Samui Wining & Dining
The Water of Life

Whisky lovers on Samui are not forgotten – but is there a real Thai whisky?

 

4If you enjoy a tipple of the ‘water of life’ you don’t have to go to Scotland. In fact ‘whisky’ is made in dozens of countries. Usually with Scottish malt blended with a local grain spirit. Needless to say, the ‘malt’ content can vary! Thailand imports many brands of Scotch for both visitors and local drinkers. And, of course, you may have come across one or two bottles that people refer to as Thai whisky. Depends on your definition of whisky really!

      Thai whiskies are wholly or partly rice-based and, strange as it may sound, have a history reaching much further back than Celtic whiskies. There are 10th century records of Siamese spirits distilled from rice being matured in casks that were treated on the inside with the smoke of burning sandalwood.

      A common sight in many bars around the island is Sang Som. It’s a sweet rum-like concoction, often mistaken for whisky, usually drowned with coke. But any resemblance to centuries-old distilling methods involving spring water and oak barrels was literally exploded a few years ago. At a chemical plant in Nakhon Pathom, a powerful blast ripped through the factory. One of 24 identical tanks measuring 60 metres high and 36 metres in diameter showered steel over hundreds of square metres. Luckily no-one was killed, but if it hadn’t exploded, the alcohol in the faulty tank would have ended up in Sang Som bottles. A not-so-traditional blend of industrial ethanol created in a chemical factory!

      Still, it’s a big seller enjoyed by many people and it has its merits. Another is Mekong (pronounced Mae-khong), again rice-based, it has its fans. I don’t know any personally, but it seems to sell well. And if you’re already prone to hallucinating and hearing imaginary voices then this probably can’t do you any more harm. Give it a try, you’ve nothing to lose!

       In certain parts of Thailand a brew known as ‘yaa dong’ has been made for centuries. It’s a ‘whisky’ to which herbs and other ingredients are added to make medicinal tonics. In rural areas of the North it’s very popular. The reason whisky is used is that it acts as a solvent and keeps the herbs from spoiling. In addition, whisky raises the blood helping it to circulate more quickly. With the right quantity, the whisky can be a kind of medicine in itself. I’m just not sure what the right quantity might be. Keep drinking until the pain goes away?

      It is said that the practice of mixing medicines with whisky originated in temples. Possibly this had to do with the desire of the monks themselves to drink whisky. There is a rule that limits the amount of whisky that can be offered to a monk by pouring it into his bowl. It can’t be any deeper in the bowl than the interval between the fingertip and the first joint. Since taking medicine is different from drinking whisky, no rules were broken if this amount was exceeded with yaa dong!

       Of course, all the bars will stock imported Scotch, and some will have a few decent malts. All will be quite a bit more expensive than local brews, starting at around 150 – 200 Baht a shot.

      If you look around the supermarkets you’ll find quite a range. Starting with bottles labeled only in Thai, they retail at around 80 Baht and loosely translate as ‘white spirits’. But it would be an insult to a paintbrush to clean it with this stuff!

         Slightly more expensive, at around 120 Baht, you’ll find some bottles described as 28 degrees or 30 degrees white spirit. Your paintbrush might not be insulted by this, but will likely be in a mood for a while. At around 180 Baht there’s Varinthip, marketed as a Thai blended-liqueur and also John Master whisky. Coming in at a reasonable 190 – 250 Baht per bottle there are imported blended spirits such as Crown 99, Master Blend and Golden Knight. And I suspect it would shortly be good-night if you drank a few of these!

         There are several brands described as 100% Scotch whisky, produced and bottled in Scotland. Braemar. Spey Royal and 100 Pipers retail between 300 and 400 Baht and are probably drinkable – for effect if not the greatest flavour.

         Bars will often stock Johnnie Walker Red and Black, and they’ll retail in the shops at 600 Baht and 1200 Baht respectively. A Chivas Regal 12 year-old is also about 1,200 Baht. All decent enough and if you are a whisky drinker you’ll be familiar with them.

         Strictly speaking there are no native Thai whiskies as we know them. But there are several potent brews that can be of mischievous interest. And the good thing is that if you are drinking alone, the voices in your head can keep you company!

         

Johnny Paterson


 


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