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Author: A Potato in a Rice Field
Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Year ’13
The most exciting part of travel for me is turning up to a brand new destination, walking into the local corner shop and browsing the booze and through the years I have systematically trolled through a hell of a lot of them. I honestly hope this doesn’t make me sound like a full on alco but I do probably do drink every night, and many days, when I travel. But, at the same time, I don’t drink so much to get drunk and I feel I am kind of savvy when it comes to alcohol. I never drink socially, because I hate being social, and I don’t really binge drink because I enjoy mornings too much. If I wake at 6am, this would be late-ish. If I do have any sort of hangover, this will quickly fade as I get busy, or else hair of the dog. Anyway, this post isn’t so much about the best beers and alcohols in Asia but my own giddy excitement when I find them, and of course there will be a number of variables which make up this excitement. This includes price, the range and variety of alcohols and beers and of course the quality. And, while I know I’ve not quite covered all Asia countries quite yet, I’ll be sure to update them when I get there (the Koreas are glaring omission). Feel free to add your own recommendations below.
Did you know that sake is just a generic term for ‘alcohol’? What many of us English speaking folk know as sake is in fact ‘Nihonshu’, a Japanese rice wine with around 14%, or so, alcohol content. Distill this further and it becomes shōchū with a heftier kick of around 25%-ish. I do like sake but there’s a lot more to boozing in Japan. In fact Japan leads the world in a lot of booze where even Scotland is losing out these days to Japan’s single malts (Suntori Yamazaki Distillery, for relaxing times). They currently produce the best Whisky’s in the world. I put this down to their ‘Kaizen’ philosophy of continual improvement where they seem to mastery everything they try to. So the alcohol quality in Japan is well above any other in Asia (probably the world) and the variety in any local 7/11, Familymart and Lawson’s, is any boozers wet dream. There will likely be three fridge doors filled top to bottom first with beers (Asahi and Kirin the big names), then Chu-Hi’s which is a highball mix of shōchū (the rice whisky mentioned above) with carbonated water and flavorings (lemon the original). I’ve had great fun with all of them. Beers and Chu-His are also relatively cheap at around $1 to $2 for big tins of either (500 mls). Then, opposite the fridges, or nearby, there will be shelves of sake (Nihonshu), shochus, fruit liquors, whiskys. I could write an entire post on this but will leave it here. Anyway, it helps make travel in Japan just all-round awesome.
For me India takes a well-earned second spot with surprisingly impressive quality of not only beers but whiskys, which I suspect is due to colonial influences of us British folk. This may be slight bias on my behalf as whisky is always my preferred taste but, even away from them, I found myself obsessing over other neat spirits. Anyway, it is hard to pick out the best in India, because it’s a huge country, and alcohols vary throughout, but I had some great times on two popular bottles; ‘Signature’ and ‘Blenders Pride’. Both rich and malty and good for the long run. Another surprise spirit would be Honey Bee a premium brandy from India, then there was everything else I tried as well. I got lost in high quality booze. But then again the beers are also high quality, and many are found globally such as Kingfisher and Cobra, although I definitely wouldn’t stop there. In fact I could spend weeks in each destination just to whittle through the shelves of the different off-licenses. I remember travelling to the Himalayan region of Sikkim, a tax free booze haven, with its own range of locally produced Sikkim liquors. It would be a hell of a quest to find everything the country has to offer (and, unfortunately, Fanfan wouldn’t be on board to take it on).
