing with (and reducing) the amount of imported liquor that was coming into the country. It’s generally thought of as being a whiskey, but in actual fact is made from a mixture of molasses and cane sugar. But, unlike other Thai-whiskeys, it does also contain some rice-spirit. Its flavour and aroma are ‘both spicy and sweet with cocktail hints of ginger, honey, toffee, vanilla, floral, herbs and citrus’.

      But Mekhong isn’t Thailand’s number one tipple. That title goes to Sang Som, also from the ThaiBev stable. It was introduced in 1977, and has since become the dominant brand. Over 70 million litres are sold in Thailand each year,accounting for a market share of more than 70% in its category, and it is a true rum, being made entirely from cane sugar. This label was virtually unseen outside of Thailand until a few years ago, but it’s now exported to over 20 countries; even so this accounts for only 1% of the overall sales. And if you fancy trying a glass or two you’ll find a full bottle (70 cl) selling in every 7-11 store for around 250 baht a time!

      Like many things in Thailand, the social drinking of alcohol is as much a display of status than anything else. Wealthier folks wouldn’t dream of turning up without a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, whereas the younger professionals are happy to wave a litre of Regency brandy about (another top tipple from good old ThaiBev). But moving into a different social strata, where the drinking is purposeful rather than decorative, you’ll quickly encounter rice wine. Lao khao, as it’s known, is the preferred drink of the Isaan folk from the north-eastern region. It’s made from rice and is around 35% alcohol and, once again, it’s readily available from most convenience stores. There’s also a variation on this which goes by the name of sato. Due to the internal migration of people from Isaan throughout Thailand, these drinks have become increasingly familiar to the wider Thai population, as well as to the expat and tourist communities. The increased availability of commercially-produced sato has increased its popularity, and several brewers now produce it under names such as Siam Sato, Ruan Rak and Gru Pli.

      Which brings us onto yaa dong. This is a traditional herbal liqueur which is commonly thought of as being medicinal (it’s the only alcoholic beverage that Thai monks are permitted to drink). Yaa means medicine and dong means to leave something in liquid until it ferments. Herbs, wood, bark, vines, seeds of trees and other plants and even insects are thought to have curative properties. These are dried or sometimes powdered then soaked for hours, often weeks, to extract the ‘medicine’ before being mixed with alcohol, usually lao khao. There are thought to be around 200 different herbs used in its various concoctions, some being used in traditional recipes and others more secretive and passed down through families. The names that the different mixtures have are colourful to say the least and include such titles as ‘horse kicks the coffin’, ’11 tigers’, ‘doesn’t know how to fall down’ and ‘snake’, amongst many others. Yaa dong ‘bars’ seem to come and go, often appearing as roadside stalls, and are also found at temple fairs. Although common in more northerly regions, this wonderfully intoxicating example of Thai rural culture is rarely seen on Samui, so if you come across it, grab it while you can – it’s one ‘spirit’ that demands respect!

 

Rob De Wet


 


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