‘Lao Khao’, or ‘White Spirit’ as it translates to English, is a popular and potent rice whisky synonymous with Isaan, and alcoholism in these rural parts of Thailand. For those who don’t even drink it, which goes for almost everyone in our compound, it still plays a role in daily life and celebration. Throughout the book Lao Khao is there during engagements, weddings and even funeral ceremonies and, while this does seem odd given the negative stigma attached, Lao Khao is an important part of culture and tradition. A simple example would be during our house warming ceremony where in the first weeks of the year, a feast is served at the front of the house. The feast includes Lao Khao and a spread of typical ceremonial foods such as a boiled pig’s head, a boiled full chicken, and various jelly desserts made from coconut and sticky rice extract. This feast is shared with the ancestors of the house and is a way to show them that we can live well, and feast well. During the ceremony grains of uncooked rice are thrown into the air and Lao Khao is splashed across the pig’s head and chicken. The bottle is then put to the side and before Meh throws it out (she always takes a huff when I offer visitors an ‘authentic local drinking experience’) I manage to get to it first to share shots with great aunt Yai Thip.
One common celebration which involves a lot of Lao Khao drinking is the monk ordination where revelers at the front of the parades will always offer shots of rice wine with chants of “mod kaew, mod kaew”, which means “finish glass”. They then make you dance. So I find myself drinking my fair share of Lao Khao throughout the year at various events, celebrations, ceremony and occasional escapes to the rice fields. Or just randomly with local boozers that I pass along the way. I won’t pretend it tastes nice, or even close to it, but I rarely drink for the taste, and Lao Khao does get you drunk fast. I am also not new to it as I would drink Lao Khao on odd occasions when living in Bangkok. There I would go for a more inventive concoction of Yaa Dong, also known as street liquor, which was served by my local ladyboy who would set up stall opposite my condo. The Lao Khao would have been infused with a handful of herbs, roots and spices to create a supposed medicinal concoction to remedy libido, and other ailments. I can’t say it ever benefited me healthwise, and for most of it I would feel the opposite. So my local ladyboy would serve me a small bottle with a squeeze of honey to sweeten, and, on the side, slices of sour unripe mango and a dip of salt sugar and chilli. It’s a mix of intense sweet, sour, salty and hot flavours and it reminds me a bit of Thai interpretation of the tequila shooter. Anyway, this would be one of the nicer concoctions of Lao Khao where I‘ve found many much less palatable mixtures including infused “Took Kae” house lizards. Similar have become popular at tourist markets in Thailand where trinkets of concocted weirdness like lizards, snakes and scorpions are often sold bottled with Lao Khao.
If I were to admit one failure in my year in rural Thailand it would be my failure to track down an illicit moonshine still. This is something I talked about long before arriving to Isaan and I even had something in place with our good friend Wimonporn Apornpong (she has an awesome name). But this fell through when her neighbor, who distilled the Lao Khao in his back yard, suddenly died due to an alcohol related illness. This news killed my own enthusiasm and I struggled to find similar moonshine stills where it is just so cheap and easy to buy the store brand from the local shop, that there really isn’t much demand for them. It costs little more than a quid for a bottle. So I failed in this quest but I can say I have come across similar during travels next door in Myanmar (Burma) as we followed roads southeast from Bagan to the temple at Mount Popa. On the way I stumbled on a toddy distillery, for palm whisky, which follows a similar distillation process as that of Lao Khao rice whisky. So the alcohol is actually made using a steamed, distillation process, where a mix of sticky rice hulls and yeast balls are left to ferment in liquid. The distillation takes place in a fire heated, earthen still with vapors dripped and collected in bottles which span at each side. The process is relatively simple, but it apparently has its dangers, so I’d stick to the store brands.