The 3 Strangest Drinks I’ve Encountered On The Road

In keeping with yesterday’s entry on the Anthropology of Drink, I’d like to share with you the Top 3 strangest “local” drinks I’ve consumed on my travels. It’s a rogue list of tipples sure to turn even the most determined of stomachs — although I remain convinced that a few of them truly are an acquired taste…

 


drinks1.jpg1) Airag (Mongolia)
– At the top of my list is that old Mongolian staple, fermented mare’s milk. Yes, that’s right, milk from a horse. I first encountered this one back in 2002 while pounding across the steppes in a Russian jeep with two Swedish girls and a driver called Degii. We were camped in a quiet valley scattered with white puffs of sheep. I was scribbling my notes as the sun slanted low in the sky, when it occurred to me to toast the waning of the day. I pulled a half bottle of Ghengis Khan vodka from my pack, and we offered Degii a drink. In accordance with custom, he offered us a swig from his flask in return. It was the first time we’d really broken the ice on that trip, and the floodgates opened–in more ways than one.

We ended up around a roaring campfire trading stories in the cryptic language of gestures we’d devised. When the two flasks had been drained, Degii stumbled off into the forest. We’d nearly given him up for lost when, half an hour later, we heard crashing and muttered swearing from the bushes. He stumbled back into the light of our fire covered in tangled branches, with another fresh vodka bottle clutched in his fist. To this day I still don’t know where he got it, or whether he had a strategic cache out there.

When I crawled out of my tent the next morning, my eyes bunched tight against the merciless sun, Degii was sitting on a tree stump staring at the ground. He looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes and slowly shook his head.

We piled into the jeep and Degii made straight for the first ger (nomad’s tent) on the horizon. Arkhangai province is known for the quality of its airag, and according to him it was just the thing to fix us up.

“Mongolian man drink too much….. goooood!” he said, meaning mare’s milk was the cure for all that ailed us.

We stepped inside the ger and shuffled to the left, taking a seat on the guest side. These nomads were an unfriendly-looking bunch. Three rough looking men in filthy robes sat staring at us and picking their teeth. Degii asked for airag, which they poured from a goatskin hanging on the wall. He passed the cup to me.

It tasted like fizzy, watery yogurt–with floating globules of fat and a few hairs thrown in. I choked down a big gulp and made to pass the bowl on to the Swedes, but Degii insisted I finish it all. This I did, but not without some trembling and a light sheen of clammy sweat across my brow. Thanks to fermentation and a mild alcoholic effect, it did prove to be an effective hair of the dog, despite the unpleasant aftertaste.

It was at that moment, as I was passing the cup, that I looked up and noticed one of the herdsmen was wearing a cheap baseball cap with English lettering. Across the front was written “Do I make you horny?”

No. No sir, you do not.

 


drinks4.jpg2) Rakija (Serbia)
– Next up is homemade apricot moonshine from Serbia. This was actually pretty nice stuff. I place it on my list not for the taste (which was quite pleasant), but for the effect. This will make you bring back things you never knew you stole.

My good friends from Slovenia were kind enough to take me along one weekend on a visit to family friends in the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia. I found myself seated around a table in the backyard, toasting each new arrival from a clear unlabeled bottle of very pleasant homemade brandy distilled from the fruit of the tree we were gathered beneath.

As the night wore on, my new friend Vladimir and I polished off one liter of this fragrant nectar. And then it was time to go out. He was unable to get up from the table without assistance. Someone offered me a helping hand, but I replied that I was fine. I met their obvious skepticism by walking carefully in a straight line, one foot in front of the other. From then on they referred to me as “The Irish” for my apparent drinking ability (I didn’t tell them I’d just spent a week in Croatia and had already built some tolerance for this particular spirit.)

Later that weekend we went to a local farmyard to see how rakija was made. At the previous year’s outing, Vladimir told me, “We drank so much we couldn’t remember who had a moustache and who didn’t.” It was that sort of night. But that’s another story…

That’s the bottle they sent home with me in the photo, complete with a handwritten label bearing their name and country of origin, to speed my transit through Canadian Customs.

 


drinks2.jpg
3)
Red Wine (China)
– Finally, we come to the absolute worst wine I’ve ever had the misfortune of pouring down my gullet. I was staying in a run down rooming house in Lhasa, Tibet when I encountered this one. In keeping with our goal of trying every suspicious-looking local drink that crossed our path, the Swedes had picked up a bottle of Great Wall brand red wine. Imagine the sickly sweet slither of red cough syrup with an edge. It tasted like medicine, but you know it isn’t good for you.

Once opened we were honour-bound to finish it. And it wasn’t easy. I sincerely wouldn’t wish that swill on anyone.

 

 

 


drinks3.jpg4) Snake Wine (North Korea)
– Honorable mention goes to this unique and rather intimidating local delicacy. Forget the puny tequila worm. This bottle has an inch-thick snake coiled up inside. It’s the drink that bites back.

