Drinking in Thailand can be quite expensive in relation to the cost of other consumer activities in the country. The Thai government has placed increasingly heavy taxes on liquor and beer, so that now about half the price you pay for a large beer is tax. Whether this is an effort to raise more tax revenue (the result has been a sharp decrease in the consumption of alcoholic beverages and corresponding decrease in revenue) or to discourage consumption, drinking can wreak havoc with your budget. One large bottle (630 millilitres) of Singha (pronounced 'Sing', forget the 'ha') beer costs more than half the minimum daily wage of a Bangkok worker.
According to the UN's Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), Thailand ranks fifth worldwide in consumption of alcohol, behind South Korea, the Bahamas, Taiwan and Bermuda, and well ahead of Portugal, Ireland and France.
Only a few brands of beer are readily available all over Thailand. Advertised with slogans such as prathet rao, bia rao (Our Land, Our Beer), the Singha label is considered the quintessential 'Thai' beer by foreigners and locals alike. Pronounced sing, it claims an enviable 66% of the domestic market. Singha is a strong, hoppy-tasting brew thought by many to be the best beer brewed in Asia. The rated alcohol is a heady 6%.
Kloster, similarly inspired by German brewing recipes, is a notch smoother and lighter with an alcoholic content of 4.7% and generally costs about 5 to 10 Baht more per bottle. Kloster claims only about 5% of Thailand's beer consumption. Like Singha, it's available in cans and bottles.
Boon Rawd Breweries, makers of Singha, also produce a lighter beer called Singha Gold, which only comes in small bottles or cans; most people seem to prefer either Kloster or regular Singha to Singha Gold, which is a little on the bland side. Better is Singha's new canned 'draught beer' - if you like cans.
Carlsberg, jointly owned by Danish and Thai interests, waded into the market in the early 1990s and proved to be a strong contender. As elsewhere in South-East Asia, Carlsberg used an aggressive promotion campaign, and when test marketing found the Thais considered it too weak, the company adjusted its recipe to come closer to Singha's 6% alcohol content. In its first two years of business, Carlsberg managed to grab around 25% of the Thai market. Like Kloster, it has a smoother flavour than Singha.
As the beer wars heated up, Singha retaliated with advertisements suggesting that drinking a Danish beer was unpatriotic. Carlsberg responded by creating Beer Chang (Elephant Beer), which matches the hoppy taste of Singha but ratchets the alcohol content up to 7%. Beer Chang has managed to gain an impressive market share mainly because it retails at a significantly lower price than Singha and thus easily offers more bang per Baht. Predictably, the next offensive in the war was launched with the marketing of Boon Rawd's new cheaper brand Leo. Sporting a black and red leopard label, Leo costs only slightly more than Chang but is similarly high in alcohol. To differentiate the new product from the flavour of the competition, Boon Rawd gave Leo a maltier taste.
Dutch giant Heineken, which opened in Nonthaburi in 1995, comes third after Singha and Carlsberg to most palates, and holds a similar ranking in sales. Other Thailand-produced, European-branded beers you'll find in larger cities include a dark beer called Black Tiger, malty-sweet Mittweida and Amstel lager.
The Thai word for beer is bia; draught beer is bia sot.
Rice whisky is a big favourite in Thailand and somewhat more affordable than beer for the average Thai. It has a sharp, sweet taste not unlike rum, with an alcoholic content of 35%. The two major liquor manufacturers are Suramaharas Co and the Surathip Group. The first produces the famous Mekong (pronounced mae khong) and Kwangthong brands, the second the Hong (swan) labels such as Hong Thong, Hong Ngoen, Hong Yok, Hong Tho, etc. Mekong and Kwangthong cost around 120 Baht for a large bottle (called klom in Thai) or 60 Baht for the flask-sized bottle (called baen). An even smaller bottle, the kok, is occasionally available for 30 to 35 Baht. The Hong brands are considerably less expensive.
In March of 1986, the two liquor giants met and formed a common board of directors to try to end the fierce competition brought about when a government tax increase in 1985 led to a 40% drop in Thai whisky sales. This may result in an increase in whiskey prices but probably also in better distribution - Mekong and Kwangthong have generally not been available in regions where the Hong labels are marketed and vice versa. A third company, Pramuanphon Distillery in Nakhon Pathom, has recently begun marketing a line of cut-rate rice whisky under three labels: Maew Thong (Gold Cat), Sing Chao Phraya (Chao Phraya Lion) and Singharat (Lion-King).
More expensive Thai whiskeys appealing to the can't-afford-Johnnie-Walker-yet set include blue Eagle whiskey and Spet Royal whiskey, each with 40% alcohol content. These come dressed up in shiny boxes, much like the expensive imported whiskies there are imitating.
One company in Thailand produces true rum, that is, distilled liquor made from sugar cane, called Sang Som. Alcohol content is 40% and the stock is supposedly aged, drawn from the leftovers of a rum called Tara that was popular in the '70s. Sang Som costs several Baht more than the rice whiskeys, but for those who find Mekong and the like unpalatable, it is an alternative worth trying.
A cheaper alternative is lao khao, or 'white liquor', of which there are two broad categories: legal and contraband. The legal kind is generally made from sticky rice and is produced for regional consumption. Like Mekong and its competitors, it is 35% alcohol, but sells for 50 to 60 Baht per klom, or roughly half the price. The taste is sweet and raw and much more aromatic than the amber stuff - no amount of mixer will disguise the distinctive taste.
The illegal kinds are made from various agricultural products including sugar palm sap, coconut milk, sugar cane, taro and rice. Alcohol content may vary from as little as 10% to 12% to as much as 95%. Generally this lao theuan (jungle liquor) is weaker in the south and stronger in the north and northeast. This is the drink of choice for many Thais who can't afford to pay the heavy government liquor taxes; prices vary but 10 to 15 Baht worth of the stronger concoctions will intoxicate three or four people. These types of homebrew or moonshine are generally taken straight with pure water as a chaser. In smaller towns, almost every garage-type restaurant (except, of course, Muslim restaurants) keeps some under the counter for sale. Sometimes roots and herbs are added to jungle liquor to enhance flavour and colour.
Currently herbal liquors are fashionable throughout the country and can be found at roadside vendors, small pubs and in a few guesthouses. These liquors are made by soaking various herbs, roots, seeds, fruit and bark in lao khao to produce a range of concoctions called lao yaa dawng. Many of the yaa dawng preparations are purported to have specific health-enhancing qualities. Some of them taste fabulous while others are rank. One well-known herbal liquor pub just outside Bangkok is Pak Kraya Chok (Beggars Union) near Wat Phra Si Mahathat in Bangkhen.
Thais are becoming increasingly interested in wine-drinking, but still manages only a minuscule average consumption of one glass per capita per year. Wines imported from France, Italy, the USA, Austria, Chile and other countries are available in restaurants and wine shops, but a 340% government tax makes then out of reach for most of us - or at the least a very poor bargain. If the government dropped the tax, wine could become very fashionable in Thailand.
Various enterprises have attempted to produce wine in Thailand, most often with disastrous results. However a successful wine was recently produced from a winery called Chateau de Loei, near Phu Reua in Loei Province. Dr Chaiyut, the owner, spent considerable time and money studying Western wine-making methods. His first vintage, a Chenin Blanc, is quite drinkable. It is available at many of the finer restaurants in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket.
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