I climbed up on a rickety stool in a Bangkok dive bar. In the wee hours of the night, the place was mostly empty-just a few ex-pats staring forlornly into their drinks. The bartender looked in my direction.
“Whiskey. Mekhong.” I said.
A pretty little thing in an all too short, too tight dress brought it over to me. She lingered for a moment after putting the shot in front of my nose. Her cheap perfume made me smile.
After all, the Thai whiskey I ordered wasn’t anymore whiskey than the waitress was a she.
Welcome to Bangkok.
Mekhong Whiskey = Thai Culture
Mekhong “Whiskey” is distilled from Thai culture. Sure you can drink similar spirits-Sang Som, Hong Tong, or Mangkorn Tong-but they neither have the pop culture chops nor the historical roots of Mekhong.
Mekhong is old style Thailand- like staying at the old wing of the Bangkok Oriental and getting invited for dinner at Jim Thompson’s house on the canal. It takes you back to a time that no longer exists.
Mekhong was not the first hard liquor produced in The Kingdom. Thais have been drinking lao kao (rice whiskey) and other distilled spirits for centuries. Mekhong was the first blended spiced spirit made by Thais for Thais to compete against the European scotches, bourbons and whiskeys that were flooding The Kingdom during the 1920’s-30’s.
The medicinal, herbal taste of Mekhong was concocted for the same Siamese palate that adores fish sauce, shrimp paste and puts spiced up peanut butter on grilled chicken.
Anatomy of a Legend
Barkeep, another Mekhong please
Yes, of course you can keep the change
-The Refreshments from the song Mekhong
Mekhong’s secret formula is as closely held as Coca Cola’s.
Ginger, coriander, cumin, rhubarb, cinnamon, horse tamarind shell, licorice, lemongrass, chiles, clove, cardamon and fenugreek (wtf is that!)-all go into a blended spirit made up of 95% distilled molasses (sugar cane) and 5% sticky rice. Mekhong is most closely akin to a rum with a little rice whiskey blended in.
It’s 70 proof. Strong enough to get good and drunk. But it’s not strong enough to be considered an actual rum. All rums start at 80 proof and go up from there. That’s why Mekhong is marketed as a Thai spirit.
Mekhong is obviously not a whiskey nor even remotely related and has never claimed to be one. Mekhong is no more deceiving than the ladyboy at the Bangkok bar. You get exactly what the label claims.
Financials & Ownership
Mekhong is produced by the Bangyikhan Distillery in Bangkok-the oldest legal distillery in The Kingdom. Bangyikhan is owned by Thai Beverage, Plc., which is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that also owns Chang Beer, Sang Som and a dozen other liquor brands.
Roughly a million cases-12 million bottles-are made annually.
Whiskey?!? This Ain’t Whiskey!!!
Oh she gave me Mekhong Whiskey
Oh she gave me Hong Kong Flu
Oh she gave me Mekhong Whiskey
Put me on a breeze to Katmandu
-The Poques (An Irish punk rock band) from the song Sayonara
Foreigners, especially whiskey aficionados, are aghast that Thais refer to Mekhong as a whiskey. While these aficionados may know something about distilled spirits, they know precious little about Thais and how they filch English words for their own purposes.
Here in Old Siam, if you ask to buy a bottle of whiskey, you’ll probably be offered a bottle of Johnny Walker or Chivas Regal. But if you ask to buy a bottle of Thai whiskey, you’ll be offered bottles of Mekhong, Hong Tong or Mangkorn Tong-all amber colored spirits made mostly from sugar cane. Get the difference?
Thais have always loved imported scotches, bourbons and whiskeys going back to the 1900’s. They know the difference between imported whiskeys and Thai whiskey. They simply filched the word whiskey-an amber colored spirit-and used it for their own purposes. Thais do this all the time with English words.
The Origins of Mekhong: Money & Politics
Mekhong was developed and first produced by the government of Thailand for economic and political reasons. That’s right-the Thai government was in the business of making and selling booze. Let’s take a closer historical look.
Bangyikhan Distillery is the oldest legal distillery in The Kingdom and began making distilled concoctions a few years after Bangkok became the capitol-1782.
The original distillery was located at the mouth of the Bangyikhan canal (klong) where it empties into the Chao Praya river-hence the name.
In 1914, the Siamese government (back then the country was called Siam), desperate for money, took control of Bangyikhan Distillery. The government promptly sold off as lucrative concessions the right to produce alcohol at the distillery and the rights to distribute it throughout the country. During the early 20th Century, the Siamese government raised most of its revenues through “sin” taxes and monopolies on such products as tobacco, opium, and alcohol.
In 1929, the government ended its production concession and began making distilled spirits itself. They maintained their lucrative distribution rights as concessions to be sold off to the highest bidder.
Chiang Choon-Mekhong’s Daddy
Shortly after the government took direct control of production at Bangyikhan, they developed and sold Chiang Choon-a very rough blended spirit distilled primarily from sugar cane. This was the original blended spirit of Bangyikhan Distillery and essentially the forerunner to Mekhong.
Chiang Choon was a 56 proof spirit and drank by working class Thais. You can still find it on store shelves today. It’s a blackish sludge that burns going down. Give it a try if you’re adventurous.