I know most people won’t agree with me here but, of the Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines would have the win for me. Easily when it comes to beer. This comes down mostly to the San Miguel beers, which kind of have a monopoly in the country, but it boasts at least nine top notch brews, all with gold quality awards from the Monde Selection (a bit like the Michelin Guide for Beer). The almost perfect Pale Pilsen is also one of few beers worldwide which has received the highest Grand Gold Quality Award. The Philippines just do really good beer, and this isn’t really known for Asia. These nine also vary with toasted stouts, ales, flavoured lagers and enough variety to excite a long stint of travel. Two of my personal favourites include San Miguel Pale Pilsen (the flagship beer) and Red Horse Extra Strong, because I like horses. Aside from beers however there is a whole range of regionally produced rums and liquors. These do tend to be found better out towards the islands where we also came across many moonshine-like ‘tuba’ palm wines, or the more potent lambanog rice whisky produced locally using the sap of coconut trees. These can be fun in cocktails.
I think China should really do better when it comes to alcohol, but this maybe more to do with my own tastes and their own obsession with baijiu. Baiju is more or less a distilled spirit from either sticky rice or wheat and barley if in the Northern parts. But the taste is very different to other rice whiskys in Asia, more aromatic, and the potency sits at around the 50% alcohol mark, which maybe too much for casual drinking. But a small bottle of Baijiu will normally cost similar to a beer locally, so it is cheap. At the same time the luxury brand bottles can go up to thousands of dollars. I’ve never tried the pricier bottle but I can guess that it’s a hierarchy that I will never understand. Otherwise the corner shop spirits in China are quite exciting. Mostly because I am completely clueless at what much of it is and it feels a bit like a lucky dip. Some will be vile, yet others will be not quite as vile. On the beer side of boozing, China does hold its own globally. Tsingtao would be the big beer brand, but there will also be regional and local brands to keep travels in China exciting, and much of it is high quality. I actually really like beering in China.
Taiwan cheats a bit. As it is known for both it’s Chinese and Japanese influences, this is also reflected in the availability of imported beers alcohol. As expected, the latter, the Japanese influences, are found more in the corner shops with Familymarts and 7/11s almost on every block. So the high rating of Taiwan comes more from the availability of Japanese beers and alcohols, as I find myself plumping almost every time for Kirin beers, Chu-Hi highballs and One Cup Sakes. I tend to buy all three at the same time. While these regional influences should really give Taiwan a heads-up above the rest, the range just doesn’t quite come close to those found in the respective countries. There’d be a handful to choose from each and I had honestly finished the fridges in a couple of days. Japan had me going happy for weeks. There’s also the issue where Chu-Hi’s don’t have the same alcohol content either. Otherwise, locally, “Taiwan Beer” is the big brand and it is a fairly standard beer. But they do bring something quite unique to Asia with Taiwanese fruit beers which aren’t really that strong (2%) and I couldn’t even fob them off on Fanfan who said they were horrible. Anyway, Taiwan has some great imported booze.
Considering I spent four of the past five years living in Bangkok, and the last year living in rural Thailand, I do have a fair grasp of local liquor. I’ve drank my fair share of everything and given its repetivity this is one reason why I travel a lot. So in Thailand there are three big beers; Leo which is the local favourite, Singha which is a premium beer popular with tourists, and then there is Chang which I normally go with because every first sip reminds me of summers in the French Vendee. But, despite its not-so-great variety, Thailand does have some great high quality spirits to keep me going. My personal favourite would be Blend 285, a rich blended malt whisky distilled as a Scotch, and aged in oak casks. It’s about $7 for a big bottle. Then there are the better known spirits like Sangsom a rum synonymous with beach parties and “buckets”. Buckets, as expected, are drank from a bucket of ice topped up with red bull, cola and whisky. My mum enjoyed hers so they must be okay. However the most common alcohol in Thailand is “Lao Khao” or “White spirit” a popular and potent rice whisky and moonshine which is often infused with supposedly health enhancing herbs and sold as Yaa Dong street liquor at stalls throughout Bangkok.
