There’s a drink they make in Chicago that boasts about how few people actually enjoy its bitter wormwood flavor. If bars even have a bottle of it, they’ve probably never opened it. When the manufacturer ran a contest to come up with a new slogan, albeit an unofficial one, they got suggestions like, when you need to unfriend someone in person, turning taste-buds into taste-foes for generations, and what soap washes its mouth out with. But, believe it or not, it’s catching on.
Pop quiz: what is the most popular liquor in the world? While you mull that over, here’s a quick primer on a small segment of the panoply that is the world of alcohol. Low-alcohol beverages are made all over the globe by mixing something containing starch or simple sugars with water, adding yeast or allowing wild yeast and bacteria to invade, and leaving it to ferment, wherein the yeast eat the sugars and belch out ethanol and carbon dioxide. These beers, wines, and the like can be made from any fruit, grain, and even some tree saps, like palm and birch. Anything with natural sugars will do. In colonial America, brewing with pumpkins and other winter squashes was common. But if you take your beer or wine and distill it, meaning to boil it and collect the condensed steam to remove water and make the drink stronger, then you’ve got something. That’s where we get vodka, brandy, whisky and all other spirits. That’s what we’re talking about today, the weirdest and more wonderful hooch humanity has come up with. On the whole, I’m ruling out craft beers because…well, you know how craft beers are. Even trying to restrict my search to hard liquor, the google machine kept popping up beers; beers with pizza, or chiles, or fermented shark fin, or bull testicles, or goat brains, or stag semen, not making any of these up, by the way.
Back to the question of the most favored firewater. There’s lots of whisky, with all of its sub-categories, consumed across the US, Canada, and, of course, Ireland. They are credited with inventing it, though they called it uisce beatha. No, not whisky. They drink a lot of vodka in Russia. True, but it’s not vodka. You know where else they have a lot of people? China, 1.4 billion. And it’s the Chinese spirit baiju that is drunk more than any other. It is the world’s most popular liquor by volume, more than 10 billion with a B liters a year, more than vodka and whisky combined. aijiu is a vast category of clear yet complex spirits that’s played a prominent role in China’s drinking culture since the Ming Dynasty. liejiu 烈酒 (harsh alcohol) or zhengliujiu 蒸馏酒 (distilled spirits). In Imperial China it was called shaojiu 烧酒, or “burnt wine.” Today it is called baijiu, which literally translates “white spirits,” in contrast to Chinese fermented grain alcohols known as huangjiu 黄酒, or “yellow wine.” It’s usually distilled from fermented sorghum, though other grains can be used as well. It is also strong, really strong, running between 80 and 120 proof. Brands aren’t as big a force in baijiu as they are in the west, where you might swear by Jack Daniels, but never touch Jim Beam, or only drink Hennesey when you’re out. Restaurants and families all do their own styles and it changes a lot regionally. Brand names barely factor, but I do want to mention one, Shui Jing Fang. The brand’s only been around since 2000, but it’s been declared “the oldest distillery in China” because its parent company, Quanxing, stumbled upon the ruins of a 600-year-old facility when they were undergoing renovations in 1998. You’re technically correct, the best kind of correct.
Baijiu is rare in the states, though it is available at some cocktail joints around town — usually as a kind of one-off novelty that bartenders stock to impress one another. Though it’s scarce here, baijiu’s billion-strong fan base in China means it’s the best-selling liquor in the world. That it’s failed to gain a foothold in the West is not that surprising, actually, if you’ve talked to Americans who have tried it. The most common flavor descriptors are sweaty socks, or rotten fruit, or things that are even more foul. In other words: To the unaccustomed, this stuff tastes weird. Like spirits such as gin and tequila, which have different classes, so does baijiu. Broadly, there are six of them, known as “fragrances,” which indicate the spirit’s flavor: honey fragrance, layered fragrance, light fragrance, rice fragrance, sauce fragrance, and thick fragrance. Western palates tend to favor the lighter and sweeter, but sauce fragrance, which is, admittedly, a tough one to get past for beginners, does pair well with pickled snacks. The trick to appreciating baijiu is embracing its unfamiliar flavor.
