The Top 5 Thai Spirits You’ve Probably Never Heard of
If you’ve never been to Thailand you might be under the impression that everyone in the SE Asian nation is a smiling, teetotal, vegetarian Buddhist.
And indeed there may be some vegetarians in Thailand, a country which is also regarded as being a ‘Buddhist’ nation in terms of any formal religious classification.
But the teetotal bit? Mmm.
Well, OK – not everyone is a drinker – but plenty are. It could be the farmers and other low-income, blue-collar workers drinking cheap and strong ‘legal moonshine’ (by way of the infamous 40% proof distilled-rice spirit ‘Lao Khao’). Or it could be the office-level and upwardly hi-so types with their respective grades of Johnnie Walker to suit their incomes.
In fact, the availability and consumption levels of alcohol in Thailand have led at some points to the Kingdom being included in the global top five when it comes to alcohol consumption per capita.
To put that into a little more perspective, let us just backtrack for a minute to 2004, when the then Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra made a somewhat bizarre move to try and curb the rate of alcohol consumption. (As a point of note, the former minister is now exiled from Thailand – which probably had nothing to do with him bringing in this this new law.)
He decided to change the laws regarding the authorised hours for the sale of alcohol. This led to the rather puzzling permitted hours of alcohol sales that are still in place today, from midnight until 11.00 am, with further restrictions in the afternoon between 14.00 and 17.00.
Of course it is worth mentioning that such prohibitions are not (ahem) ‘strictly’ observed by all sellers, but the rule is most obvious in the high street 7-Elevens and such like. This ‘window’ for the purchase of alcohol also extends to supermarkets.
So the days of bars, restaurants and even shops selling alcohol 24/7 are long in the past in Thailand, although there are seemingly still a fair few drinkers in the nation who don’t have a problem working around that. Either way, drinking forms an integral part of socialising in Thailand for a high proportion of the population.
And although locally-brewed beers like Chang, Singha and Leo are popular, it has to be said that spirits play an even larger part in the Thai culture of drinking. You only have to look around any bar or restaurant with a group of Thais to see the customary bottle on the table along with ice bucket and soda. Whiskey and soda is big in Thailand.
Or ‘anything’ with ice and soda, as the case may sometimes be.
The term ‘whisky’ is somewhat generic in Thailand, and is often applied to pretty much any kind of spirit other than wine or beer. Which can be a little confusing for visitors who are offered ‘whisky’ that actually turns out to be rum, rice vodka, or some other blend of spirits.
And it is possible these days to find imported spirits in varying proportions in Thailand, to the point where even the standard 7-Elevens have a bottle of Absolut and Johnnie Walker Black Label next to a bottle of red and white wine above all the much cheaper locally-made products.
And there are always innovative entrepreneurial types in Thailand, particularly in Bangkok, who are looking to create or add to current or existing trends. It is this spirit that is behind the growing range of craft beers that have been appearing on shelves and in bars in the last few years.
And we’ve now reached a point where certain companies are producing ‘top shelf’ whiskies and vodkas of a quality equal to their western counterparts, although the majority of these brands are unknown to the main proportion of the Thai populace.
So what we are most interested in with this post is the range of spirits and whiskies that are locally-produced, and most of them are long-established. They are largely unheard of outside of Thailand, and it may be true that in many countries the quality might be deemed questionable, as anyone who’s ever been out drinking ‘SangSom’ will testify (if you know, you know).
But that’s probably just a matter of taste.
And it also needs to be remembered that in many western countries with strict governing regulations and even stricter tastes, price will always trump quality. In SE Asia though, the opposite is true, at least for all but the moneyed classes who remain just a small minority of the population.
Strong Alcohol in Thailand
Cheap & cheerful is the name of the game for the majority of Thai consumers who indulge in the odd drink or three when it comes to spirits.
And there have long been available various brands of Thai spirits, whiskies, and rums that certainly hit the mark in terms of alcohol content – there’s no issue with that one. But the majority are produced strictly for the local market (for reasons previously touched upon).
If you know the difference in terms of taste and quality between a Bell’s and a Black Label, then this post probably holds little interest for you. However, if you are interested in how that compares to local equivalents of spirits in Thailand, then read on.
With that in mind let’s have a look at some of the top Thai spirits that you’ve probably never heard of.
Most Thai drinkers believe this to be whisky but it is actually the most renowned Thai rum (for various reasons) on the market. It is actually a pretty popular local drink, but is not necessarily for rum connoisseurs.
Produced from Thai sugar cane and has a strength of 40% proof (which is apparently a little questionable in terms of stability). The rum has reportedly been awarded various international medals along with being exported to 20-odd countries, although its export sales account for only one per cent of total sales.
It is usually mixed with soda and ice by locals.
