Liquor Around the World
A country's preferred liquor says a lot about its people, culture and history. In the Czech Republic, beer has been popular since it was brewed centuries ago by Benedectine monks. In Mexico, a tipple still beloved today was once deemed "the nectar of the gods" by the Aztecs. And in the Arctic Circle, where resources are limited, locals love imbibing a drink made from the remains of dead bird.
This guide to liquors around the world is filled with colorful histories and surprising facts that will leave you drunk with knowledge. With any luck, you'll someday be enjoying these drinks yourself.
Baijiu - China
Baijiu, hailed as the most consumed hard liquor in the world, is particularly popular in China, where it’s the national drink.
Present at a multitude of celebratory events, including weddings, the Lunar New Year and business functions, baijiu is served in small, sippable amounts, which means multiple rounds are necessary. Each round is preceded by a toast, which in China is a non-negotiable part of the drinking experience.
Drinkers describe the liquor as having a funky and fiery taste, so be prepared for a kick.
Okolehao - Hawaii
Created in the late 18th century, okolehao, Hawaii's sweet moonshine, has a long and wild history.
According to legend, the original version of okolehao (sometimes called oke) was created by British sea captain Nathaniel Portlock, who cooked up the root of the Ti plant, turning it into a crude version of beer meant to prevent scurvy.
Ten years later, an escaped convict from Australia fled to the island and, with two iron pots, distilled the beer into an insanely strong liquor. Although it was enjoyed islandwide, the drink was banned in 1818 by King Kamehameha, at the urging of Protestant missionaries. (Also banned? The Hula dance.)
Although the oke ban was lifted in 1833, it was reinstated in the 1920s when prohibition spread across the United States. This event led to the bootlegging era of okelehao, turning it into the official moonshine of Hawaii.
Today, while the original recipe is up for debate, oke is sold legally on the island. The folks at Island Distilleries believe their 100 proof version is the most authentic.
Seagull Wine - Arctic Circle
If you live outside of the Arctic Circle, the thought of seagull wine may be more than your stomach can handle: To make the wine, a dead seagull or parts of one are stuffed in a bottle of water and left to ferment in the sun. According to some brave travelers who've dared to sample the brew, it packs quite a memorable punch.
For the Inuit people, seagull wine is a specialty — and when you consider the harsh living conditions they endure, the drink makes complete sense. The Inuits are hunting people who, with limited access to the contemporary world, rely on the natural resources and wildlife present in the Arctic Circle to satisfy their basic needs. And who doesn't need a tipple from time to time?
Toddy - Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, parts of the coconut palm can be used to make ropes, spoons, brooms and even roofing. And if the sap from the coconut palm flower is fermented, it becomes a popular alcoholic drink called toddy.
To kick off the drink-making process, brave men called “toddy tappers” crawl barefoot to the top of the tree, where the coconut flower stalks live. For several days, the stalks are beaten to break up the sap. When ready, they're sliced open to allow the sap to pour into a bucket that's left overnight and collected by the tapper the next morning.
Once the sap is harvested, and the fermentation process is complete, toddy is served and sold in local toddy shacks. One note of caution though: Many travelers report that the white beverage is an acquired taste.
Tank Beer - Czech Republic
According to a recent study, for the last 24 years, the Czech Republic has consumed more beer than any other country in the world. As of a couple years ago, each person consumed an average of 38 gallons per year.
Beer has been an integral part of Czech culture since 993 AD, when beer was brewed in monasteries by Benedictine monks. But since the mid-1990s, the country has become synonymous with tank beer, or pivo z tanku. Unlike beer stored in bottles or kegs, tank beer is entirely unpasteurized and free from preservatives, which means it's the freshest beer you can drink.
While the concept has slowly spread throughout Europe, many beer aficionados prefer to experience tank beer in Prague, the Czech Republic's capital city.
Ginjinha - Portugal
A simple combination of ginja (a cherry-like berry), aguardiente (a fruit brandy) and sugar yields ginjinha, the traditional liquor of Lisbon.
Believed to have been created by Galician monks in the 19th century, ginjinha is served in a shot glass, with or without the addition of a booze-soaked cherry. The best ginjinha in Lisbon comes from Ginja Sem Rival, a family-owned business since 1890, where the owner has earned the nickname “the ginjinha whisperer.”
If you want to visit the oldest ginjinha bar in Lisbon, then you must go to Ginjinha do Rossio. The bar is only big enough to fit three people at a time, not including the bartender.
But that's okay, given that most people enjoy sipping their ginjinha outside.
Pulque - Mexico
In Aztec times, pulque was considered the nectar of the Gods and was consumed exclusively by priests and members of the nobility. Exceptions were made only for pregnant, lactating women and men slated for execution.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, pulque soared in popularity, becoming the preferred drink of the masses. But in the 1900s, beer pushed the fermented sap aside, and it became negatively associated with the poor, rural and working-class.
Today, the liquor is trendy once again, thanks to its popularity among students, hipsters and citizens embracing their Mexican heritage. Served across Mexico City in packed, music-filled pulquerias or pulkatas, pulque is served up in its traditional form, as well as in modern and unexpected flavors such as peanut, oatmeal, celery and beet.
