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Bourdain & Zimmern local Asian Moonshine

This may belong on the Wine board or Not About Food, but I think posters here would be more familiar with the product I'm asking about.

For those of you who have partaken of such things............ I've wondered what some of the local Asian presumably rice-based hooch these guys wind up having to embibe might taste like. They all seem to be clear, distilled products, often shown in large jars often with various reptilian inhabitants visible.

My own experience with such things is limited to Maotai (which I've read is sorghum-based) that I've had in Taiwan many times. It's some of the strongest alocohol I've ever tried and it tastes more like what I'd imagine turpentine might taste like than any acoholic beverage I've experienced. When I see Bourdain and Zimmern doing shots of stuff that looks like that I just wonder what it's like.

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  1. My limited experience with shoju (Korean sweet potato liquor) is that turpentine is not a bad description.

    2 Replies
    1. re: gfr1111

      hahah my dad always described soju as tasting like "embalming fluid"

      despite the taste though it's not that high in alcohol

      1. re: gfr1111

        My Korean buddy use to mix his soju with tang. I kid you not. That's how I learned to drink it.

      2. We had Ruou - Vietnamese distilled spirits, several times in Vietnam.

        In Hanoi it is made from Rice, and many times it does taste pretty harsh. We had a group of flavored samplers from Highway 4 in Hanoi and found it to be pretty heinous stuff, the ginseng, gecko, and seahorse were the worst. The plain Ruou here was an amber color, and really tasted like bad scotch.


        The Ruou in Le Mat, the "Snake Village" was mixed. We got to sample the Snake Farm's managers private stock, which was smooth, and had a sweet finish. He even gave us a "bottle"(used Russian Vodka bottle) for later. This was of course, snake ruou.


        The Ruou served at the snake restaurant wasn't nearly as good, it was pretty harsh, though better than the stuff we had at Highway 4. The black bee flavored Ruou had an interesting "after taste" that wasn't unpleasant.


        The Ruou made by the Northern Hill tribes in Vietnam is made from corn. In villages like Bac Ha it is sold out of plastic Jerry Cans. We had a ton of it with the locals at Can Cau Market. It had a taste reminiscent of a mild gin. It wasn't unpleasant. It cost 8,000 VND, about 50 cents. You bring your used small plastic water bottle, and they'll fill it from a plastic jerry can.


        In the village of Bac Ha everybody drinks the stuff. Our guide set a small cup on fire just to show us it was flammable. We had several bottles with dinner.


        I've had Okinawan Shochu, it was the 190 proof stuff that my friend somehow managed to bring through customs. It was really strong....like a combination of acetone and turpentine. Egads.....

        1. I've had Mekong whiskey and various sugarcane liquors in Thailand and they were fine. Clean, smooth, tasty. I liked them, but I'm not some fancy-pants.

          I don't like Soju.

          The rice whiskey in Thailand was once served with a snake in it. I liked it. It didn't taste snakey.

          1 Reply
          1. re: hewn

            Mmmmm sugarcane liquors, I like these best judging by cachaca and rum so far. Not sure why. Maybe in phylum they mix with other tropical/sweet things well.

            I have a barley shochu (Japanese alternative to shoju, maybe the popular varieties are a bit more refined in taste although I've had great shoju cocktails).

            It reminds me of a clean-tasting unfiltered sake (although it is filtered). Sippable, not nearly as strong as vodkas etc. But I suspect the Eastern hooch Bourdain found was not the same thing at all.

          2. Maotai is actually a town in China. Taiwan has its own sourgum based liquor called gao lian which is essentially a variation on a theme because it is made from the same plant but grown in a tropical area versus a non tropical area in China.

            Americans know about Maotai because that is what Zhou En-Lai used to toast Richard Nixon during the historic visit in 1973.

            The stuff is wicked and will kick you rear if you are not careful.

            Maotai is considered a white liquor while the stuff they use to soak reptiles is low quality yellow liquor, mostly rice based liquor. In Fuzhou, where my parents came from, they make the hooch and then they take the left over grains and they use it to cook meats with. The stuff is out of the world. Hong tzou its called.

            1. The distilled rice "wines" in Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos are highly variable--in strength, harshness vs smoothness; but all have the distinctive flavor that rice provides. The palm sap and palm sugar wines, including coconut lambanoag in the Philippines range in flavor and strength--and in sweetness (not a good thing). The cane liquors are like canazos and "almost" rums in Latin America, range from rough to quite good, all with the distinctive taste of having come from cane. Commercial Korean shoju is smooth and tasty compared to many of the rustic rice, palm, and cane wines.

              Throughout many years I've had to consume local moonshines with local people--about half the commercially produced "Mekong" type and its equivalents around SE Asia and about half made in local stills. Same elsewhere.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                Agreed; the Laolao we had varied from almost water to turpentine in strength! It was almost always served in old water or Beerlao bottles though, which was equal parts awesome and gross.

              2. I am certain that you have never seen Zimmern taking shots of any of that stuff, he has been dry for years. That's how he ended up living in MN (Hazelden)

                2 Replies
                1. re: autmommy

                  I can't say that I ever HAVE seen Zimmern drink that stuff, come to think of it, but it is certainly shown on his show. I'll have to be more observant in the future.

                  1. re: Midlife

                    I've noticed that, when Zimmern's dining companions are having beer, wine, or some other alcohol, he always seems to be drinking water.

