LAOS – Among the few regrets I have in life is never having been on horseback on a dust-blown plain out West, while my brother, also on horseback, puts a cork back in a label-less bottle and tosses it to me for a swig. I see that kind of exchange as a pinnacle of manhood, whereas my machismo has lived mostly in the foothills.
That said, it has been my habit to purchase mystery homemade liquors in countries around the world, raising local eyebrows, risking eyesight, and enjoying every incendiary drop.
In Northern Laos, pretty close to the Chinese border, for example, I was lucky to find a village that had a morning market where two dozen or so women from the mountain tribes would trek in, toting old oil jugs filled with their white-hot hooch. The odd one would have a shot glass (I soon learned to bring my own), so I could sample the wares before committing (and before breakfast).
Now, delicious as it is, Lao mountain liquor (called lao lao, which, appropriately, rhymes with "ow ow") is not for the faint of ventricle. Often, when I was about to taste one woman's product, the merchant next to her would signal violently for me to stop, signing that if I was to (gesture, gesture) drink that woman's booze, it would feel (gesture gesture) like being clubbed on the cranium, and I would quickly (gesture gesture) fall to the ground.
Nor, in many cases, were these accounts incorrect.
Luckily, I sort of like drinking things that render me legless, so I purchased and consumed as many lao laos as I could find. In addition to the mountain village varieties, I bought two — one red, one green — tied in plastic bags (like those used by kids buying goldfish) from a hut I discovered while riding my bike a few hours east of Luang Namtha. The man in the hut was sleeping and the bags were unmarked, and he woke with no small surprise to find a white man laying down coins for his distillates. Another time, I bought one that was almost scarlet in color and had some kind of inedible barky bits in the bottom — delicious — though by and large most lao laos were either clear or a pale yellow, as if they had been steeped with a bit of bamboo.
Despite whatever preconceptions you might have against homemade liquor, the majority that I've sampled are actually quite yummy. From Laotian lao lao to the schnappses of the Schwarzwald to the 'shines of Tennessee, they tend to be grappa-esque, both in the deep, nuanced flavor sense, and in the acetylene, fire-in-the-hole sense.
That's effectively the secret of non-commercial booze: People who have never sipped out of a jar don't realize that homemade hooch can be as smooth as Stoli and as rich as poire William. Italian nocino, for example, distilled from green walnuts, is at times as sublime a liquid as your mouth will ever round. Serbian rakija and its various Turkish and Balkan cousins (typically rendered from plums) make most commercial eaux de vie seem underflavored and incomplete. Even mere fermentations — like the southern Indian coconut milk toddy — put your basic Bud to shame.
But bathtub gins, moonshines, rotguts, hooches, splos (because occasionally they still do detonate) get a bad rap predominately because of lingering associations with the overly rushed productions made during Prohibition or in wartime — and maybe a wee little need to acquire the taste.
Once you've gotten used to the high heat of home distillates, however, drinking them when you travel can connect you to the people of a place the same way that eating roadside-stand street food and sharing cigarettes does: Suddenly you're not a gawking alien outsider. You're a curious, participating acolyte, wanting to learn and engage.
In all my times traveling this wide globe, I've concluded that all I need is a bike, a dictionary, and a thirst, and I'll have an incredible time. I start anywhere, bike out of it until I'm far away, stop and eat and drink whatever I find, speak the 50 words I've learned and try to look up the rest, and soon I'm surrounded by friends.
And if that means doing shots with a dozen old Lao ladies before 8 a.m., then all the better.