As a Mixologist and Avid Explorer, I can say without a doubt that my eyes and taste buds have seen and consumed the spectrum of delicious, exotic, native, and strangely grotesque spirits and concoctions. However, with a tremendous amount of certainty, none of them have come close to the incredibly enticing lore that surrounds Vietnamese rice liquor, know to many as Rượu.
If you are a hardcore traveler or you simply travel with the hopes of finding new and exciting experiences for your palate, then Vietnam must fall somewhere on your “must do list.” Vietnam, known for its beautiful beaches, rivers, and picturesque landscapes, is culturally rich yet very diverse due to its controversial history consisting of various invasions. Invariably, it has become an unexpected food and beverage wonderland. Its food is also a delicious blend of the different food styles and influences adopted from its many visitors. Not to be left behind in Vietnam’s culinary boom, there is an abundant amount of Vietnamese beverages, cocktails, and spirits making a name for themselves. But leading the pack in popularity is its Vietnamese rice wine and liquor.
Though there are many types of Rượu, there are three predominant types that you will find while visiting Vietnam:
- The first is the distilled variety known as Rượu gạo (pure rice alcohol). This is cooked and mashed rice where yeast and water have been added and left to ferment.
- The second is Rượu cần (party wine). Rượu cần is brewed in ceramic jars and infused with a variety of herbs, such as lemongrass, ginger, and honey, or even traditional Chinese medicinal herbs.
- The third is a distilled alcohol infused with herbs, plants, and animals – most notability poisonous cobras, frogs, lizards, and scorpions; known as Rượu thuốc (medicine wine). Yes… I said cobras and scorpions. Many Vietnamese traditions believe in the medicinal fortitude of different venoms to cure ailments, such as back pain, skin rashes, rheumatism, lumbago and many other health conditions.
While you might second guess the idea of Rượu, scientifically they aren’t too far off the mark as snake and scorpion venom are currently used in some modern medicines. Rice wines that contain or are distilled with these venomous animals don’t pose immense harm because the poison in the venom is denatured by the ethanol content in the alcohol; so the chance of envenomation is relatively small. The real danger is found in the alcohol itself. Poisoning from improper distillation is very high, as the rice wine fermentation and techniques used to create rice wine and liquors are typically done in people’s homes.
Rice wines and liquors are poorly regulated for quality measures or continuity of batches. This creates different percentages of alcohol depending on the batch. Add the fact that people have been known to add isopropyl alcohol (yes… rubbing alcohol) for an added kick. Alcohol poisoning cases are reported every year in Vietnam, and some involve mass deaths. Further, official figures about these occurrences remain unavailable as they are not well documented or most cases are not reported as alcohol poisoning.
In 2012, the Vietnam Food Administration, under the Health Ministry, reported that moonshine Rượu had killed 66 of the 196 people hospitalized for alcohol poisoning between 2007 and August 2012. The deaths were caused by Rượu containing high levels of methanol; others were killed by rice wine made from poisonous herbs. The Vietnamese Health Ministry and its government have made attempts to regulate the creation and sale of this deadly ambrosia by restricting alcohol sales since last year by allowing licenses to be issued to alcohol businesses on a limited basis. The demand for this type of liquor, from both tourist and Vietnamese, is so great that it is virtually impossible to eliminate Rượu as a beverage. Rượu is served at weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and pretty much any large celebration or gathering in Vietnam.
Granted, Rượu may not be at the top of the list of things that I would recommend while behind the bar, but crazy as it may seem, I still do recommend that you quench your curiosity and try it but in small amounts. My biggest tip when it comes to Rượu is to “drink responsibly” and be mindful of any signs of trouble. Other than that…enjoy the thrill of adventure!