Lao khao, or Thai fermented rice whiskey is a popular Thai drink that locals are also keen to persuade farang to try. It is also known as being the “real” Thai whiskey as opposed to the more commercially popular sang som.
Generally produced in distilleries located in Isaan, it accounts for around two-thirds of Thailand’s alcohol consumption. Lao Khao, a white spirit, is made from distilled sahtoh (rice beer) which causes its potency. The distillation process also uses hulls of sticky rice (khao niew) and small pieces of yeast balls. Many also brew their own version of lao khao at home, known as moonshine with added herbs. Technically it is illegal in Thailand to do this, but a blind eye is usually turned.
If you are a newcomer to this delicacy, like I was, then I suggest you accompany your glass of lao khao with another dish – you will thank me for this tip! As I tentatively sipped the clear liqueur, my eyes began to water and even a small drop was enough to create a burning sensation in the back of my throat and cause me to choke much to the amusement of my drinking buddies.
After my first sip, one of my kinder friends suggested I water my drink down with coco cola (I understand soda water is also an acceptable mixer) – this indeed made the drink a lot more palatable and dare I say it enjoyable, although the warm feeling it created in my stomach was certainly not needed with the humidity of the Bangkok evening. However at 40% proof of alcohol, I certainly didn’t manage more than two glasses!
It is sold in nearly every small stall in Thailand (usually in a brown bottle), and is also found in many street bars as well. It is probably one of the cheapest alcohols in Thailand, hence its popularity with blue class workers. An amount equivalent to a hip flask should only cost you around 50 baht.
Some stalls with sell bottles with a snake or scorpion pickled inside, calling the drink “cobra” whiskey for tourists to take home as souvenirs.
There are mixed feelings among Thais about lao khao. Some claim that it has medicinal uses claiming it can be used from anything to inducing a period, rice farmers claim it increases their strength, and some even deem it to be a magic potion for sex. Others however err more on the side of caution, with hospitals warning that regular prolonged consumption can cause serious medical harm to both the stomach and the liver, and there are many reports that a night on lao khao has been the cause of many of Thailand’s road accidents.
Perhaps this article should end however with a couple of disclaimers: firstly if you intend to try this infamous drink, it may be wise to cancel all other plans for the evening – after a couple of glasses, you may struggle to move from your seat. Secondly, cancel all plans for the following day. After a night on lao khao you will be lucky if you see anything of the day, let alone be able to leave your condo.