On the more extreme side though, this is also the spirit that is usually mixed into the legendary ‘bucket’ drinks found on the Thai ‘party islands’. It is mixed with other delights such as red bull and coke, and should be avoided at all costs for more reasons than we have space to list here.
Sangsom is very much on the cheap side compared to international brands and is sold in large 70cl bottles and half bottles (the complete contents of which will go into your ‘bucket’, and the follow-on ‘hangover from hell’). Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
This is the drink that is almost on a par with Sangsom, and although it is again often given the ‘whisky’ moniker, it is also distilled largely from sugar cane and rice (on a 95/5 per cent ratio) to a mere 35% proof.
It is named after one of the largest rivers in the country, if not in SE Asia, and sold in small, flat-looking half bottles as well as the larger 70cl ones.
Mekhong ‘whiskey’ was the first spirit to be produced domestically in Thailand (at least legally) on a mass scale in 1941, around the time that Thailand had reclaimed territory previously lost to the French colonialists.
It initially came from a privately-owned company that was eventually taken over by the government, whose intention was to reduce the amount of revenue being spent on imported whisky (as well as stoke a bit of patriotism). Eventually the rights were leased out by the government and these days it is owned by the massive Thai Beverage Inc.
It is actually a little cheaper than Sangsom, so make of that what you will. Honestly not one for whisky (or rum) connoisseurs, but nevertheless gets the job done in terms of alcohol content, as many a Thai security guard will attest to.
3. Hong Thong
Hong Thong (translated as ‘golden phoenix’) is another very cheap and cheerful ‘whisky’ from the Thai Beverage Company that also has more ‘H’s than is necessary in the spelling.
This one probably requires even more mixer than is usual with the previous 2 options. It is nevertheless very popular with certain factions of the locals in Thailand, and is often paired with soda, coke, and a few snacks.
Like the other ‘whiskies’ Sangsom and Mekhong, Hong Tong is also made largely from molasses, which is no surprise really considering how easily sugar cane grows in Thailand.
So by now you are probably getting the idea about how Thai ‘whisky’ has little to do with grain, taste, or even quality — and everything to do with price, alcohol content, and available natural resources (in this case being sugar cane and, to a lesser extent, rice).
Hong Thong is another 35% proof Thai spirit, and is also sold in flat, small bottles and standard 70cl bottles.
4. Lao Khao
Officially described as a Thai distilled spirit, ‘Lao Khao’ — which translates as rice whisky – is the strongest, the cheapest, and absolutely the most popular spirit in Thailand for the lower end of the low income classes. It’s 40% proof and distilled from mainly rice, with a taste and smell guaranteed to strip paint from 10 paces away.
Lao Khao is the closest thing to moonshine that is legally available in Thailand, and is particularly popular among the populations of the North and Northeast. You are unlikely to find it in any restaurants or bars, but every 7-Eleven and side street local store shifts tons of the stuff on a daily basis.
So yes it is safe to say that the majority of consumers who drink this stuff (which is usually on a daily basis) remain blissfully unaware of the fact that it plays no small part in the figures for alcohol-related deaths and health issues, and that they are in fact abusing alcohol.
Lao Khao comes in dark brown bottles that look a little like beer bottles, and there are 2 different sizes with a volume of 0.33 litres and the larger 0.625 litres.
The labels are all in Thai, with different colours to signify the grade and alcohol content, which is somewhere between 28% and 40%. The blue-labelled one is the strongest, and hence best-selling option, and you’ll see the discarded empty bottles on pretty much every road and street corner in Thailand.
This Thai spirit is not mixed with ice and soda, and is drunk neat. It is strictly for hard-core drinkers on a budget, and any foreigners making the mistake of trying to buy it from a store usually attract blank and genuinely puzzled stares.
This list wouldn’t be complete without at least a nod towards one of the growing number of Thai brandies on the market.
Generally more expensive than the other spirits produced in Thailand, the brandies like this one are aimed at a slightly higher class of drinker, and a half bottle costs as much as a full bottle of the other spirits. This is for the Thai tippler who thinks himself above the bottom-end brands like Mekhong and Sangsom but doesn’t quite feel up to the level of imported brand consumer (which is related more to earnings than taste).
Regency was one of the best known Thai brandies available until quite recently when Meridian V.S.O.P. was introduced in an obvious attempt to steal the market. It seems to have succeeded as the majorly-stocked item in 7-Elevens and such like.
The United Winery & Distillery is the company behind Meridian, and is again part of ThaiBev. Like all Thai brandy this one is marketed as a quality and high-end product. Unfortunately it is neither, especially when making any kind of comparison with international brands.
Again still largely considered as a whiskey by the general population, this Thai spirit is actually made from pineapples. The marketing blurb states that the brandy is ‘distilled in a copper pot imported from Cognac in France and left to age in limousine oak for 4 years.’ But that is about as close to a French brandy as it gets.
Meridian is usually drunk with…soda and ice.