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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

From Absinthe to Lizard Wine: Lethal Alcoholic Elixirs Around the World

By Alex Resnik

It’s in a blogger’s nature and interest to tout a catchy title, and such is the nature of “Lethal Elixirs.” However, it’s also in this blogger’s nature to strain the most scintillating factoids and pieces of categorical knowledge from the intwerweb mainframe milieu.

As such, consider the post below not a list of the world’s deadliest liquors, but rather suggestions for some of the more interesting ways to get your buzz on. And keep in mind that all of them can be lethal – if you drink enough. Sip, sip…


It’s made from sugar cane and is hugely popular among many Latin American drinkers. No, not rum – rather the national drink of Brazil: cachaça. Ranging anywhere from 38 to 80% alcohol by volume, cachaça – especially home-brews popular in the state of Minas Gerais – packs a punch.


Cachaça, like rum, is made from sugar cane. Unlike most rum, it’s made from the pure stuff (not molasses) so it can also be classified as a “rhum agricole.” In 2003, 1.3 billion liters of the stuff were produced in Brazil, though only a measly 1% was exported, mainly to Germany.

What does that mean for the gringo craving a taste? Almost all the cachaça found in the US is of the “industrial” type, passable for making a caipirinha but a far cry from the more delicious, very sip-able “artesanal” (artisanal) type, often aged in oak or other wood barrels to give it a golden hue.


Known in Brazil variously as aguardente, pinga, or caninha, cachaça is usually served in small cups at casual bars: order a pinga and you’ll get about three fingers of the stuff to take as a shot or just to sip on. Aguardente means “fire water,” and that’s exactly how it feels going down; a good cachaça has a sweet, funky aroma and a harsh back to it, similar to tequila. Chances are, you’ll either love it or hate it.


This brand of spirits is available in 151- and 190-proof concentrations, placing it at the top of our booze-o-meter. In fact, simple distillation cannot remove any more water from liquor once it hits a concentration of about 95% ethanol. Basically, you’re not going to find anything boozier than this.


As it’s a neutral grain spirit, Everclear is very low in congeners, those pesky impurities found in all distilled beverages that are said to contribute to hangovers. Unfortunately for party people everywhere, Everclear is most often mixed into horrid “cocktails” of the variety found at frat parties, so sugar and other ingredients offset any advantage the lack of congeners might have given you over your hangover.


Just a few examples of the many heinous concoctions made with Everclear include: Jungle Juice, Apple Pie Punch, Hunch Punch, Tucker Death Mix, PJ, Party Jungle Juice, Trashcan Punch, Alcoholic Jolly Rancher, Instant Death, Whoop Juice, Ladies’ Jungle Juice, Brain Fart, Alpha Gamma Rho Panty Dropper, Devil’s Piss, Elk Creek Water, Cherry Bomb #3, Killer Koolaid, Becky’s Magic Punch, Real Romulan Ale, Shut the Hell Up, El Bastardo, and Berry Deadly. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Maotai (茅台酒)

Never heard of maotai? That’s probably because China’s most popular liquor isn’t such a hit outside of the country. Classified under Chinese liquor distinctions as “sauce flavored” because of its strong fragrance and bold flavor, maotai has been described as tasting like a cross between stinky tofu and grappa (see below). Why it hasn’t caught on in the States is a mystery to us.

Weighing in at 53% alcohol, standard, maotai is distilled from fermented sorghum and has a soy sauce aroma to it. Maotai makes up about 30% of baiju (Chinese liquor) sales, and baiju in turn is arguably the most popular liquor in the world, with annual sales surpassing even those of vodka. Looks like it’s time to start acquiring that soy saucy, stinky tofu taste.



Like most peoples around the world, indigenous Latin Americans figured out their own beer fermentation process centuries ago. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Inca began getting drunk their own way – a labor intensive affair.

Making chicha involves chewing on maize or another starchy plant, then spitting out the mass and letting it sit for several hours. Natural enzymes in the saliva break the starch down into a simple sugar that can then be turned into alcohol by wild bacteria and yeast. The result is a drink similar to beer in appearance, with a slightly lower alcohol content (1 to 3%).

Varieties of chicha are as numerous as the peoples who make it, all over Latin America, but you can expect to drink something slightly sweet, with a sour aftertaste. If the whole spitting thing turns you off, keep in mind that the fermentation process effectively sterilizes the drink.



