One evening at a bar in Myanmar, a bartender hands me a glass of local beer he nicely pours out of the tap. “Myanmar has a number of local beers and drinks you can enjoy. It is actually a kind of exploration. You can try various beers until finding the one you like the most. How about Thailand, sir?”.
Looking at the shelves behind him which are packed with a wide selection of liquors from so many places and countries, I search for any Thai brand that might be hidden at the back. But I fail to find one. After mentioning a few names of Thai drinks the world may know, I keep wondering why the names of Thai drinks are so little known in the world.
Later, I go to Ayutthaya and pay a visit to the Japanese Village. Actually, it is no longer a village. It is a museum situated on the site where once a Japanese village was located. After learning about the Japanese in Ayutthaya, I am surprised by the fact that once Ayutthaya’s white spirit was a very famous export to Japan. Even now, a number of high quality jars from Ayutthaya, which are used as liquor containers, are found in Japan.
The fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1767 led to a shortage of liquor. This drove Japan to develop its own rice wine for meeting the high demand. Finally, the famous Awamori rice wine was created under great influence from Ayutthaya’s liquor, according to the museum.
But I wonder why Thai white spirit or lao khao has never come back to its former glory. Today, Thai lao khao is only a cheap, low-quality drink for certain groups of customers who cannot afford better alcoholic drinks. Thai lao khao is strong and dry, quite good for drinkers who never care about their health, but want to get drunk as soon as possible with a limited budget.
However, in provinces, I find Thai lao khao is not that boring. There are plenty of local brews where the quality is far better than those available in the marketplace. One example is the corn spirit by hill tribe farmers, which is crystal-clear white spirit distilled from fermented local species of sticky rice. There are many more varieties which mirror local expertise.
But most of the quality lao khaos I like are moonshines. Why does moonshine offer better quality than legal lao khao? I am not quite sure about this. Anyway, you may have noticed a number of beverage brands mushrooming recently, ranging from coffee, tea, juices, energy drinks, etc. However, liquor is different.
Besides taxes and duty to pay, production of local liquor is strictly controlled. According to the law, liquor distillers are required to produce at least 30,000 litres of liquor a day, plus many more requirements such as size and location of the factory.
In my opinion, making drinks is a kind of art. It requires a lot of expertise, patience and responsibility to maximise the quality, as well as creativity. It is an art to make people relax. And Thais are not bad at this kind of entertainment. As the number of players in the liquor industry is limited, completion is not tough.
I am rather glad to hear that there are new brewers in Thailand, introducing craft beers to beer lovers. Craft beer is a kind of house brewed beer created by individuals. It can be made from rice, corn or the tropical fruits Thailand is famed for. Numerous brewers invent and create new beers for drinkers to enjoy endless exploration.
However, craft beer is in the same situation as lao khao. According to Thai law, like the liquor, the brewery must be big enough, with production capacity starting from 100,000 litres a year. So, again,that is why most craft beers are illegal.
At this point, I think Thailand’s outdated law is limiting people’s creativity. You may argue that promoting alcoholic drinks may result in worse social conditions as it may enable people to drink more. But, today, with very few choices, alcoholic consumption is still quite high. Thais drink what is available anyway.
There are a number of countries that produce thousands of wines, hundreds of liquors, but have lower drink-and-drive car accident rates than Thailand today. Indeed, Thailand requires better law enforcement and a lot of awareness about responsible drinking. I do not think Thailand will make any changes to this outdated law soon. I also believe that the art will find its way through. Thai people are very creative concerning such things.