Food & Drink

8 Asian boozes that aren't sake

When most Americans think of Asian booze, they probably think of one of two things: 1) sake, and 2) Bill Murray. And while the former is certainly dominant in our liquor shops and restaurants (and the latter dominant in our hearts and minds), there’s a whole continent out there full of spirits that aren’t just fermented rice. Some are distilled fermented rice. And that’s only the beginning.

To see which eight extraordinary Asian boozes you should taste next, we spoke to Hamish Smith, deputy editor of Drinks International, and Nima Ansari, spirits buyer at NYC's Astor Wines, for their picks.

Baijiu

China
What it is: A distilled liquor made out of sorghum (a cereal grain, related to corn)
What’s the deal: Despite your efforts to single-handedly elevate Midori's profile every time you go to the bar, baijiu is apparently the world’s best-selling spirit (it accounts for one in four of all spirits consumed). It’s a clear beverage that looks like vodka, but tastes like basically nothing else on the American market -- a bit sweet at first, with a bitter, alcohol-heavy aftertaste that kinda makes it the Malort of Asia. It usually clocks in at around 40-60% ABV, and you feel all of it.
Which ones you should try: byejoe, Moutai, Red Star

Shochu

Japan
What it is: A distilled rice/sweet potato/buckwheat/barley wine
What’s the deal: Shochu is the whiskey to sake’s beer; basically, it’s a distilled version of the same ingredients that make up sake, except in shochu, the rice can be replaced by sweet potato, buckwheat, or barley, depending on the distiller and the region. Its ABV usually hovers somewhere around 25%, located snugly between wine and whiskey.
Which ones you should try: Hakata-no-Hana, iichiko

Soju

Korea
What it is: A distilled rice beverage
What’s the deal: Soju makes up the majority of the alcoholic beverage market in South Korea, which is the country that takes the most shots out of any other in the world, so you know it must be onto something. Soju tastes like a slightly more naturally sweet vodka, and is typically around 20% ABV, meaning your favorite Korean BBQ place might not even need a liquor license to sell it.
Which ones you should try: Jinro, Chum-Churum

Arrack

Southeast Asia
What it is: Fermented and distilled coconut palm sap (usually)
What’s the deal: Arrack comes in a ton of varieties and flavors, so it’s pretty tough to nail down -- add to that the fact that it shares a name with arak, a Middle Eastern spirit made with anise, and you’ve got a recipe for... well, an interesting cocktail. It’s typically made with fermented coconut palm sap (which in the Philippines is called “lambanóg”), rice and/or sugar cane (which is called Batavia arrack in Indonesia), and was probably quaffed by Marco Polo when he visited the region in the 13th century. It will, to this day, make you awful at the game Marco Polo.
Which one you should try: White Lion VSOA (which stands for Very Special Old Arrack)

Japanese whisky

Japan
What it is: Very similar in taste and texture to Scotch whisky
What’s the deal: Japan is the world’s third-largest producer of whisky, and not just -- ostensibly -- due to the involvement of Mr. Bill Murray. Japanese whisky is a lot like Scotch (distilled twice, occasionally using peated barley, etc.), with a subtle sweetness and spiciness, but it tends to place a bit more emphasis on the texture of the final product than most other countries’ versions; most tasters refer to it as “silky”, just like Bill’s dulcet tones.
Which ones you should try: Suntory, Hibiki, Yamazaki, Hakushu

Indian whisky

India
What it is: A molasses- or malt-derived distilled liquor
What’s the deal: The name “Indian whisky” can sometimes be a misnomer -- occasionally, the whiskies you’ll find in India are made with molasses rather than grains like barley or corn, and read more as rums to the international observer. However, more and more Indian whiskies are breaking onto the scene as single malts, or at least blends, and these include some of the fastest-growing brands in the world (like Officer’s Choice and McDowell’s No.1, according to Drinks International).
Which ones you should try: Amrut, Officer’s Choice, McDowell’s No.1 Reserve

tanduay filipino rum
Andy Kryza

Filipino rum

Philippines
What it is: Rum, but made in the Philippines
What's the deal: Regardless of what Caribbean pirates and Floridian Jimmy Buffetts will tell you, rum (or at least a primitive form of it) was most likely invented in Asia thousands of years ago, because sugarcane is a native species there and humans will try to make booze out of anything. Tanduay, the most popular brand of this rum style and the only one you can easily find in America, is a bit spicier and more bitter than Caribbean rums, and thankfully pairs horribly with "Cheeseburger in Paradise".
Which one you should try: Tanduay

Snake wine

Vietnam
What it is: Grain alcohol infused with snakes
What’s the deal: They ideally use venomous snakes for this stuff, but don’t worry -- the poison is denatured by the alcohol, so it only tastes like normal snakes. Occasionally bugs and birds are added into the bottles as well, meaning you can really assert your position at the top of the food chain by doing a shot of this stuff. This is not readily available in American liquor stores, because of course.
Which ones you should try: Try making your own at home!

Adam Lapetina is a food/drink staff writer for Thrillist, and advises you not to make your own snake wine at home. Read his musings on Twitter at @adamlapetina.