Blue Habu

Exploring Rice-Based Spirits of S.E. Asia

For this essay, we begin by discussing some of the distillates used to produce alcoholic beverages. The range is vast depending on the country of origin and availability of ingredients. With examples spanning the globe, we know that beverages are produced using ingredients such as but not limited to: grapes, potatoes, grains, rice, dates, African palms, and even coconuts. The history of distillation is interesting indeed. However, for this post, we will focus on rice — a key ingredient of distilled spirits throughout Asia.

For example, in Laos, a rice-based alcoholic beverage known as Lao Lao is traditionally distilled, often by women, and 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 jars of the popular beverage. The presence of snakes and critters was traditionally thought to help boost a certain prowess particularly among men who consumed it. 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.

Laotian snake whiskyLao Lao
Image credit: Flickr

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.

Bottles of Lao Khao with man sleeping on the beach
Lao Khao
Image credit: Thai Visa Forum

“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 it would be due to Vietnam’s proximity and cultural similarities with Laos.

Map of Laos

Additionally, Ruou de has several variations that include “rice wine” or “snake whiskey “, primarily sought out by tourists.

Ruou de pictureRuou de
Image credit: Dien may New Sun

In a fascinating side note, Okinawa’s tradition of producing “Awamori” is very similar to all three spirits that we have noted thus far. In fact, all Awamori distilleries currently use long grain rice that is imported from Thailand to produce this cherished spirit. We can look to the Ryukyu Kingdom’s role in the history of global trade for examples of how it helped to introduce the distilling methods that borne 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).

Furthermore, “Habu Shu” is a type of Awamori 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.

Habushu in Iriomote Island.Habu Shu
Image credit: Ocean Tribe

Lastly, we have the privilege of shedding some light on a new spirit called Chura Lao. The Chura Lao project was implemented by Co-Op Okinawa in 2017 as a way to help stimulate the Laotian economy. The goal was to produce a brand of Lao Lao that can 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 so it was thought that choosing this name for the unique brand would make a positive impact on Okinawan consumers and help peak their interest. The label was designed to that end as well.

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. We must be stressed, however, that Chura Lao is more than just another product. It is a project that brings two nations together for one common goal — sustainable development.

Customs inspection of Chura Lao shipment.
Chura Lao
Image credit: Blue Habu

P.S.

A deeper study would no doubt reveal similar rice-based spirits in countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. It would be a wonderful journey, best reserved for another day. Cheers!


More about Chura Lao:

https://laotiantimes.com/2019/12/27/japanese-firm-to-import-lao-lao-alcohol-to-okinawa/

More about Lao Lao:

https://www.priceoftravel.com/676/the-cheapest-alcohol-in-the-world-laos-rice-whiskey/

Featured image credit:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/9948729/Ancient-Chinese-rice-terraces-menaced-by-crayfish.html

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