If we’re talking spirits in Asia, we should probably address the elephant in the room. Or rather, the snake, lizard, or baby mouse. You may not find them at the convenience store, but wines and spirits with a dead animal plonked inside are not uncommon. The impetus for this is usually medicinal, either to treat a particular condition or for overall health and of course virility. Like Chinese “Hejie Jiu,” in which a whole gecko-type lizard is fermented in a bottle of whiskey or rice wine for anywhere from two weeks to one year and is said to cure everything from ulcers to cancer. I’m getting an ulcer just thinking about it. But I think I like it better, or at least dislike it slightly less, than baby mice wine. They take a jar of rice wine, put a handful of day-old baby mice in it, let it ferment for a year and Bob’s your uncle, you’ve got a super alcoholic, super reprehensible beverage believed to be a health tonic to many, and believed to be six shades of nasty by me.
If you’re ever in Vietnam, head to a suburb of Hanoi known as Snake Village, where they make the freshest snake wine money can buy. And it’s just like it sounds, wine with a snake in it. The price varies on a sliding scale according to the relative rarity of the snake species or difficulty in hunting it. For the full experience, you can even kill the snake yourself, a much more metal version of choosing a live lobster, and do a shot with some of the snakes organs in it. The crown jewel there is the heart. You may have seen Anthony Bourdain knock back the still-beating heart of I wanna say a cobra on No Reservations.
You don’t always need the whole animal. Next time you’re in a Chinese market, look for “Tezhi Sanbian Jiu,” which translates to “three penis wine.” That’s not a wacky Babelfish mistranslation or a cross-cultural misunderstanding. This win contains the penises, penii?, of a seal, a deer penis, and dog. You’ll want to look in health & beauty rather than the beer cooler, because three penis wine is a traditional natural remedy for, of course, impotence. Talk about like cures like. The bottle may even have a warning label that young boys shouldn’t drink it because they’re not ready, and adult men should consume it in careful moderation. What does three penis wine taste like? According to one source, like gone-off port, with a pungent vinegar taste and some prune juice, and on the whole, the flavor profile is definitely penis forward.
Maybe a fin is more your speed. The fin of a pufferfish, that is. As if playing Russian roulette with your plate of sashimi weren’t enough, you can order yourself a hirezake. Pufferfish, or fugu, contains paralyzing tetrodotoxins, and eating even a small portion of the wrong part of the fish can kill you — who else learned about fugu from that episode of the Simpsons, back when it was good. Fugu is carefully in Japan, where chefs must have a license to clean the fish before serving it; in the U.S., any fugu that’s imported has already had its toxic organs removed. The fins are dehydrated until bone dry, then grilled, placed in a cup, and topped with hot sake and left to steep for a few minutes before consuming. Optionally, you can also light the vapors. Hirezake is popular in Japan during the cool months, and now a small collection of American restaurants are serving the drink.
We’ve checked off mammals, reptiles, and fish; how about a bird in your booze, or rather a booze made from a bird? In the cold expanses of the Arctic, food sources can be scarce, but the human animal does enjoy getting their drink on, thus was created seagull wine. Sources on this are a bit thin, but it seems to be made by putting a dead seagull (in bits, or whole) into a bottle of water, or filling it with water like a wine skin, and leaving it in the sun for a few days. One person who claims to have sampled it reported it “goes down hard and settles down worse”, but we are reliably informed that it does the job of getting you drunk, which would be handy.
