Exploring Rice-Based Spirits of S.E. Asia
The story begins in Laos where, a rice-based alcoholic beverage known as Lao Lao is traditionally distilled, often by women. The spirit is typically used during ceremonies or sold as retail and consumed in casual settings. It is also popular among tourists who have discovered that snakes or scorpions are often immersed in glass bottles or in jars of the popular beverage… Challenge!
The presence of snakes and critters was traditionally used for medicinal purposes and was thought to help boost a certain prowess particularly among men. Let’s just say that as shown in the image below, it makes you strong. Indeed, many still believe this to be more than just an urban legend.
Similarly, in neighboring Thailand, Lao Khao is prepared the same way, and for similar purposes. Consequently, this is a good juncture to mention that the term “Lao” refers to alcohol and the second word in the phrase refers to the location of origin. Thus, “Lao Lao” is Laotian alcohol and “Lao Khao” is often used for Thai alcohol. Interestingly, “khao” means rice in both Thai and Laotian languages, and it also is the term for mountain in Central and Southern Thailand.
“Cool, but while we are talking about Lao Lao and Lao Khao, what about the other neighboring country, Vietnam?” Well, let’s discuss Ruou de. This rice-based spirit is similar to Lao Lao and Lao Khao, as one could probably image due to Vietnam’s proximity and cultural similarities with Laos. Ruou de has several variations that include “rice wine” or “snake whiskey”, primarily sought out by tourists.
Snake infused, rice-based spirits are not only found in S.E. Asia, but they are also prevalent further East in Japan as well.
However, the distilled spirit is much more advanced and produced. The practice occurs in Okinawa with her tradition of producing awamori. In fact, all current awamori distilleries use long grain (indica) rice that is imported from Thailand to produce this cherished spirit.
We can look to the Ryukyu Kingdom’s role throughout the history of global trade for examples of how it helped to introduce the distilling methods that borne Ryukyu Awamori, which is widely recognized as Japan’s oldest spirit. (This reminds us of our very first blog entry: A Historical Look at the Alcohol Trade).
For an image of what awamori based “snake wine” looks like, we present habu-shu aka habu sake:
“Habu-shu” is a type of awamori based liqueur that forms a liquid tomb for many Habu, Okinawa’s indigenous pit viper. If you are wondering, the answer is yes, the business name Blue Habu is our way of recognizing, even appreciating, the significance that 3 known species of Habu have on the islands. We believe Habu play a role in not only the ecosystem but also the culture and much of the local traditions.
Like the aforementioned “snake whiskies” prevalent in Southeast Asia, Habu-shu is quite popular among tourists. Indeed, when people hear the term “Habu”, they often think about Okinawa.
Lastly, we have the privilege of shedding some light on a new spirit called Chura Lao. The special project was implemented by Co-Op Okinawa in 2017 as a way to help stimulate the Laotian economy. The goal was to create a brand of Lao Lao that could be exported to Japan. Thus, helping to create stable employment and technological advances well into the future.
The word “chura” means beautiful in Okinawan language. Therefore, the thought was that choosing this name for the unique brand would make a positive impact on Okinawan consumers and help peak their interest. Likewise, the design printed on the brand’s label was also created to that end.
Chura Lao was successfully importing into Japan in March 2020. It will be interesting to see how well the project does in Okinawa. It has already gained the attention of consumers, businesses, and governments alike. Indeed, Chura Lao is more than just another product. It is a project that brings two nations together for one common goal — sustainable development.
From this last example we see how rice-based spirits can go from very basic production methods to become a mechanism of growth.
More about Chura Lao:
More about Lao Lao: