Saturday, December 18, 2010

Give Me Some of that Good Ol' Lao Lao

The Little Ol' Lao lao Lao Maker

After we had visited the blacksmiths of Baan Hat Hien we went out to Baan Xang Hai which is refered to as "Whiskey Village".  Baan Xang Hai turned out to be a further drive from Luang Prabang than I was expecting.  It turns out that that Baan Xang Hai is 25 KM from Luang Prabang.  Many tourists visit Baan Xang Hai as part of a organized boat tour to Pak Ou Caves.

Baan Xang Hai villagers used to make the clay pots that are used to produce "Lao Hai" (Rice Wine) which is a step along the ways of producing "Lao Lao" (rice whiskey).  The villagers now focus on making the Lao moonshine, Lao Lao, and silk weaving.

Duang and I had enjoyed our share of Lao Hai, rice wine, on our previous visit two years ago to the Khmu village during their New Year Festival.  The wine is produced in small clay pots by fermenting rice.  The sweet wine is then sucked out of the jars through long reeds or very small diameter vinyl tubing with the reeds and vinyl tubing being passed from person to person seated or squatting around the clay pot.  As the wine is consumed from the pot, additional water is added to the clay pot to keep the party going.

On our last visit to a refugee camp along the Thai-Myanmar border, Duang and I enjoyed glasses of freshly fermented  Lao Hai with our friends, Khun La Mae and Khun Ma Plae.  Since there was quite a bit of rice hulls and rice debris to strain through your teeth when drinking from a glass,our preferred mode for drinking is through the vinyl tubing or natural reed.

"Process" Diagram for Making Lao Lao
We walked through the gauntlet of booths at the front of the village.  There were many stalls selling bottles of Lao Lao which also contained some type of animal or plant.  There were bottles of whiskey with small snakes some of which were cobras.  There were also whiskey bottles containing centipedes, scorpions, or geckos.  My knowledge of botany is rather limited so I was unable to identify the plants that were immersed in th the whiskey.  I have read some accounts that the plants and creatures are immersed in rice wine but I believe that the liquid is actually whiskey.  Whiskey is a much better preservative and makes for a more potent "medicine".  The various vendors told me that the bottles contained "medicine" of course most of the medicine was purported to aid sexual performance. These bottled concoctions are readily available at all border crossings in Laos and appear to be "THE" souvenir of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

There were also many stalls selling silk cloth.  We saw several looms for weaving cloth but did not see anyone working.  We walked back through the village towards the Mekong River.  We prefer to explore the back roads and back streets of the locations that we visit.  The back locations typically present less tourist centric people and sights.  We stopped at a yard of a local home.  I am not sure if it was a front yard or a back yard - not that it matters over here.  There were two men, a woman, and three school aged children seated at a picnic table.  We stopped and joined them.  It turned out that we had found a whiskey distillery.  Besides selling soft drinks, and silk fabrics, the people make Lao Lao right there in their yard high on a bank overlooking the Mekong River.  I went to the stairs that lead down to the Mekong River and while taking some photographs I took in the serenity of the location.

I returned to the picnic table and had Duang purchase soft drinks for everyone.  As we enjoyed our cold drinks on a surprisingly warm day, we asked questions of the man who appeared to be in charge.  He said that he owned the land and paid taxes once a year to the government.  He stated that he paid 550,000 Kip ($66 USD) each year for his home and business.

A large piece of cardboard was nailed to a wood post next to his still.  Although he did not speak English the cardboard had a diagram on in that detailed the distilling process in English.  The father took great pride in showing me his distilling equipment and describing how he made the moonshine whiskey.

Clay Pot Containing Fermenting Rice
 The process first starts with making Lao Hai, "Rice Wine".  Rice, sugar and water are placed in a clay pot and allowed to stand covered for seven days.  This is how Lao Hai is produced however for making Lao Lao additional water is not added after the initial charge to the fermenting mixture.

The fermenting rice creates a thick mash of about 13% alcohol.  The thick mash from four  clay pots is removed and placed inside of the 55 gallon steel drum that forms the base of his still.   The barrel sits upon a couple of bricks above a shallow trench where a small fire is maintained by small long logs that are pushed forward as they are consumed by the flames.

Lao Lao Still In Laos

A gasket created by burlap type cloth filled with rice hulls is placed atop of the open end of the metal barrel.  A conical shaped steel pan is the placed on top of the gasket to seal off the still.  The conical pan serves as the condenser for the distilling process.  The top of the cone which is open to the air is filled with water.  Every 10 minutes the water is replaced with cool water by pouring new water into the cone and allowing the warmer water to overflow through a small tube above the normal water level in the cone.  Alcohol vapors inside of the still condense on the relatively cooler surface of the cone inside of the still.  The alcohol droplets travel along the cool surface to the apex of the cone where they drop off and are collected by a spoon like device that is attached to a pipe.  The pipe is sloped downwards and exists the still carrying the Lao Lao to fill another clay pot located on the ground at the end of the pipe.  The Lao Lao slowly drips out of the pipe through a terrycloth cloth of uncertain cleanliness and finally into the clay pot.

Lao Lao Fresh From the Still Fills A Clay Pot
After observing the process, I was invited to sample some our the man's handicraft.  Duang does not drink much and especially not Lao Lao, I was left alone to drink with the man.  He pulled a bottle out, a bottle without any critters or plants in it, from a cabinet and poured each of us a double shot.  I have been through this ritual enough times to understand what was expected of me.  I looked the man in the eyes said "Jonkiouw" and downed the shots all at once as he did the same.  The Lao Lao was very powerful and I must admit much better than the commercial moonshine that the villagers drink in Tahsang Village.  Perhaps it was the dirty towel that this man's whiskey was filtered through.

A Lao Lao Distillery in Baan Xang Hai, LPDR

I ended up buying a small bottle of his product to take back home for 30,000 KIP ($3.75 USD) - a good price for even nothing else more than the nice woven bamboo that covered the bottle.  The bamboo had writing as part of the integral woven design - "Lao Lao, Baan Xang Hai" as translated by the distiller.

While I was socializing with the distiller, Duang had located his wife and some other women who were busy embroidering.  But that is subject to another blog.

It was interesting spending time in the village.  The people were making moonshine without any government permits, regulations, licences or any harassment from "Revenuers".  This is hardly what I would have expected in a country known as being a Communist state.

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