While Chiang Choon satisfied the need for a cheap, working class drunk, the Siamese government badly needed a bottled spirit good enough to compete with the fancy European whiskey imports that were dominating the high-end distilled spirits market. Chiang Choon could never do that.
The Concept of Mekhong Is Born
By the late 1930’s, Thai men and ex-pats had developed quite a taste for imported scotch, bourbon and whiskey. So much so that a slight but noticeable trade deficit in distilled spirits had appeared like an inconvenient zit on the Siamese government’s foreign trade balance.
So in 1940, the government devised a strategy to fight back against the European whiskey imports. Tariffs were unthinkable as that would be economic suicide getting into a trade war with Europe. The government decided to develop, distribute and brand a Thai spirit to compete with the European imports.
The Birth of Mekhong
The government’s booze masters knew they could never distill a spirit that tasted as refined as European scotches and bourbons. But they could certainly create an amber colored spirit with enough kick yet “smooth” enough to get the attention of the Siamese domestic market.
They also knew from a branding angle that producing a Thai spirit with a uniquely Thai taste would set their new product apart from any other. And they completely understood that making a cheaper drunk than the expensive imports would go a long way towards creating a domestic market.
Far more refined than Chiang Choom, a signature Thai spirit was developed and produced from a concoction of sugar cane, rice whiskey and a blend of secret Thai spices.
But wait-this new concoction didn’t have a name yet.
Politics, War & Patriotism: A Name is Born
Mekhong Thai whiskey inadvertently got all bound up in the Franco-Thai war of 1940 and its aftermath.
In 1940, Thailand (the country’s name was changed in 1939) was walking a political tight rope. War had broken out in Europe and Japan was pressuring The Kingdom to give its troops free passage through the country. (Japan would invade Thailand the next year, just hours after attacking Pearl Harbor.)
With the German defeat of France also in 1940, Thailand saw an opportunity to reclaim its lost territories of Laos and western Cambodia from the French colony of French Indochina. France had extorted parts of northern Thailand (Laos) and western Cambodia from Siam in 1889. Thailand wanted them back, and this was an opportune time to do so.
In 1940, Thailand launched a full scale assault against French forces in Laos and Cambodia and won! They recaptured all the territory lost to the French in the 19th Century. Japan then stepped in and brokered a cease fire and Thailand was able to keep these territories until the end of World War II.
So finally in 1940, both sides of the Mekong River belonged again to Thailand. And as all these political and military events were unfolding, the government owned and operated Bangyikhan Distillery was preparing to unleash a new Thai spirit on the domestic market.
The Thai government decided to brand their new booze with the name Mekhong. The name aroused patriotism, nationalism and played favorably into the government’s war against the French.
In 1941, the first bottles of Mekhong hit the store shelves and sales went beserk. It was a hit-both economically and politically.
There was an immediate market and demand for Mekhong, not the least reason was that World War II all but cut off imports of the European whiskey competitors. Mekhong’s timing was perfect.
The End of the Government’s Booze Business
The Thai government gave up direct operational control of Bangyikhan Distillery in 1960 and again leased production rights. By the 1980’s the government no longer was interested in owning a distillery.
Ownership of Bangyikhan eventually ended up with Thai Beverage, Inc.-a massive conglomerate of distilled and brewed beverages and related companies.
M-E-K-H-O-N-G: Why the weird spelling?
I’ve studied old maps of Indochina and nowhere can I find any spelling of the great river with an “h”. All spellings are M-E-K-O-N-G. So where’d the “h” come from?
My hunch: Anyone familiar with how Thais transliterate their language into English knows they use a lot of unneeded and confusing “h”s. The most obvious example is “Phuket”. No it’s not pronounced with an “f” sound. The “h” is unnecessarily present to make sure the reader aspirates the “p” sound. There are countless transliterations like that.
I suppose that some Thai booze brander came up with the spelling on the first bottles to make sure you aspirated the “k”. The spelling stuck. Okham’s Razor-the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.
Pronunciation: It’s pronounced “may-kong”, NOT “mee-kong”.
And Now…The Reviews of the Con·nois·seur Class
There’s a guy next to me, won’t tell me his name
Buy’s me Mekhong Whiskey just the same
The Pogues from the song House of Gods
“Foul tasting brew that can only be used as the lowest base for poor quality cocktails. There are rumors that, like Singha beer, this spirit contains formaldehyde-maybe if they put more in it would improve the taste” –masterofmalt.com
“On the nose, it has a sharp scent of pure spirits, like something you might use to disinfect a wound or wash out a stain.” -whiskeyreviewer.com
But wait! There’s still hope….
“The beauty of Mekhong is in its versatility: it can find a home in rum, bourbon, and gin cocktails alike. The dark sweetness of the sugar cane is a clear corollary to rums and bourbons, while its abundance of botanicals and spices makes it kin to gin. This bottle is a great way to add a little something extra to your usual rotation, especially if you love Thai food. Mekhong – in any form – is best served alongside its native cuisine, and I suggest the spicier the better. –boubonbanter.com”
Requiem For A Hangover
I love Mekhong. I love its history. I love its taste. I love its bottle. And I especially love how the “hoity toity” whiskey connoisseurs hate the stuff with a passion.
My choice of punishment is a “frozen” Mekhong. Put it in the freezer an hour before drinking. Simple. A shot before a dinner of spicy Thai food is nirvana.
I love my ladyboy in a bottle. Bottom’s up!