Each country has its own national drink. Try them all, but never attempt to compete in their drinking habits with local citizens—you may not get very far.
by Harold Stephens
Ever had a glass of good Italian red wine at the GranMonte Vineyard in Thailand? Or a half-pint bottle of warm sake at a sushi bar in Singapore? A bottle of Tanduay rum with Coke chasers in a dingy bar in Zamboanga, Philippines, a margarita at a Mexican restaurant in Bangkok? A cold Beerlao at a street café in Vientiane? A “tuak” in a dirty glass in a longhouse up the Rejang in Sarawak? These are times worth remembering!
Unless one is a confirmed teetotaler, or abstains from alcoholic beverages for health or religious reasons, one of the pleasures of travelling around ASEAN countries these days is sampling the refreshments of each place visited.
Granted, as Indonesia and Malaysia, including Borneo, are Islamic nations, they may not have their own vineyards for wine producing and their own brews, but instead rely on European, Southeast Asian, and other international brews to dominate the wine and beer scenes. Local brands like Tiger, Chang, Singha, and Anchor and foreign brands that have established local breweries, such as Guinness, Carlsberg, and Heineken, are extremely popular among the locals, and they are easily found in most supermarkets, pubs, bars, or clubs.
For beer lovers, Southeast Asia is a holiday, and topping the list of countries producing beer is Vietnam, with 46 known microbreweries. Several local breweries have been set up by foreign governments but are run by Vietnamese. There is an excellent Czech brewery very near the U.S. and French embassies. Of the Vietnamese brews, I prefer LaRue, and it is very cheap as well.
When I was a young Marine in Old China, we drank Huba Huba vodka, but those days are gone. When it comes to distilled spirits, several ASEAN counties produce a drinkable rum or whiskey, but no country can compare with the Philippines. In a country with an overabundance of sugar cane, just name the sprit and you have it—rum, gin, Scotch, brandy, and all sorts of liquors.
Yes, just name it! Say “Mexico” and I can taste Sauza tequila, and when I hear Japanese spoken I can feel the smoothness of Sakura sake, when it’s warm sake. With the Philippines it’s rum, and in Singapore, Hennessy VO at Chinese weddings. And so it goes.
When one travels to new and different places, I don’t mean he or she should attempt to imitate the drinking habits of the local citizens of each country visited. One may not get very far. Unless one has had training, one could never compete with the Aussies when it comes to drinking beer.
If you are a beer drinker, you really can’t go wrong when you travel. They make some pretty good brew around ASEAN. And after all, the world has had a long experience brewing beer. Drawings on temple walls show the early Sumerians entertaining themselves with beer at public functions. The Germans perfected the technique and passed it on to the rest of the world, including the Far East.
Before the First World War, Germany occupied Tsingtao on the Shantung Peninsula in China. Today, Tsingtao beer is the best in China. The brewers learned the trade from the Germans.
And, for certain, each country around the world seems to boast about its own product. Some countries, like Mexico, a nation of 55 million, produce more than 25 brands of beer. Which is the best? Ask four people and you get four different answers.
Singapore and Malaysia have Tiger and Anchor, and Indonesia it’s Bintang.
Many countries in Southeast Asia produce an illegal “poor man’s” beer called toddy, extracted from the central part of the young stem of a coconut palm. The village of Tenganan on Bali is famous for its “tuk bayu,” or palm beer. In a longhouse on Borneo it’s “tuak.”
Most countries in the world have their own national drink. In Thailand, of course, it’s Mekong. While in Pattaya and the Russian community there it’s Stolichnaya vodka, France has her cognac and Germany, schnapps.
The Chinese of Singapore are the world’s largest consumers per capita of Hennessy cognac. If you go there and are invited to a Chinese wedding, you’ll know what I mean. The Chinese drink not for taste, but to get others drunk. The Japanese are great drinkers, but if you are a tourist without a company credit card, forget it. It could cost you USD 200 for a bottle of Chivas Regal Scotch.
In Hong Kong I was invited to a party at a posh apartment owned by a man who was a world traveler. He had a collection of spirits from nearly every country in the world. I envied his collection.
Then one day I read about a wine dealer who paid something like USD 2,000 for a bottle of rare French wine. How would the wine taste after years in a bottle? To find out was to drink the wine. That got me thinking: a collection of wine is good only if you drink it.
It’s true. What good is it to put bottles on a shelf and never sample the contents? It’s not like collecting paintings or sculptures that you can look at and admire. Nor is it like collecting recordings that you can listen to, and still keep. No, with wine or liquor, that’s something else. To enjoy it, you have to drink it. And there goes your collection.
And there’s a lot out there to sample. Happy traveling!