I’ve always had great drinking times in Myanmar from alcohol fueled Thingyan New Year festivals, to local toddy almost straight from earthen stills. I’ve even had a go at some ‘fancy’ locally produced wines (Mountain Estate beats Aythaya hands down). But, given so much of Myanmar is still unknown to tourism, I am sure there are some great opportunities for booze exploration as well. In general the quality of alcohol in Myanmar is really quite high, going by there spirits at least. Like India this may be from the British colonial influences in the region and, again, Myanmar has a fair grasp of Whisky’s. A personal favourite is Grand Royal Whisky which is good for the long run, and then some (on Thingyan). But their most famous spirits would be Mandalay Rum which miraculously won a global Monde selection award, yet it only costs a couple of dollars for a big 70cl bottle. Again the beers are decent but it can be hard to see past the big brand of Myanmar Beer which is plastered everywhere. Another bonus would be the small selection of imported beers from random breweries across Asia. I remember ABC added a welcome stout to the menu.
Vietnam is actually famous for the cheapest beer in Southeast Asia, possibly the world, with Bia Hoi which costs 5,000 Dong a glass ($0.24). While it maybe dirt cheap, it definitely isn’t good beer. It tastes a bit like watered down lager to be honest, but, for me at least, Bia Hoi is more for the unique cultural experience where backstreets fill with tiny plastic chairs and delinquent teens who throw back beers as if they are water (which is probably half what they are anywhere). While it is fun enough, I’d definitely prefer to upgrade to the $0.70 premium beers. Either way, beer is ridiculously cheap in Vietnam, and there’s a really quite a good selection to choose from, given you are moving around. Each region would have their own big brand e.g. Beer Hanoi in Hanoi, Beer Saigon in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) and so on. Another favourite would be 333 beer, or ba-ba-ba as it is known locally. But given the French influences of Vietnam I really expected to maybe do better. Anyway, aside from beers I didn’t get too involved in the local liquors. A common sight is the popular tourist trinkets of snakes and scorpions in rice wine which aren’t really my thing. The only enjoyable and unique alcohol I can remember would be Hanoi vodka. There’s really not enough vodkas in Asia.
Given that Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, there isn’t really an overwhelming demand for alcohol here. But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, although with many areas it will be restricted and highly taxed. Alcohol is therefore expectedly expensive where a big bottle of local beer Bintang costs around $3. This is the most expensive on the list so far, by almost double. So, for Indonesia, I will concentrate more on the tourist island of Bali which, not only is a predominantly Hindu island, but it’s the most likely destination for any of you folk to visit. Bali also finds itself exempt from many alcohol restrictions which are found on the mainland and, although the prices are still high, there will be wider ranges and varieties of alcohols found all over. Keeping the tourists happy. Anyway, I find that the quality of alcohol isn’t really great. I started at beers, and found myself as far as the locally produced wines, yet nothing really came close to any imports. Even the local arrack cocktails were disappointing, and I went in with the least possible expectations. Anyway, it was just all round a little bit disappointing.
I’ll probably not be liked for this, as I always hear great appreciation for booze in Cambodia, albeit from backpackers talking mostly about how cheap it is. While I agree it is cheap for beer and alcohol in Cambodia, I otherwise must be missing something. I didn’t enjoy any alcohols whatsoever during my times there but to be fair, I never really stay long enough to make the most of it. I’ve only been twice in my life and I’ve not seen much further than Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. When I do, I never really see past the local beers. On the other hand Cambodia is (apparently) great for drugs. Other than our sampling of happy pizzas however, we have no intention of exploring these routes any further. I’ll stick to the booze and sorry Cambodia if I got you wrong.