Maybe a smaller animal wouldn’t be so hard to swallow, no pun intended. How about a little insect gastronomy, courtesy of The Nordic Food Lab, “a non-profit that brings food and science together.” The “edible potential of the Nordic region” inspired them to make a gin Thomas Shelby wouldn’t touch, Anty Gin, gin made from ants. Ants communicate using a complex array of pheromones and formic acid and it’s this formic acid which reacts with the ethanol to produce aromatic esters, or scent compounds that help to inform our sense of taste. According to their partner in the effort, Cambridge Distillery, they’re trying to open people’s eyes to the viability, and even enjoyability, of insects as a food source. A team of scientists foraged the forests of the UK for red wood ants, gathered up over six thousand ants and distilled them, like ya do. It’s not pure ants; there is also wheat, herbs and bulgarian juniper. Each bottle, they estimate, contains the essence of about 62 wood ants. But how does it taste? According to one gin aficionado, it smells “Powdery, slightly vinegary. There’s an acrid, organic character to it— reminiscent of that kind of unusual indole note in jasmine flowers,” but he found the taste to be, “almost entirely underwhelming.”
I almost did a whole episode on ants for this week, one of those topics that sound simple and boring, like when I did mud or salt, but there are
If you want to hear about that, soc med
And if you came to the podcast by way of the book, I’d love to hear from you.
Were those last drinks too visceral for you? How about a nice cold glass of milk…..based vodka? Vodka by definition is a clear distilled liquor without definite aroma or taste, ranging in alcoholic content from about 40 to 55 percent. You may reflexively think of vodka as Russian and made from that humble rockstar, the potato, but researchers aren’t so sure. It’s hard to trace vodka’s exact origin, assuming it started in only one place and spread outward, rather than being a product of simultaneous invention, in this case, different people unknown to one another, discovering that if you take the weak spirit used in medicinals and distill it again and maybe a third time, you get something both drinkable and knock you on your butt-able. We do know that the first written reference was from Poland in 1405, with a reference from Russia being found from ten years after. The potatoes were also late to the party. Because the repeated distillation removes flavor compounds, you can get away with using the cheapest, most readily available source of sugars. Sugars, like lactose.
Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka sprung from the mind of a sixth-generation cheesemaker from Devon, UK and a friend of his. Regular vodka starts with a mash, or grain cooked or soaked in water. What would a cheesemaker have lots of that is liquid with natural sugars in it? Whey, the watery waste product once the proteins and fats of milk have joined together into curds A special yeast is needed to ferment the whey, which is more acidic than other mashes. The resulting beer is then distilled and triple filtered. Milk vodka requires less water for its distillation process, giving it a lower mineral content than grain or potato vodkas which are often made with mineral-heavy hard water. This means it has an almost creamy feeling on the tongue, because what the world needs is vodka that’s easier to drink straight. Black Cow Vodka has been available in its native England since in 2012, but there are a few distributors in the US carrying it. Hey, Richard, you’re in England, can you get some of this and taste test it for me? Gracias. Probably the best thing about Black Cow is that it helps use up a waste product that otherwise goes down the drain, hog feeding and bodybuilding shakes notwithstanding.
Because, as I mentioned, vodka could be made cheaply with whatever you had enough of that season, by the 8th century, peasant farmers were making it for themselves across Russia and its neighboring Slavic states. When Ivan the Terrible united the various smaller principalities and kingdoms into one country, with himself as the first tzar, he noticed the popularity of a certain readily-available intoxicant among his people. Ivan declared the production and sale of alcohol was a royal privilege and therefor all alcohol was now the property of the crown. Only the crown could make and sell vodka. This guaranteed a revenue stream for the royal family, by giving them a monopoly on a cheap product that everyone wanted. Throughout the centuries, Tsar’s opened plant after plant, pumping out vodka almost everyone could easily afford. It was such a good system, for the royals anyway, that when Catherine the Great came to power in the 18th century, she rewarded lesser nobles with vodka production and selling rights, rather than land. 140 years later, as his ancestral grip on the world’s largest country began to slip away, Tsar Nicholas II had to relinquish power to an elected body and in 1905, one of the first things they did was to combat the massive alcoholism that had become emblematic of Russian life.
