The first time I tasted lao khao was after I decided to write this article. Inspired by a CNN photo essay featuring chefs Antony Bourdain and Andy Ricker sipping on the infamous liquor in a Mae Rim distillery, I wanted to learn more and try it for myself. I’ll admit that growing up in middle-class suburbia left me oblivious to the lao khao culture of the rest of the country. I was really surprised to learn that over 60% of Thais choose lao khao as their libation of choice, according to Thailand’s Department of Mental Health. Outside of my gated community bubble, I discovered, lao khao is ubiquitous: mum and pop shops, road-side pop-up bamboo shacks, even behind the cashiers in most 7-elevens. To my surprise most Thais and even many tourists have tried lao khao and the more I learnt, the more fascinating it became to me.
From Field to Bottle
Lao khao simply translates to ‘white spirit’, which can be somewhat misleading as the drink is clear and colourless. The only thing watery about the taste and the smell though, is what it does to your eyes after the first swallow. The initial taste is sharp and sweet though soon the punch of alcohol with a hint of diesel kicks in, burning the throat and filling the nostrils. Being a typical student with a penchant for vodkas, whiskeys and rum, I was expecting it all to go down quite easily, after all it was only supposed to be 30% alcohol. I was wrong. The burn lasted far longer than should be acceptable and I must admit that I didn’t love the bitter aftertaste. So, what’s all the fuss about?
Lao khao has had a significant influence on the ‘gub gaem’ culture of snacking at the booze table.
If you are still at a loss as to what lao khao even is, let me explain. Lao khao is a type of spirit made from distilled fermented rice. It is not to be confused with similar rice based liquors such as Japanese sake or Korean soju, both of which are considerably more sophisticated — sake ages in oak casks for three to ten years whereas our humble lao khao is bottled in just as many days. Ageing spirits helps remove the rough flavours released by freshly distilled alcohol, which means that lao khao’s harsh taste remains and has become it’s unique feature. The best we Thais can do when it comes to flavouring our rice whiskey is steeping herbs such as garlic and chillis into the yeast balls, and that’s not even mentioning what you can do with a few dead scorpions and tree barks when the lao khao is transformed into lao tong — but that’s a whole other story.
The exact origins of lao khao is unknown due to lack of documentation, but considering rice has been farmed here for millennia, it is not a stretch to imagine its distillation going back nearly as far. According to Andy Ricker, who I was lucky enough to interview given his expertise on all things food and drinks in Thailand, lao khao has had a significant influence on the ‘gub gaem’ culture of snacking at the booze table. “Snacking while drinking lao khao was really useful in cutting away the bitter alcoholic flavour, something that evolved into the habit of serving side dishes to partner all types of drinks. Traditionally it would be a pickled fruit or some sour or spicy flavoured dip.”
I wanted to gain a deeper insight into the world of lao khao so I asked my fellow interns to help me get hold of a manufacturer. This was no easy process because a lot of manufacturers are quite secretive about their businesses — either aggressively rejecting us when we called (accusing us of being the police) or simply denying any knowledge (despite their number being listed in the business directory). Eventually, we were lucky enough to get permission from one manufacturer to visit her home.
Upon arrival in a rural neighbourhood of Mae Rim, an elderly lady by the name of Duangpon came out to greet us. Duangpon singlehandedly runs her humble distillery, and invited us into a room crammed with Heisenberg-esque equipment — curled tubes and pipes, giant woks, open flames, packed yeast balls laid out to dry, stacks of whiskey labels, piles of rice-powder mixture, and of course, sacks of uncooked rice.
The area was kept cool through natural ventilation so as to not ruin the fermentation process and cobwebs hung from the dark and dank ceiling, unseen in the low light but making their presence known by sticking to our hair. As we all crammed into the room, a pungent smell of fermentation enveloped us. Two large tanks were in the process of distillation and we looked outside to see a huge bucket filled with glass bottles soaked in warm water to remove labels, soon ready to be filled up again. The setup was basic.
Duangpon produces 128 bottles a day, which may sound like a lot, but says that her margins are tiny. Duangpon sells her 679ml bottles for 60 baht each which means that she pays 29.5 baht in taxes per bottle; take off overheads and cost of goods and she is left with very little.