 

 

 

 

 

Those are a few of my more interesting run-ins with odd local specialties. What are the strangest, worst or most potent drinks you’ve encountered in your travels? Please share them with us below.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. 1990…
    So? There I was. Hawaii. Paradise. 10 drinks in. Who knew that girly drink Kahlua could kick your tush like that and then there she was…was she kidding me? Was she pulling my leg? I mean a chest out to HERE, some 20 years old.
    So she walks over to the bartender and wants to buy a pack of Capris. She gets the death sticks and says she forgot her money up in her room.
    You think she hadn’t gone the route? Are you kidding? She wrote the route. Even through that coffee flavored liqueur haze I knew something was up.
    So we sit down and get another coffee flavored mess and she says, “Come up to my suite and I’ll pay you back for the lights.” So up we go.
    When we get there she says, “sit down, you want a drink?” I say, “what have you got?”
    “Scotch.”
    “Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine!”
    Then what does she pull?
    A) she says: “I think I’ll take a shower”. And B) she says: “Then let’s get naked.” So I say: “I’ll prepare the room if you have no objections”.
    So after 10 minutes, lighting candles, opening the lanai, I lay down in my drunken stupor imagining her in her full glory.
    The next thing you know? I wake up on the beach. My $35 cash gone (wallet up in the room thank goodness!) and a taste in my mouth like I licked a dog all night.
    Lesson learned? Yes! Never drink girly drinks recklessly, because even at 20% alcohol by volume, it will stick kick your butt!

  2. brilliant study, ryan!
    i will add some remarks about central europe. czechia. home of unique beers. beer as in “beer”. i have no idea what the americans are actually drinking when they’re in america, but that horse piss called millers and all is a sheer travesty of what is produced between Labe, Sázava and Dunaj… however, as I was asked to share my worst drinking experience, apart from mass market american beer pastiches, we’ll have a brief look at Slovakia. SLovakia’s rich in orchards and windfalls, therefore we can conclude a bell of fruity distillates soaks the air. Slivovice, Merunkovice, Tresnovice – everything fermentable is collected, fermented and distilled. Those spirits don`t show the crispy clarity of scandinavian and russian I’m very sure someone could actually try to ferment and distill guinea pigs… however, we got those 3 two-litre PET bottles with something nasty made from plums…together with a few pairs of proud-of-their-product eyes. it had sweet tinges of creosote, a slightly solvent bouquet, it hit you like hieronymus bosch’s dream of a plum jam and had a short surprising fade-out like Day5 while your synapses staged an endocrinological slasher movie. not bad, actually. we had what they eat with that – fire-toasted bread with garlic and freshly made lard. the snack whispers, “have another drink”, the drink roars “you can kill that fire with another piece of bread”. ad infinitum. i was not drunk, though i had replaced much of my blood with the burning brew, as the lard and the alc formed an otherworldy hybrid in my stomach. i fell asleep. in the night, i had digested most of the bread, and 10 or 12 shots of slivovice suddenly crashed into my blood circulation. i was drunk in a split second. yum yum.

  3. LOL – great stories! I can relate to the eastern european slivovitz – experienced a variation on that in Serbia. Beautiful stuff, but it does take you unawares. And I agree about the distillation of guniea pigs. They’ll try anything from the backyard that’ll go into a still.
    Steve – I still haven’t cottoned on to tequila. I have yet to sample really fine local varietals. Saving that for a long trip to Mexico. It’s only proper to get to know it in it’s natural habitat.

  4. john ferguson says

    Great stories Ryan, I have also had a few interesting beverages in far away places. I also notices a great one liner from your dear friend Lee Gilson!!!

  5. Wow, the snake wine looked brutal. I remember mixing tequila with Tabasco sauce for a drink called “snake bite” but that pic you posted will keep me from ever drinking anything with the name “snake” in it again;)

  6. glad to see you quoted Dad again “bring back something you didn’t even steal…” Classic!

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Indeed a classic line, uttered on more than one occasion by both Bruce and Lee (but not Bruce Lee). I heard them so many times at the fishing camp, I swear I experienced some of those stories myself.

  7. Dave in Japan says

    I’ve had variants of the snake liquor in both China and Okinawa (where it’s made with the local awamori and called “habu-shu”). It’s usually got a whole bunch of herbs — in China mainly ginseng — and other stuff, and tastes quite literally “powerful strange”.

    Probably the oddest thing I’ve had was a concoction of shochu and snapping-turtle blood, drunk as a shot. As you may remember, “suppon” is reputed in Japan to have virility-enhancing effects, and this I was also promised of drinking its blood. No noticeable such effects, and drinking the stuff made me a little nauseous — not the liquor, but the slightly thick and coagulating consistency of the blood. No inclination to drink that again.

    Ever had poitín?

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Yep, that sounds suitably horrible. No, I haven’t yet had poitin. You mean the Irish moonshine, right?

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