By Andrew Kolasinski

The little bottle was in an embossed cardboard box, labeled with gold foil printing. For the equivalent of only one dollar it was worth it just for the packaging. I poured out a small experimental measure and tilted it bottoms up. It went down smooth, with an intriguing fragrance and spicy afterglow.

On the recommendation of my host, who called himself Mister Dee, I was sampling the local booze, generically known throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as Mekong Whiskey.

There are many brands, and national and regional variations, but the drink’s name comes from Thailand’s state owned International Beverage Company that spells it Mekhong. Originally named Golden Spirit, it is made at the Bangykihan Distillery in Bangkok. It is, “The Official Spirit of Thailand.” Other popular brands include Sang Som, Hong Thong, Champa in Laos, and Special Muscle Wine in Cambodia.

The drink tastes more like rum than it does whiskey, and no wonder, as it is made from sugar cane molasses and fermented rice rather than from grains. Whiskey connoisseurs are quick to point out the misnomer and to heap derision on it.

The formula varies, but the result is always semi-sweet brown liquor with complex aromas and an alcohol content of around 35 per cent. Its unique flavor comes from herbs that each distiller keeps as its house secret.

At my guest house Mister Dee had been raving enthusiastically about the stuff, how it was, “Good for body health, and good for the brain.” After I mentioned that I had a touch of queasy stomach he said that whiskey was the cure for that ailment and the solution to all of life’s other problems.

Reading the manufacturer’s claims on the label I could see where Mister Dee got his ideas. The ingredients listed on the package of 175 ml bottle of Special Muscle Wine, “include deer’s antler (!), and many precious Chinese herbs.”

The Loa Hang Heng Wine Co of Phnom Penh claims their whiskey (Special Muscle Wine, 35 per cent alcohol), “helps build up a strong physique and mental state. It is particularly effective in alleviating rheumatism and fatigue.” An illustration of a robust young man flexing his well developed muscles strengthens these claims.

My stomach eventually settled down. I cannot say for certain that the whiskey was the cause of my relief, but it did not aggravate my condition.

For the remainder of my travels in Southeast Asia I made sure to always stock my room with a bottle of local whiskey as a nightcap that I felt confident would do me no harm. I remained in vigorous health.

I enjoyed a small shot of Mekong whiskey straight up or mixed with tonic or soda water, or with cola. Others have been more adventurous and there are many cocktails based on the liquor. There is the Mekong Manhattan, made with Mekong Whiskey, Vermouth with cherry juice and simple syrup; also the Mekong Martini, made with Mekong Whiskey, Peach Schnapps, apple and cranberry juice.

The signature cocktail, however, is the Sabai Sabai, or the Thai Welcome Drink. It is similar to a Collins and is served in the same tall glass.

Sabai Sabai

1 ½ shots of Mekong Whiskey
1 ½ shots of fresh lemon juice
¾ shot of simple syrup
One pinch of sweet Thai basil

Mix these ingredients, and then shake with ice. Strain out the ice and pour into a chilled glass, top the glass with club soda, and imagine you are on a Southeast Asia vacation.

Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, experts in adventure tours all over Southeast Asia.


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