Black Balsam - Latvia
Latvians credit 18th-century pharmacist Abraham Kunze with the creation of black balsam, a distinctive herbal liquor. According to legend, Kunze used balsams to cure Catherine the Great of a deadly stomach illness, earning the tipple its centuries-old medicinal reputation.
While much of the traditional recipe remains a guarded secret, balsam is known to be made with 24 ingredients, including linden flower, wormwood, black pepper and ginger. The drink's signature espresso-black color comes from it being left to marinate in oak barrels for a month or longer.
Today in Riga, Latvia's capital city, black balsam appears in a variety of cocktails and comes in an assortment of contemporary flavors, such as cherry, black currant and Caribbean rum. But before reaching for one of these modern iterations, be sure to try the traditional version on its own — especially if you have a cold.
Raki - Turkey
Always paired with good food and great conversation, Turkey's national spirit is deeply rooted in the country's culture. Unlike whiskey, wine or beer, this anise-flavored liquor is traditionally served in Turkish-style meyhanes: restaurants where family and friends gather around a locksmith's table to commune.
The liquor is served in a unique way: It’s poured into a tall shot glass over ice, then topped off with water, transforming the clear liquid into a shade of milky white. As a result, it’s earned the nickname “lion’s milk.”
Though served in a shot glass, raki is meant to be sipped slowly, while also enjoying hot and cold appetizers (known as mezes) and fish.
Tuica - Romania
Made from plums, Romania's version of home-brewed moonshine packs a punch: It is anywhere between 30 and 60 percent alcohol.
Given its high alcohol content, tuica is served in small shot glasses and meant to be sipped slowly. In Romania, the drink is part of many milestone celebrations, such as weddings, births, holidays and funerals.
Additionally, tuica can be served as an aperitif, even with breakfast, and it's customary for Romanians to use it as a welcoming gesture when guests visit their homes.
Chicha - Bolivia
Chicha has a history that stretches all the way back to the time of the Incas, when this corn-based drink was consumed to communicate with the Gods during religious ceremonies and rituals. Today in Bolivia and throughout South America, chicha is served up in chicherías, beer-like taverns where people go to socialize and work up a good buzz.
Traditionally, chicha was made by chewing on and spitting out handfuls of corn. The enzymes present in saliva, called amylase, kicked off the fermentation process by converting the corns' carbohydrates into sugars. The chewed corn was then stored in clay jars to ferment. The longer the mash was left in the pots to ferment, the higher the alcohol percentage would be.
Thankfully, today the fermentation process for the majority of chicha produced in Bolivia is spit free. But it's always okay to ask if you're not sure.
Mead - Poland
In addition to vodka, Poland is home to mead, or miód pitny, an ancient alcohol that some recognize as the mother of all alcoholic beverages. In Poland, traditional mead is made by boiling honey with water and adding in local herbs or spices. Once the mixture has fermented, it's aged anywhere from a few months to a decade, depending on the craftsman.
While most of today's mead in Poland is massed produced with artificial colors and flavors, Maciej Jaros, owner of Pasieka Jaros, brews mead using traditional Polish methods.
From sweet to dry variations, mead is commonly enjoyed at room temperature. But it can also be served chilled or warmed as an aperitif or a dessert.
Kumis - Kazakhstan
The Central Asian country of Kazakhstan is known for its winding turquoise lakes, dusty red canyons, snow-capped mountains...and kumis, or milk beer.
During the spring and summer months, mare's milk is collected in wooden buckets called cheleks and churned with a plunger-esque tool called a bishkek. After fermenting for three days, the milk is transformed into a mildly alcoholic, fizzy and potently sour beverage.
The people of Kazakhstan believe that kumis, high in B12, calcium and magnesium, can cure anything from tuberculosis to the common cold. However, the drink does have one unfortunate downside: Given its high sugar content, when consumed in large amounts, it has a lingering laxative effect.
Cachaça - Brazil
The caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil, wouldn't be possible without the country’s national liquor, cachaça.
When Portuguese settlers arrived in Brazil in the sixteenth century with sugar cane in tow, Brazilians quickly learned how to ferment sugar cane juice. The result? The creation of this liquor, which boasts a grassy, floral flavor.
The caipirinha isn't the only way to enjoy cachaça. Older generations of Brazilians often prefer to enjoy it neat at a pé-sujo, a popular type of Brazilian bar.
Ruou - Vietnam
Vietnam is home to three ancient varieties of homebrewed ruou, or rice wine.
Ruou gao is a distilled version made from cooked rice mixed with yeast that's left to ferment for several days or weeks.
Ruou can, known as “party wine” to the Vietnamese, is made in ceramic jugs and sipped through long bamboo straws at weddings, birthdays and other community celebrations.
Ruou thuoc is believed to cure an array of ailments, including back problems, poor circulation and issues involving sexual potency, especially among men. A version of ruou thouc called ruou ran, popular with tourists, is infused with snake and revered as a cure-all elixir.
Given the abundance of rice in Vietnam, ruou can be made at home by anyone and everyone, which makes it nearly impossible for health agencies to monitor quality and alcohol percentage. If you plan to give any version of ruou a try while exploring the villages of Vietnam, be sure to drink responsibly.