Drinking in Taiwan; supersweet beers, medicinal alcohol and snake blood wine

Taiwan Beer is simply everywhere on the island, since for many years this brand had the absolute monopoly on beer sales in Taiwan. However there are plenty of other local delights.

Taiwan Beer is simply everywhere on the island, since for many years this brand had the absolute monopoly on beer sales in Taiwan. However there are plenty of other local delights.

In this guest post you’ll get a nice insight in the drinking culture in Taiwan. Matt Wraxall is English by origin, but has been living in Taiwan for many years. Therefor like no other he is able to tell you which unusual drinks are must-tries when you’re ever in town. And if you enjoy his writing, also check his own drinking website named Everything Home Bar, which is all about creating the best boozy experiences in your own home.

Before I talk about drinking in Taiwan, I’d like to start with a disclaimer: I love Taiwan. I have lived here for 7 years, which accounts for most of my adult life to date, and have no plans to leave any time soon. The people are warm and wonderful, just like the weather (most of the time). I initially moved here for a year, and just found life so agreeable that I never left. I’m only mentioning this now, at the start, to let you know that if I say anything that seems derogatory or mean later on, nothing could be further from the truth. Everything written here is written with love, and a healthy dose of good old British sarcasm.

It would be unfair to start talking about the drinks available in Taiwan, without first giving a bit of insight into the drinking culture here. It is very different to that back home, and to most of the Western world, I imagine.  Whereas back home drinking is often the point and aim of the evening out, the main event, here it is often done as an afterthought, or an accompaniment. For example, most social drinking here is done around a dinner table, where the main event is the food, and the drinks are just to help lubricate the chatter. It is not too common that people go out just to drink.

How has this affected the types of drinks on offer? Well, most drinking is done out of short cups, think about twice the size of a shot glass, being filled from larger communal bottles of drink, be that a 40 of beer or a bottle of whiskey. It has also had the effect that strong flavored, sipping drinks are more popular, such as whisky or the dreaded kaoliang (more on that later), at least with the older generation. This is changing a bit nowadays with a younger generation more exposed to world culture, and an inclination to jump on trends, meaning that world beers and even craft brews are starting to become popular.

Below you will find some of the drinks that are available here, most of which I have tried myself, and while it is true that many of them are falling out of fashion or were never that prevalent anyway, I guarantee you that they all still exist and most of them can still be found in supermarkets and corner stores right now.

Taiwan Beer
There is nothing actually strange or odd about Taiwan beer, other than how prevalent it is in Taiwanese society. A lot of countries have dominant brands of beer in their country, but calling Taiwan beer dominant would be understating the fact. It is THE national beer, in a way that I have never seen before. It would be like going into a shop in England and being presented with row upon row of England Beer. It started as a monopoly product many years ago, meaning that it was government funded and run, and was the only company allowed to make beer, which allowed it to get such a firm stronghold. I am not a big fan of it myself, and the hangover that it leaves you with is truly something to be reckoned with.

Flavored Beer
Again, there is nothing particularly odd or different about flavored beers, and they can be seen in bars in almost any country you care to imagine. What makes the Taiwanese flavored beers so special is a) the flavors and b) how sweet it is. Flavored beer here, mostly made by the Taiwan Beer company (of course) isn’t a beer that has been brewed with fruits or strong flavors at its base, it is a regular lager that has had fruit juice poured in at the end. This leaves you with a really syrupy, thick beer, that you can almost feel covering your throat. The flavors themselves are something to behold: lemon, honey, pineapple, mango, lychee, purple grape, green grape, orange. They do them all. Some are not bad and quite drinkable in the balmy summer weather, but most are just too, too sweet to finish.

The Taiwanese distilled spirit kaoliang.

The Taiwanese distilled spirit kaoliang.

Kaoliang
Kaoliang is an incredibly strong clear liquor distilled from sorghum, which as far as I can tell is some kind of grass. It is unflavored and to me just tastes like raw alcohol, like the kind used in hospitals to clean wounds. I know a few people who love it, but for the life of me I cannot tell why. It is usually sipped straight while sat around talking and eating, or mixed with green tea, and is still popular today. I have heard it is nice mixed with pineapple juice, but I just take people’s word for that.

“Medicinal” Spirits
This one was actually a new discovery to me while walking around the supermarket thinking about what to write in this post. I came across a shelf, mixed in with the regular liquors and wines, displaying “yaojiu” , or medicinal liquor. Nothing too funny there, as I know there are wines and liquors used in cooking and soup making here that are said to have great benefits to your health. What took me by surprise was the ingredients list: bamboo, ginseng, ginger, and last but not least, deer antler. There were others that my Chinese was not good enough to read, which in itself tells me there must be some pretty funky things in there! The fact that these were on sale in the wines aisle, not the cooking aisle, also tells me that maybe granny isn’t only using these for her famous ginger soup.

Snake Blood Wine
I’ll be honest and tell you that this one isn’t super popular, and even came as a surprise to some Taiwanese people when I mentioned it, but I know for a fact that it exists, and it is freely available. Just head to “Snake Alley”. Snake blood wine is essentially exactly what it sounds like: snakes blood mixed with wine, in this case the aforementioned kaoliang. It is taken as a course in a meal that also consists of snake soup, snake bile, and a shot of snake venom. Now THAT’S a night out to remember. Or not. It depends on how many you have.

That’s all I have for now and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Please feel free to come over for a shot of snake blood wine or deer antler liquor and coke anytime.

Matt Wraxall
(Everything Home Bar)

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