Thai moonshine reaches for the stars, by Tristan Rutherford

Tonic Magazine, October 2020

Yadong is the toxic firewater flogged from pushcarts in Bangkok streets. To reduce the retail price it’s sold from buckets, which offers a clue to its palatability. 

Most puchcarts contain a car battery. This isn’t to pour acid into the hooch, although it occasionally tastes like it. No, the battery powers garlands of fairy lights. And sometimes disco music too. It’s like Christmas Day - or rather a Boxing Day morning - all the time. 

Yadong is one of the world's most curious moonshines. Unlike Tunisia's boukha (made from figs) or Uganda's waragi (from bananas), it has a solid whisky base distilled from Thai sticky rice. This produces lao khao, literally “white liquor”.

Only a stuntman or death row case would sip lao khao neat. Classy imbibers wait until ‘medicinal’ herbs such as tamarind, pink guava or dead cobras are infused, whence it becomes yadong, literally “fermented herb”. 

Being medicinal, yadong is touted as a cure-all in a nation hooked on massages and sex. The 40% spirit is recommended both as a cure for rheumatoid joints as well as a virility booster, which is surely an non-sequitur. The many types of Yadong offer further clues. One is called kamlung seua khrong, literally “strength of a tiger”. Yeah, we’ll see about that tomorrow morning. 

Curiously, the backstreet spirit has gone upmarket in the manner of liebfraumilch or fruit cordial. Talk about ao maprao hao bpai kai suan, literally “taking coconuts to sell in the orchard”. 

 

It’s all because of hipsters. Bangkok loves a craze. The current fad is for knock-a-door hidey-holes where hard liquor is served by ace bar staff. Most of these faux-aged boozers reside in a rapidly gentrifying Chinatown, where discount laundries rumble cheek-by-jowl with food tour groups and pricey antiques. 

Tep Bar is a yadong go-to. The bar’s Shanghai twenties interiors are the venue for intelligentsia, tattoos, zany music and shots featuring wild cherries and butterfly pea. The drink costs ten times its streetside cousin, but then it is ten times safer. 

Local drinks stores stock an increasingly ritzy - and pictorially brilliant - range of bottled yadong. Motifs include musclemen, wild animals and fierce gods with spears. All indicative, surely, of an ungodly morning’s hangover.  

Tristan Rutherford is an award-winning food and drink writer.