News in Asia is Imbibing in Spirits

Given that this space reports on news that is not so pleasant, I figured this week, in honor of how much my fellow unicorns love to drink, I’d give a brief primer on the liquors, spirits, wine and beer from a few Asian countries. Since many countries have their own distinct alcoholic beverages, I’ll do another post later.

South Korea

We will start with the country where I lived for two years; South Korea. Liquor and Korean brands of beer are very cheap here, so a night out wouldn’t drain your bank account (in theory) like a night out in my home country. There are dozens of types of spirits so I’ll focus on the two most popular.


Soju is distilled from grain or sweet potatoes. It’s the most popular liquor in South Korea and is super cheap; you could get a bottle from the convenience store for about $3. You can drink it straight or the way many Westerners living there would drink it, mixed in a sports drink like Gatorade or in soda. You could also get flavored soju at bars and restaurants. Soju is 40 proof and I can guarantee you, it will give you the worst hangover of your life. Normally soju is served cold.


Makgeolli is made from rice and it’s a milky alcohol and kind of sweet. I’ll be honest, I never much cared for it; something about the taste and texture threw me off, though I liked it in flavored forms. (You see a theme here, right?) The school would sometimes give bottles as gifts to teachers and instead of being rude and turning it down, I’d give it to my doorman. There were also establishments called makgeolli bars that served the aforementioned flavored versions (as well as flavored soju), and sitting outside our regular place on a nice evening in spring or fall, was my favorite thing to do with friends.


The main Korean beer brands are Cass, Max, and Hite (or Shite, as I liked to call it.) Frankly, I hate Korean beer; it tastes like watered down Budweiser to me, which is unfortunate because it’s also cheap and after a couple of soju hangovers, I tended to avoid that cheap option. Mostly, I stuck to whiskey.


The people of China have been making alcohol since before there was a China. Dried remnants found inside 9,000- year-old pottery suggest the ancient peoples of the region were already making beer.


Also known as shaojiu, the name roughly translates to “white wine,” though it’s much stronger than the white wine we know. The average proof is 40-60 percent. The liquor is distilled from sorghum, a type of grain, though different regions in China make the alcohol from rice, wheat, barley, and millet. I never got to try it while in China, but the potency and taste is supposedly very similar to vodka and it’s served warm or at room temperature.


The two main brands of Chinese beer are Tsingtao and Harbin. I drank Tsingtao pretty much everyday while in China and they sold it in huge bottles that my friends and I would split. A friend who used to live in Beijing once told me that she drank so much beer because it was basically cheaper than buying water.


Given China’s massive size and variety of climates, it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are several large vineyards that produce wine, but it was to me. The main wine producing regions are Yantai, Beijing, Zhangjiakou in Hebei and Yibin in Sichuan. The largest vineyard, Changyu Pioneer Wine, is the 10th largest wine producer in the world.


When I visited Thailand, I stuck mostly to beer, which is what most people are familiar with as Thai beers can be found pretty readily in the US. There are some spirits that are made in Thailand though.

Mekhong and Sang Som

Mekhong is labeled as a whiskey, but it’s actually more like rum, since it’s made from sugar cane. Mekhong is used as an ingredient in cocktails, the most popular of which is Sabai Sabai, or “Thai Welcome Drink.” Another rum is Sang Som, also made from sugar cane and virtually unknown outside of Thailand.


The two most prominent beers in Thailand are Chang and Singha, with Chang being the cheaper option. I always preferred Singha myself and drank it at bottle bars back in Daegu, South Korea. Another beer that is readily available in Thailand and preferred by my friends is Tiger beer, which is out of Singapore.


I never got to Vietnam in my travels, but many of my friends went there on vacation and loved it and I know a couple of people who are now teaching in Hanoi.

Rượu cần

Also called stem wine, is a fermented rice wine and served using long can tubes (like big straws) and two or more people drink from the jug communally. It typically served at weddings and other celebrations.

Rượu đế

This used to be illegal to make and is very similar to moonshine.

Snake Wine

Made by infusing whole snakes into rice or grain alcohol, preferably venomous ones. It supposedly has medicinal properties and can cure hair loss and male infertility. A couple of guys I know tried some while visiting Vietnam; they were sick for three days.

By Stephens

Florida girl, would-be world traveler and semi-permanent expat. Her main strategy of life is to throw out the nets and hope something useful comes back, but many times it's just an old shoe. She also really, really hates winter and people who are consistently late.

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