Surely that was an unforeseen consequence, surely the tzar wouldn’t want people face down in various gutters all day. A peasant who wastes his money on vodka is too drunk to think of his situation and how he might get out of it, he’s too drunk to organize or even join a protest, he beats his wife and she drinks, he beats his kids and they soon start drinking, like an especially terrible pyramid scheme. He’s miserable, so he drinks. The drink keeps him miserable, so he wants more drink. Drink comes from the tzar, so it follows that he will be a Tzarist.
The increased blood pressure, inflamed blood vessels, kidney, pancreas, and liver failure were the price he paid for his role in the system.
That system came to end with the rise of Communism, as the Russian Communist Party pushed for prohibition, making stirring films featuring revolutionaries smash liquor bottles. Leninism was strictly prohibitionist and declared alcohol to be a vice by which the bourgeoisie subjugated and controlled the proletariat. He may have a case there. After the Bolsheviks took over, the Czar’s vodka plants were all shut down. That lasted until Stalin seized power. He cranked the vodka factories back up, like the opening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Stalin pretty much rebuilt the old Tzarist system of subsidized alcoholism. He called it the people’s vodka. The people didn’t need much encouragement. Soviet alcoholism grew worse, arguably peaking through the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, as the economy collapsed and they were stuck fighting a war they’d already lost in Afghanistan. To give you a sense of how accepted heavy vodka drinking was, at that time, Stolichnaya vodka bottles had a cap that, once removed, could not be put back on the bottle. It was just assumed the entire bottle would be drunk in one sitting. Why would you ever want to re-close a vodka bottle? You can see these bottles in the Chernobyl series. Bonus fact: Chernobyl means wormwood, so named for all the wormwood in the area. These days, the vodka plants have been privatized, but the Russian government has never taken any real steps to address the fact that about 1 in 6 of their citizens suffers from alcoholism.
On Patreon, all about the drinks native to Australia. No, I don’t mean Fosters. What sorts of things did the Aboriginal people drink? We may have to cast a pretty wide net. The tribes of Australia are at least as numerous and diverse as those of pre-Columbian North America. In fact, before Europeans arrived in Oz, there were over 250 languages spoken on the continent. A few other unbelievable drinks will probably make it in as well. https://theconversation.com/alcohol-brewed-from-trees-and-other-fermented-drinks-in-australias-indigenous-history-96127
Back to Black Cow vodka, it isn’t milk’s only foray into transmogrifying into alcohol, neither is it a recent idea. In what is now Kazakhstan, the Botai tamed wild horses over five thousand years ago. The horses were key to their lives, not just for transport and hunting, but for milk, and from that milk, they made kumis, a fermented beverage described as tasting like “Champagne mixed with sour cream.” Okay, that sounds terrible, but it also sounds like it goes with caviar and toast points. 13th century missionary William of Rubruck raved that “Koumiss makes the inner man most joyful!” The milk’s naturally high sugar content made it especially good for fermenting. The nomads churned it, almost like they were making butter, until the milk acidified and yeasts produced alcohol and fizzy bubbles. Carbonated milk. The fermentation wasn’t just for shiggles, culturing the milk so they can drink it at all. Unlike the milk of cows, goats, yaks, mare’s milk contains so much lactose that, even for those who have mankind’s most recent evolution, the ability to digest milk after infancy, mare’s milk has a severe laxative effect. Food sources don’t do you a lot of good if nourishment comes out of you faster than it went in. Kumis is good for the whole family. Mothers fed babies a less-fermented version with a low, but not non-existent, amount of alcohol. You can buy kumis in stores there, but it’s only fermented to 2% alcohol and is made with cow’s milk, so what’s the point even?
Wait, you say, that’s not a distilled spirit. You let another low-abv bevie slip in. I wasn’t finished. Kumis can be made into araga. It’s made in a homemade still called a shuuruun, which is crafted from the hollowed-out trunk of a poplar tree. The result is a clear, sour liquor of about 5 to 20 percent alcohol that tastes milder when warm. Additional distillations will produce stronger stuff, known as dan zarya.
