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Thai Americans Are Bringing Ya Dong Stateside

For centuries, the Eastern world has been crafting beverages with health in mind. Case in point: Thailand’s ya dong (which translates to “pickled medicine”), an herb-infused spirit traditionally made from a base of white rice whiskey called lao khao. Ya dong is most commonly found in rural suburbs just outside Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok. Historically, farmers and working-class residents would buy cheap ya dong from street vendors, who sold the beverage in giant jars that held several variations of herbal concoctions. Infused with ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, and ginseng root, the “cure-all” was used to relieve a range of health ailments. Though ya dong has largely stayed close to home, it has recently started to make its way outside of countryside street markets.

Bringing Ya Dong to Bars

Ya dong has recently found a home in Bangkok bars that are aiming to reform the drink’s reputation as a low-quality liquor. Establishments like Tep Bar in Bangkok’s Charoenkrung neighborhood serve ya dong as a shot alongside pandan-infused water, and Studio Lam sells it at their nightclub in Sukhumvit.

Meanwhile, its influence is also reaching beyond Thailand. Thai and Thai American bar and restaurant owners across the U.S. are adding ya dong to their menus, focusing on its bitter flavor as a balancing element to drinks.

At Mahaniyom in Boston, the spirit is available as both a shot and cocktail ingredient, made from a rum base. “I want to show our guests what Thais actually drink in Thailand,” says managing partner Chompon “Boong” Boonnak. … “Even some Thai people (who most likely live in the cities) never try it.”

ya dong cocktails
A shot of ya dong at Boston’s Mahaniyom comes with a side of pickled mango and a glass of pandan-infused salt water. | Photo by Jing Jongpol Jujaroen

Mahaniyom serves ya dong in a shot glass with a side of pickled mango topped with house-ground chili powder, plus a glass of pandan-infused salt water. The presentation is similar to how it’s served in Thailand, where pickled fruit is needed to cut through the spirit’s intense bitterness. “I add pandan water here for the aroma and as a palate cleanser,” he explains. Or try ya dong in the 11 Tigers, a cocktail that, with pandan syrup and lime, has “nice astringency and herbal funky notes to it,” Boonnak says.

In New York City, 11 Tigers restaurant is equally passionate about the spirit. The Thai-Japanese establishment, whose name references the spirit’s most popular combination of herbs, makes five versions of the liquor, which bar manager Patty Wongsak brews weekly. “It’s like the scientific ‘osmosis principle,’ ” she says of the mixing process. “Fruits and vegetables contain water and sugar. When those molecules move to mix with liquor, it makes the liquor have a natural sweetness without adding sugar.” 

Many of 11 Tigers’ cocktails feature ya dong. The Sua Smash pairs the restaurant’s gin-steeped rendition with green Chartreuse, fresh lime, and muddled basil. The result is a balanced sweet and sour taste, Wongsak says. Both Mahinayom and 11 Tigers think of ya dong as an ingredient that can contribute flavors ranging from bitter, funky, and sweet to earthy and herbaceous, depending on how it’s made.

Same Same but Different

Even though ya dong’s traditional base spirit, lao khao, is hard to find outside of Thailand, the recipe allows flexibility for steeping with any kind of spirit. Mahinayom uses rum for their signature version, while 11 Tigers uses gin. 

Thai Diner in New York offers the herbal elixir as shots in three different infusions: pineapple and turmeric tequila; Thai basil, butterfly pea flower, and blueberry vodka; and hibiscus, pomegranate, and star anise bourbon. “It was important for us to use spirits that would be a bit more familiar to our guests,” says Thai Diner beverage director, Vince Ott.

Making ya dong is time-consuming since the steeping process can involve many ingredients and a brewing time of up to three months. “It’s essentially large batched infusions,” says Ott. For Thai Diner’s Golden Tiger ya dong, Ott adds fresh macerated pineapple and grated turmeric to tequila. Back at Mahaniyom, Boonnak loves that ya dong allows him to introduce guests to an authentic taste of Thailand. “It has such unique flavors and a story behind it,” he says.

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