White spirits have been helping fuel Thailand's vibrant night life for centuries. Photo: Alex Kovacheva
White spirits have been helping fuel Thailand's vibrant night life for centuries. Photo: Alex Kovacheva

The bottles look like they would make great souvenirs. The irony is that, once you finish what’s inside, you may not remember your trip at all.

Anyone who has set foot inside a Thai supermarket will have noticed rows of brown bottles with labels in electric shades of green, blue and red. The graphic design is intriguingly unfashionable, with retro-looking Thai script bordering wreaths and symbols of bodhisattvas or, in the case of one brand, a writhing fish. They look like might contain beer, but their actual content is an order of magnitude stronger: 70-proof Thai moonshine. The varieties available at Tesco list “white spirits” as their only ingredient. Each bottle has a pull-tab cap. It seems meant to be consumed in one sitting.

Lao khao is the catch-all term for these types of spirits, and once your gaze extends beyond the ubiquitous bottles of Chang and Singha lager, you’ll realize that lao khao is everywhere in Thailand. Construction workers unwind by sharing a bottle of it after work. Some people start the day with a shot of it. Street vendors sell a version infused with medicinal herbs called ya dong, their stalls drawing those looking for an elixir that cures their ailments even as it damages their liver. Depending on the herbs and spices used, ya dong is said to ease your aches and pains, turn back the clock on your wrinkled face or enhance your bedroom performance.

To be fair, ya dong is essentially the same as Jägermeister, or Fernet, or any of the hundreds of other infused spirits that began life as a medicinal tonic. A shot of ya dong on the street costs as little as 10 baht (about 30 US cents), with quality that matches the price, but a growing number of trendy bars are now selling high-end versions of it at 180 baht a serving.

Hipster cream puffs

There’s something else to be said for ya dong: all those infused herbs mask the taste of the lao khao, which usually tastes as harsh as you would expect. With little transparency in the industry — and “industry” is a generous word, since much lao khao is produced informally, in proverbial bathtubs — it’s hard to say what is the spirit’s exact production method, or what ingredients find their way into its mash bill. Rice, coconut water, sugarcane and sugar palm are all commonly used, a reflection of the drink’s origin in Isaan, Thailand’s northeastern bread basket, known for its sour-spicy food, luk thung country music and hard-drinking ways.

Lao khao tempted me once. After a hypermarket shopping spree, I packed a bottle into my suitcase, alongside bags of spicy-sweet pork crackling, chili paste and palm sugar. I pulled open the cap when I got home and took a taste. I then re-sealed the bottle and placed it in a forlorn corner of my liquor shelf. “Saccharine fire” is about the best description of the spirit I can muster.

A few years later, I was walking through a farmer’s market in a well-to-do corner of Bangkok, the kind of market where people go to buy flasks of cold brew coffee and artisan cream puffs, not daily sustenance. There, I came across a stall selling Lamai White Spirits. It bills itself as “Thai rum,” but in reality it’s upmarket lao khao – and it proves that, with enough care, Thai moonshine can actually taste pretty delicious. It’s sweet and fresh, like munching on raw sugarcane, but without the funkiness of French-style rhum agricole. And it’s delicious mixed with spicy ginger beer. Call it a lightweight version of ya dong.

Five types of moonshine to try (or not)

1. White lightning: Moonshine for hipsters. This resurgent American style, often sold in cheeky mason jars, is corn whiskey aged for less than six months. Though it evokes a do-it-yourself heritage, it is most often a way for distilleries to make a quick buck.

2. Feni: Goan moonshine made from ripe cashew apples or fermented coconut. Produced by thousands of independent distillers and sold informally, it is at once a point of local pride and fuel for hard-partying backpackers who mix it with 7-Up.

3. Kumi Kumi: Known by some as “kill me quick,” it’s best to steer well clear of this Kenyan hooch, which is distilled from maize and often adulterated with nasty chemicals like battery acid by unscrupulous vendors.

4. Pálinka: It’s Hungarian tradition to make homemade brandy from seasonal fruits such as plums and cherries. Though potent, it is less risky than other types of moonshine, thanks to centuries of home distillation know-how (and natural selection, presumably).

5. Tsipouro: The Greek answer to grappa, but with a twist – it is flavored with anise, giving it a liquorice-meets-pomace taste that is strong enough to digest even the heaviest of meals.

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