A year or so ago, few had ever heard of the Thailand-made distillate Mekhong other than the Thais themselves, Far East tourists and fans of the Pogues. Yes, the Pogues. The spirit is mentioned on the Irish band’s 1990 album Hell’s Ditch: “She gave me Mekhong whiskey/Put me on a breeze to Kathmandu.” But the Pogues got it wrong. Mekhong isn’t whiskey, though its copper color might fool you into thinking so. What is it? That’s a little tricky.
Describing Mekhong as a spiced Thai rum would, perhaps, be easiest, but not very accurate, or fair. The spirit is, like some rums, primarily distilled from sugar cane, but it’s blended with a five-percent injection of rice distillate, giving the flavor a distinct, sake-like backbone. Add an infusion of native Thai herbs and spices and you get something that doesn’t resemble anything else on the back bar: a light (70-proof), vaguely exotic spirit smacking of toffee, citrus, nuts and vanilla.
The initial U.S. marketing plan was to place Mekhong in Thai and Asian restaurants, where it would have a ready clientele. But when it was discovered that many of these places lacked liquor licenses, the company that owns the brand turned to the craft cocktail movement. Today, Mekhong is rolling out across the United States and already appearing on cocktail menus in New York, Chicago, Miami and Boston. Bartenders have found that it combines surprisingly well with other cocktail ingredients, from herbal Chartreuse to spicy ginger to rich chocolate bitters. “Mekhong mixes so well,” says John Freeman, head bartender at Elizabeth in Manhattan. “The reason you get a different flavor profile than what you might get from rum is because of that five percent rice.”
In Thailand, spirits don’t have the long pedigrees that they enjoy in, say, Scotland or Kentucky. Mekhong, in fact, is the country’s first domestically produced, branded spirit. The Sirivadhanabhakdi family created the spirit in 1941 and still runs the company today. They named their product after the Mekhong River, which flows along Thailand’s eastern border—a good choice, as shortly thereafter the French attempted to divert the river out of Thailand, and Mekhong sales were boosted by a wave of nationalistic Thai pride. It quickly grew to 20 million cases a year during that period (today productions stands at 1 million cases a year).
Fortunately, Americans don’t need an international incident for an excuse to drink Mekhong. The exotic taste, and the novelty, are more than enough temptation.