Beer Lao must be one of the most sought after beers in Southeast Asia, mostly by backpackers, and while it is a really good beer it is also hard to escape. Personally I am bored of Beer Lao after the first day or two and as it is said to hold 99% share of the Laos’ beer market there aren’t many more options to go for. It’s everywhere. But in global comparison it does only reach a Gold quality award with the Monde Selection, so the Philippines has around nine beers on par in quality, and some better. So when I am bored of regular Beer Lao, there is Beer Lao Black, brewed as a roasted malt. Then there is Beer Lao Gold which more expensive but not much more exciting. Big bottles cost around $1 so they are at least cheap. Otherwise there’s not much else going on. To make things more exciting I would always have a night or two on Lao-Lao, dubbed ‘the cheapest alcohol in the world’, which is another 40% proof rice whisky similar to Thai Lao Khao next door. I once found some in a local bar, infused with lizards. Yum. Otherwise I tend to stick with imported wines in Laos as it’s quite a bit cheaper than next door in Thailand.
Malaysia is similar to Indonesia with its Islamic laws, only it comes with higher ‘sin taxes’, and pricier booze. A big bottle of beer in Malaysia will normally set you back around $5 which is absurd I know. But, with such an ethnically diverse country (Malay, Indian and Chinese), prices and availability will vary considerably throughout. In the more colonial west side of the Malaysia, like in Penang or Kuala Lumpur, it is easy to find alcohol. It’s also found cheapest sold by Chinese stores, and not Muslims. On the east coasts, along the south China Sea, alcohol can be trickier to track down and I once had to scour an entire island in the Perentians to find an area where alcohol wasn’t actually banned. It was a great adventure. But high sin taxes in Malaysia have also had interesting influences on alcohol where the alcohol content of beers go up to ‘super Strong’ high percentages. Like 15% which is similar to a bottle of wine. But few breweries and brands exist locally, if at all (Jaz has gone). Otherwise Carslberg would be the big name although Carlsberg Special Brew here, at 8.8%, is like a kiddies drink. Even Guinness in Malaysia is 6.8%. But they admittedly all do taste horrible. But there is one bright part of Malaysia where Langkawi is a duty free booze heaven and beer comes cheap as water. It maybe good to start travels here, and stock up.
While Singapore is without-a-doubt one of my favourite countries for food, the beer and alcohol is a bit of a let down. I remember arriving on my last visit to Singapore (2015) and walking straight to the local corner shop. I bought two tins of beer, a 33cl bottle of cider and a packet of Doritos, and it all came to near $15. It’s more expensive than any country I’ve been to worldwide. So prices are notoriously high in Singapore, and the price of alcohol is just ridiculous. It is therefore one of very few countries where I’d visit without drinking much at all. This again is to do with the lack of variety and, while they do stock a handful of random beer tins, very few are of much excitement. The big brand obviously in Singapore is Tiger Beer, found all over Asia, and it is a decent beer but I can find it anywhere. I was then annoyed by their new Tiger Radler, a lemon flavoured beer, which I found to be only 2% alcohol after forking out similar money to a bottle of 70cl bottle of Mandalay rum in Myanmar. In comparison to Asia, Singapore is terrible. For something more manly I would probably go for an Anchor Strong which, at 8.8% alc, it offers quite a bit more value for $5 a can. Then there is the Singapore Sling which is famously sold at the Raffles Long Bar for $30 (120 Vietnamese Bia Hois). On top of that, Singapore Slings are horrible and Singaporeans would never drink them.
This is more to prove I am not an alcoholic as I once spent four full days in Brunei without any alcohol whatsoever. Not a drop. I didn’t have shakes or withdrawals or anything. But this scenario came about partly due to Brunei’s strict Muslim establishment. It is a dry state where the sale of alcohol is completely illegal inside the country. But there is always the option for foreigners to bring alcohol into the country from surrounding borders, and I was even offered some alcohol from a Filipino worker (non-Muslim), but I declined. Alcohol for me has always been to do with embracing local culture. I eat local food and drink local. But, given alcohol isn’t part of local culture, then I have no interest in it. However, there is a growing youth culture in Brunei where local delinquents jump borders on booze runs to Malaysian Borneo. They get smashed and party at weekends, before crossing back into Brunei again. So if I do ever return to Brunei, this is definitely on my to-do list. Embracing local culture and getting smashed as I do. How fun.