From Turks to Mongols, Baskhirs to Uzbeks, and Yakuts to Kyrgyz, the Central Asian steppes are going wild for that creamy taste of Kumis!

At times called “milk champagne,” Kumis is a mare’s milk dairy product similar to kefir that has a mild alcohol content, ranging from 0.7 to 2.5%. Fermented over the course of hours or days, the drink is chock full of Lactobacilli bacteria that acidify it, and yeasts that carbonate and boozify it.

Traditionally among nomadic tribes, the kumis was carried throughout the day on horseback, where it was tossed around enough to keep it agitated, therefore not spoiling. Today, the process more closely resembles butter churning.



Distill kumis, and you’ve got arkhi, a favorite drink of countryside Mongolians. Often referred to simply as “vodka,” it’s a lot boozier than its cousin kumis, but still low-gravity at around 12%. Of course, Mongolian men who can’t drink arkhi are considered pretty pusillanimous.

Hejie Jiu

Requiring the most potently poisonous reptile available, hejie jiu is basically a rice wine or whiskey. The lizard, most commonly a gecko, is submerged in the spirits and left to stew for anywhere from 10 days to a year. It’s one of China’s strongest brews.


Hejie jiu is considered to be incredibly healthy; proof is in the rock-solid evidence that any reptile’s stare seems to scare away such ailments as cancer, arthritis, and ulcers [Ed note: Yea, I'l still be visiting my GP, thanks]. The more poisonous the animal is, the more potent the drink’s medicinal properties are said to be.

Ruou Mat Ran (ruợu mặt rắn)

Prepared table-side in finer Vietnamese restaurants, you might notice ruou mat ran being served when the waiter slices open a live snake to get at the gallbladder inside. The bile in the snake’s gallbladder is mixed into a glass of rice wine and served as an aperitif.


The drink is usually served before a dinner prepared from the rest of the snake. Ruou mat ran earns bonus points for not only getting you drunk, but also making you “strong” (if you’re a guy). In addition, this snake bile wine is said to bless the drinker with a variety of other health benefits.


For some people, grappa may bring back bad memories. Memories of a certain European trip, when imbibing the spirit distilled from grapes led to certain regrettable actions that would echo throughout the years… But that’s only for some, and I digress.


Actually considered a kind of brandy, in the tradition of Spanish orujo and Portuguese aguardente, grappa is made from leftovers of the winemaking process: pomace and grape skins, stems, and seeds. Sweet, deep, and abrasive, this one packs a funky punch, and leaves you with a hangover to match. Not that we would know.


Long considered a drink of bohemians at the fringes of society, there are a lot of myths and controversy concerning absinthe. First is the idea that the anise-flavored spirit has hallucinogenic properties. With such eccentric personalities as Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Aleister Crowley proudly pledging allegiance to the Green Fairy, it’s no wonder absinthe had been tagged a psychoactive drug and banned in the US and most European countries by 1915.


Absinthe is derived from a wide variety of herbs, most clearly anise but also wormwood, which contains thujone, a chemical previously thought to have psychedelic qualities. The truth is that thujone has been conclusively found to have no such characteristics. We chalk it up to absinthe’s very high 45 to 74% alcohol content, which is said to lend the drinker a clearer, more lucid drunk.


Artichoke liqueur, anyone? Cynar (pronounced “chi-NAR”) is actually made from 13 different herbs and plants, but the artichoke is king.

Image: www.20×

Europeans drink the bitters as an aperitif over ice or as a cocktail with a variety of sodas, juices, or other mixers. At 16.5% alcohol, expect cynar to leave you with a bittersweet taste. Campari claims “It perfectly conserves all the health properties of the ingredients used in its preparation,” and it’s “only moderately alcoholic.” Claiming it’s healthy and low in alcohol? Sounds like asking for trouble.

Yogurito (ヨグリート)

Japanese mega-retailer Rakuten has this to say about yogurt liqueur Yogurito:

“Yogurito (Yogurito) is stuffed full of delicious liqueur natural yoghurt natural yoghurt play. In conjunction with the sense Renjishusu Furuyoguruto Oh, please enjoy refreshing cocktails and soda divide.”

Enough said.


They also suggest two different cocktails one could make with Yogurito:

Yogurito Orange
Yogurito ················ 1 / 4
Orange Juice ··········· 3 / 4

Yogurito Soda
Yogurito ················ 1 / 3
Soda ··················· 2 / 3

Yogurito is produced in Europe but, yeah, only the Japanese drink it.


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