15 Asian Spirits to Know Beyond Soju and Japanese Whisky
Asia is a perfect place to embark on a soul-searching journey, where the colors, sounds and flavors are unlike anything you’ve experienced before. You’re sure to encounter many wondrous sights touring the region, including a bevy of locally distilled drinks. But without the proper prep, you could accidently pass up some of the best booze that Asia has to offer. While many Americans have encountered Japanese whisky or Korean soju, there’s a bevy of lesser-known spirits that you should definitely try on your next trip. Here, 15 Asian spirits to get acquainted with, especially if you’re planning a trip to the continent.
This Chinese sorghum spirit is mostly known Stateside as that funky Chinese liquor that smells like dirty socks, but picky drinkers should take note that baijiu is the world’s most consumed alcohol. The number one brand, Moutai, is required drinking at nearly all Chinese gatherings and government events. If a couple million Chinese drinkers can learn to like it, it’s time to set aside the stereotypes and give it a shot.
“Yellow wine,” as huangiu roughly translates, isn’t distilled like baijiu. But given that it has a relatively high ABV for a fermented spirit at about 20 percent, it’s worth noting. The rice wine is classified like Western wines from dry to sweet, but the most telling description compares it to beer: If beer is “liquid bread” then huangjiu is “liquid cake.”
Often confused for the better-known Korean soju, shochu from Japan is worth exploring. Distilled from rice or sweet potato, the relatively low-ABV liquor (at about 60-proof) offers a whole host of uniquely nutty, earthy and grainy flavors, including the somewhat rare taste of sweet potato itself.
Japan may have developed a reputation for its booming single malt scene, but the country’s intrepid distillers have taken on another Western spirit of late: gin. Brands like KI NO BI from The Kyoto Distillery are pushing into the category with gins that include not only classic juniper-forward styles, but bottles infused with local ingredients like yuzu and bamboo.
This coconut moonshine is made from the sap of coconut palm trees. The fermented sap, which is also drunk as a low-ABV beverage called tuba, is distilled into a fairly neutral spirit at 40-45 ABV, so it’s great for potent sipping or mixing into cocktails. It’s often steeped with local produce like lychees or raisins, which makes its taste akin to flavored vodka.
Like lambanog, laksoy is distilled from palm sap—but in this case, from the mangrove palms that line riverbanks. Because it’s difficult to harvest the sap, which requires applying mud to the tree for several months in advance, laksoy is notoriously tedious to make. So consider it an honor to to buy some for cheap.
Vietnamese rice liquor falls into a few categories, but here’s a quick primer: Do not drink anything with a snake or giant spider floating in the bottle. That’s rượu thuốc, or medicinal wine. Other kinds of infused wine—like the sweet rượu nếp cẩm—are easier to sip and won’t put your life in danger.
Golden Muscle Wine
Like illicit infused wine in Vietnam, a lot of native Cambodian spirits are best avoided. Golden Muscle Wine, on the other hand, is a point of local pride and the best selling locally-made booze in Cambodia—as silly as the name may sound to foreigners. The 70-proof infused “wine” promotes itself as a health tonic, thanks to ingredients like deer antler and a number of Chinese medicinal herbs. Pick some up at the airport for boozy, herbal self-care on the flight home.
Contrary to how the name of this liquor looks in English, lao-lao is actually two different words with differing tones that conveniently translate to “Laotian liquor.” Full bottles of the dirt cheap booze are available for about $1, but don’t be fooled into assuming it’s all hogwash. Some lao-lao is actually quite palatable neat, with a smooth, neutral taste and hints of vanilla. But if you prefer it mixed, try the Pygmy Slow Lorange, a local favorite cocktail made with lao-lao, green tea and orange squash juice.
Known as “the spirit of Thailand,” Mekhong is a brand of local “whisky” that, like many popular Indian whiskies, we might consider rum. Mostly made from molasses with a hint of rice in the mash, the spirit is infused with Thai herbs for a flavor-packed potion. Tasting notes like chili, honey, caramel, star anise and cinnamon make it perfect to use in a variety of classic cocktail variations.
This Thai rum brand hit it big with international awards back in the 1980s before it disappeared from the international market until the early 2000s. SangSom, which translates to “moonlight,” has returned to give drinkers a light, caramelly taste of Thailand that goes great in a Rum and Coke.
For a long time, “whisky” in India referred to a blended grain and molasses spirit closer to rum, which couldn’t even be marketed in the EU as whisky. Brands like Officer’s Choice are still hugely popular, but lately true scotch-style whiskies have been gaining popularity, including single malts like Amrut, Paul John and Rangpur.
While Indians have been fermenting sugar cane beverages for a few thousand years, it was British officers who established rum distillation in earnest during the mid-19th century. Mohan Meakin, a company with roots tracing back to that original colonial operation, still produces Old Monk rum, which absolutely took over the liquor market in the country in the 1950s and has only slowly relinquished its dominance recently.
Until we met feni, we had no idea cashews were even a fruit. The nut that most Americans know is actually the seed of the cashew apple, a fruit that can be distilled into feni, as they do in the Indian state of Goa. Don’t expect a cashew falernum, though—feni is marketed in the United States as apple brandy, and it’s closer to an earthy, musty eau de vie.
Royal Heritage Liqueurs
Amari are like a map of the Italian countryside, with each region represented by unique infusions of herbs and spices. Think of Royal Heritage Liqueurs as the Indian equivalent. Each distinct liqueur is drawn from a recipe from a different small kingdom in Rajasthan, which was split up by local families before Indian independence in 1947. While the liqueurs haven’t been exported to the United States quite yet, a trip to India is the perfect chance to try them. We suggest tasting a bottle of Royal Mawalin, which is supposedly similar to Cynar.