                2. In Okinawa, Japan, the local drink is called "awamori", which is a type of Japanese shochu. It's a distilled spirit made from rice imported from Thailand, but the basic process of how it is made, like all Japanese shochu, is quite similar to whiskey actually. It has a flavor that has been called "earthy". It's usually enjoyed on the rocks. Sometimes it is aged in earthen jars. The alcohol percentage ranges from 25-45% depending on how much water has been added by the distiller. It's really one of my favorite spirits and I always keep some on hand.

                  A Bourdain or Zimmern might encounter awamori with a curled up "habu" snake in it. Habu are venomous snakes found on Okinawa and, per the usual critter pickled in hooch phenomenon, is purported to increase male fertility. Anyway, to be perfectly clear, awamori is not a moonshine as it is a very seroius craft and actually, quite well regarded among Japanese shochu-aphiles. It has a distinct, unique, and very pleasant taste- I believe.

                  3 Replies
                    1. re: Silverjay

                      So does the snake add any notable flavor? I tend to stay away from mixed media like that, although snake bile is amazingly pleasant (adds sweetness) in a Traditional Chinese Medicine cough remedy called San Shedan Chuanbei Ye (which has other sweet things also).

                      1. re: Cinnamon

                        I've never tried habu-shu, but I don't think it does, because the snake is left intact. I have tried a similar Vietnamese snake liquor, and any extra "flavor" came from the addition of herbs.

                    2. Well, I've only had "home made hooch" in five or six countries, or to put it in a more refined way, "alcoholic beverages created without benefit of a formal distillery", and my experience is that they all taste raw, have an after taste of jet fuel, and none were something I'd want to serve with cafe filtre and Cuban cigars after dinner. But if they paid me to do a shot or two what they pay those guys, I'd probably do it. But unlike AB, I would NOT smoke!

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: Caroline1

                        Again, it varies. I've had aguardiente (without anise flavor) from northern Ecuador, rice wine in Oudoumxay, and some local "Mekong"' near Canh Tho that were smooth and good. But I've equally bad stuff on the Plain of Jars, in the Philippines and Cambodia (coconut and sugar palm), and in Peru. The best of all is locally distilled singani in southern Bolivia--made from grapes.

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          I suspect proof plays a role too. Somehow all of the good folks who insisted I hoist one were bragging about how strong the stuff was. If frazzling your dendrites is the goal, grain alcohol will do the job nicely. Mix it with OJ and you'll go out with little aftertaste.

                          1. re: Caroline1

                            Part of drinking straight hootch back in the US was eventually saying, "Don't nobody light no match".

                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                              Part of the problem is that everyone is so hopped up on drinking it that no one actually let the stuff age and mellow. If you were to drink bourbon or scotch straight out of the distillery, the liquor is clear as water and chances are it will range between a little rough to really rough. The aging in fired oak barrels makes a huge difference. Another example is the difference between regular 100% blue agave tequila, reposado tequila, and a~nejo tequila, the non 100% blue agave stuff are fine for margaritas but nasty for sipping.

                              1. re: Phaedrus

                                You're completely correct (although some of the home distilled rice or grape wines can be quite good). But let me ask, I don't like the really aged rums. To me, four or five years is good. Any more time costs more but tastes insipid. Just me?

                                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                  To me whiskys are different, I like the 10-12 year old scotch. The older stuff I have had, even though they cost a ton more, seem musty to me, so you're not alone. Not a huge bourbon drinker, although I have liked the Maker's Mark that I have had.

                                  Clear tequila is aged at most one year. Reposado is aged anywhere between 1-3 years and a~nejo is aged 3 or more years. Depending on the bottler, I tend to like the reposado a little more than a~nejo. Its just a little brighter but the edges have been smoothed over. I don't have much experience with rum, I like the Colombian rums I have had but most of the Caribbean rums I have had have been the mass produced, quickly bottled type whose taste you usually overwhelm with a mixer.

                                  1. re: Phaedrus

                                    The gold standard for rums are the Nicaraguan Flor de Canas of different ages.

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      These are beautiful. (The Flor de Cana line.)

                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        That's a pretty bold statement considering how many rums there are in the world. I have a bottle of basic Flor de Cana at home and I don't consider it anything out of the ordinary. I can name a dozen other rums I prefer.

                                        One of my favorite reasonably priced sipping rums is Brugal Anejo from the D.R. But there are many that I like. Much less subtle, but also very noteworthy is Ron del Barrilito from P.R. particularly the 3 star.

                                        That said I have had superb rums from all over the Caribbean, Central, and South America.

                        2. Have not tried the Asian ones though I have had Maotai and Shochu. But pretty much everywhere in the developing world they have locally distilled spirits.

                          Reason they often taste of turpentine or jet fuel is they are not very selective in tossing out the heads (other volatiles other than ethanol) that evaporate off at the beginning of the distilling process.

                          In West Africa I tried numerous types of "Local Gin" which is really just a euphemism for hooch. It was distilled from just about anything including palm wine, sugar cane, and who knows what else.

                          Crudely fermented booze all has some of that bite and aforementioned turpentine taste.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: StriperGuy

                            Interestingly, there is a corn liquor sold in liquor stores in the United States that comes in a mason jar-shaped bottle and proudly boasts that it has been aged "3 days". I bought some and it's still mellower and less "kerosene-y" tasting than the raw stuff I have had in Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan. So maybe the professional distiller in the United States for the raw corn liquor was still "tossing out the heads," as you wrote, StriperGuy, thereby resulting in a mellower product.