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Budget Boozing in Asia

China Indonesia South Korea Laos Nepal Philippines Thailand Vietnam Travel
by Greg Banecker Jul 27, 2011
Drink responsibly and read on for eight Asian libations with the best buzz for your buck.

MUCH OF ASIA’S drinking culture is like a perpetual happy hour that puts dollar drafts and two-for-one cocktails to shame. As expected, rice reigns supreme, but don’t let this docile side dish lure you into a false sense of fratboy-esque tolerance. The spirituous spawn of its fermentation is just as capable of fueling spontaneous skinny dipping and emotional renditions of Journey songs as its granular cousins.

Er Guo Tou

Chinese Er Guo Tou is a distilled liquor made from sorghum. It ranges from 80-120 proof costing about 30-50 cents for a 100 ml bottle. Some claim it has the overwhelming stench of gasoline, a debased accusation that insults true aficionados, who claim, ‘It’s not that bad.’

The taste is very mildly sweet, though apparently that’s only because ‘burn’ isn’t a genre of taste. Er Guo Tou literally means ‘head of the second pot’ as the 70% alcoholic concoction from the first batch is discarded and the sorghum undergoes a second fermentation. This, of course, begs the question: How much will they sell the head of the first pot for?


Lao-lao is a 45% rice whiskey from Laos that will have you three sheets for three quarters. One popular way to mellow its harsh is an orange squash, Chinese green tea, and lao-lao cocktail called the Pygmy Slow Lorange. It’s named after the rare and native Pygmy Slow Loris, though my own theory suggests its attributable to an absinthe-like quality that makes gluttonous imbibers hallucinate glowing green Pygmy Slow Lorises.

One common side effect of lao-lao is drunkenness. Unfortunately, this does little to prevent mispronunciation of its name, which is not the same word repeated, but two different words with different intonations.


Korea‘s contribution to the low-cost liquor line-up is soju, a vodka-like spirit costing about 80 cents for a 350 ml 18% bottle. Though lower in alcohol content, soju is the worldwide leader in causing men in business suits to bicker like children then fall asleep on the sidewalk.

Social tenets in Korea dictate that an empty glass should be refilled, and often it is considered poor form to refuse a shot. This initiates a self-fulfilling cycle that occasionally leads to vaguely recognizable lung-bursting performances of “The Power of Love” by Celine Dion in a karaoke room in your underwear.

Bai Hoi

Bai Hoi, from Vietnam, is one of the world’s best beers to fill your tank without breaking your bank. Most popular in Hanoi, this 3-4% light lager is made fresh every night and delivered to drinking establishments in the morning. Recipes vary, as do standards of cleanliness. So at best you’ll taste something similar to Bud Light, and at worst, well, it’ll be similar to Bud Light. Who’s complaining though, given the miraculously moderate 16 cents a glass?

Shops typically begin serving Bai Hoi around lunch and keep pouring until the daily batch runs out. So get there early enough or be condemned to the extortionately priced 75-cent bottles.


Sato is a Thai rice wine made from glutinous sticky rice that sells for 45-80 cents for a 650 ml 8% bottle. That’s less than 2 baht a shot as long as you don’t mind drinking cheap table wine spiked with a formidable dose of vinegar. Many sato producers sell their firewater amongst other beers with packaging designed to look like beer, essentially creating a seemingly benign Trojan beer bottle knocking at the gates of cheap unsuspecting tourists and patiently waiting to unleash a surprise ambush methanol attack on their liver. Many people are into the stuff though; you’ve been warned.


Arak is a colorless and sugarless hooch distilled in Indonesia from pine sap or rice. Typically a liter of the 20-50% rice wine is available for about $2. Locals believe that drinking too much arak beckons the witch demon Rangda when you sleep, a situation more realistically referred to as a regrettable one night stand.

Arak also holds religious relevance like when it is intentionally poured on the ground to honor the Goddess of Rice – which sounds like a very convenient excuse for obliterated expats who spill their drink. Supposedly it won’t give you a hangover if you drink it clean and straight, though I think I’d believe in Rangda before I believed that.

San Miguel

The beer of choice in the Philippines, San Miguel can be purchased for as little as 17-50 cents a bottle, which means you’ll be under the table for under your budget. Though, don’t expect to be drinking much else, as San Miguel has a 95% market share of Filipino beer drinkers with brands including San Miguel Light, Red Horse, Cerveza Negra, Gold Eagle, Strong Ice, Super Dry, Premium All-Malt and Colt 45 (less than subtle attempt to blame production on another country). Though their flagship and still most popular brand is San Miguel Pale Pilsen.


Raksi is a grain alcohol distilled from millet or rice in Nepal and Tibet. It is mostly an in-house affair with different recipes leading to varying flavors, though generically it tastes similar to sake. Usually you can buy 1.5 liters of the 40% toddy for 75 cents or accidentally become the foreigner during a special occasion and get free shots.

During ceremonies, raksi will be poured at great heights from a very narrow stout into a small clay bowl, something that requires much cultivated skill. I’ve witnessed a similar deeply rooted cultural tradition in college with a Keystone poured from unbelievable heights into someone’s mouth – something that also requires a great amount of skill.

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