“On top of that, we have to pay a 3,000 baht annual fee to stay open and the authorities like to come by unannounced and try to find something wrong so that they can solicit fines,” explained Duangpon who said that despite the challenges, she’d rather be legal than face the six months imprisonment and a fine.
Uncapping the Law
Given the amount of rice available in Thailand, it makes complete sense that this is the drink of choice for so many. Yet lao khao has long struggled for legitimacy.
Some distillers try to skirt the law but most don’t take the risk. If one is caught producing and selling lao khao without a license, the penalty according to the Alcohol Act of 1950, is imprisonment for no longer than six months and a fine of 5,000 baht, a number pretty debilitating to most small distillers such as Duangpon.
According to Ricker, it is this law, or more accurately the enforcement of it, that has caused an irreversible change to the lao khao scene. “I think after the police started cracking down, locally made lao khao was harder to sell. Everybody is scared of selling illegal booze, and that has really changed the culture quite a bit,” he said. “I used to visit a local lao khao shop, with old guys just sitting there — but now, just three years later it’s all gone.”
Before the Criminal Penalties Act that was passed in the1950s there were no laws surrounding lao khao production. Health and safety concerns emerged at that time after it was discovered that the lao khao distilled in aluminium or tin stills produced a by-product of methanol, from the liquid reacting with the metal; the government had to act. Methanol can cause blindness and even death if consumed in large amounts, and the government took charge. Not everyone who produced lao khao was aware of the dangers so the government took over all of the distilleries in Thailand between 1950-1960, switching to stainless steel stills in the process, which were completely safe.
“I think after the police started cracking down, locally made lao khao was harder to sell. Everybody is scared of selling illegal booze, and that has really changed the culture quite a bit.”
However, in just ten years the government realised that they were unable to operate all of the factories, partly because of a lack of resources and also due to the vast numbers of smaller independent businesses yet to be entered into the system. The task was just too much to handle so they decided to give back all their factories to civilian ownership.
Interestingly, that only lasted until 1984, by that time all but twelve of the lao khao factories were shut down. A year later, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, the founder of ThaiBev, signed a contract which saw his business take control of the twelve remaining factories. The competition was wiped out and ThaiBev held a complete monopoly on lao khao well into the late 1990s.
The monopoly grew but soon after the turn of the millennium, other investors began showing an interest in opening their own lao khao factories, giving birth to a new lao khao boom. Although there was resistance from both ThaiBev and the government, in 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra won the general election and became Prime Minister with a promise to let people produce their own lao khao. By 2003 that promise was fulfilled, and as long as they held a licence and paid their taxes, anyone could open up a distillery. Although a step in the right direction, these licences were hard to come by and many producers complain of long process times, overly zealous authorities and the odd pressure for money from corrupt officials.
Once Burnt, Twice Bitter
As we were leaving Duangpon’s factory, I asked her what she thought of the current situation. “People love lao khao because it’s cheap and found everywhere,” she said. “A lot of commercial alcoholic beverages are not delivered to smaller villages because it is too far away from the city, so lao khao has brought local villagers together — a kind of identity through a drink. Farmers who make their own share secrets and recipes passed down from their parents.”
There are a few trendy bars in Bangkok now which are rediscovering lao khao.
“Thailand is a much more wealthy society with a growing middle class and the bigger the middle class gets, the less popular lao khao is going to be,” explained Ricker as he poured us a shot of pungent lao khao at the same distillery in his village he had visited with Bourdain. “There is no great mystery here. When you can down a shot of lao khao for seven baht, it is a no brainer that this is the most popular alcohol in Thailand.”
He went on to tell us that there were a few trendy bars in Bangkok now which are rediscovering lao khao, offering up fascinating cocktails and samples from various distilleries and even infusing it with a range of curious flavours. “Trending up lao khao will never go mainstream, however,” added Ricker, “because it’s a poor man’s drink and anything you do to make it more expensive makes it less desirable.”
Right now the law makes it so that promoting the drinking of lao khao, indeed all alcohol, is illegal, so all I can say is that if you want to try some, it is out there. It would be nice, however, if the government recognises one day that the rights of 60% of Thailand’s alcohol consumers be protected as well as those owning large monopolies. If small distillers like Duangpon can operate without fear, and with larger margins, perhaps she can invest in bettering the quality of alcohol, turning our national drink into something we can be proud of.