Breakroom and Reddit, thanks Zach
They say a good chef always puts something of themselves in their cooking, and brewing and distilling is no different. Let’s head south now to Peru, great lovers of two of my favorite New World foods, corn and potatoes. There, potatoes come in wonderous varieties of size and color, and the corn, or choclo, has kernels many times the size of the niblets you think of when you think of corn. Choclo is the basis for many products, not the least of which is a beer called chicha. Chicha isn’t very strong, but people tend to drink a lot of it, especially for social occasions and holidays. The people of the Andes weren’t the only ones to figure out that saliva helps to jumpstart the fermentation process. And, like many civilizations throughout the world and time, they placed great significance on brewing; it became a ritual carried out by a small group of women, known as Virgins of the Sun. The word chicha isn’t the indigenous name for it, rather the name Spanish invaders decided to give it. Some say that the word is derived from indigenous languages used in Panama and Colombia or in Mexico. Others say it comes from chichal, to spit. This is fitting, not because you spit it out, but because you spit into it. Step one: partially chew the corn kernels and spit them into the pot. Because the starch in corn can’t immediately be fermented by yeast, enzymes in saliva convert starch to sugar, making it digestible for yeast, which convert the sugar to alcohol. Throughout the Cusco in the Sacred Valley, you can spot many chicherias around, clearly marked with a red flag or bag hanging on a pole outside. Modern mass-produced chicha uses malted barley instead of spit, but it is still only recommended for those with, to quote QEI from BlackAdder, the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant. The cloudy liquid has an earthy taste that isn’t naturally palatable to Western tongues and is known to cause “digestive discomfort” for a day or two.
Chicha’s masticated maize may not have surprised you if you remember the movie Medicine Man with the late Sean Connery, but what if I told you, you can make whisky from pee. Whiz-ky, if you will. I say you “can” make whisky from pee, not that anyone should, but a man named James Gilpin did. Gilpin, a type 1 diabetic, heard a story, which is thus far thankfully unprovable, about pharmaceutical workers who set up a lab next to a retirement home in order to extract unprocessed drugs from elderly patients’ urine for re-use in new products. In people with diabetes, the body does not make insulin to break down sugars in food, so unprocessed glucose is removed from the body via the urine. A lightbulb went off in his head as he thought of his grandmother, also a diabetic, and just much sugar must be going down the drain every day. He thought, why not the same process as whiskey distillation to put that sugar to good use? His grandmother supplied him with the raw materials, as it were, and Gilpin was in the whisky business. Thankfully Gilpin Family Whisky is more performance art than product line. The line of whiskies were on exhibit at a London design event, each labeled with the name and home town of the patient who provided the sugar. Tastings were offered, but I chose to stop my research before finding any descriptions of the flavor, or smell.
While we’re giving James Gilpin side-eye, we might want to save some for the brewers of a traditional Korean health tonic, ttongsul. There’s not a lot of information to be found on it, but what is consistent across the sources is that it has about 9% alcohol, can treat everything from bruises to epilepsy, and is made of rice wine fermented with the poo of a child, preferably around six years old. Ttongsul is by no means a common drink in Korea; it’s not even widely known. Vice.com managed to find a traditional Korean medicine doctor who claims to be one of the last people who knows how to make this “feces wine.” According to their reporter, Dr. Lee Chang Soo seemed genuinely sad that feces is no longer widely used in Eastern medicine, despite its centuries of tradition, from bat droppings to treat alcoholism to chicken faeces to treat stomach problems. As a possible saving grace, that at least two things I found said it’s meant to be used topically, not ingested, which is, I guess, a little better. A little, but not enough.
And that’s…So what is this beverage from the city of the big shoulders with the fan slogans of tonight’s the night you fight your dad and these pants aren’t going to shit themselves? It’s called Malort, a type of Swedish liquor called a besk brannvin, and there’s only one company that makes it, Jeppson’s. The company managed to stay alive through Prohibition and despite not paying for marketing in the last … ever, apparently, hipsters who love the obscurity of it, thrill-seekers who love the challenge of it, of course there are Chicago’s substantial Swedish and Polish communities. Don’t call it a comeback. Remember…thanks…