It had been a full day of trekking in Nepal, over 12,000 foot mountain passes with our packs pressing into our shoulders and dust flying in our faces. We’d stumbled into the teahouse yard and enjoyed several cups of hot tea before a dinner of vegetable soup, homemade naan and dal bhat. Weary and preparing for another day of trekking, most of the groups retired to bed. However, I made my way to the kitchen, where the porters and guides were laughing and chatting, passing around something in tin cups that burned my nose and, after taking a swig, warmed my belly.
That was my first — but not last — experience with raksi: Nepali moonshine. Made from fermented grain (usually rice), raksi varies from tolerable to downright awful, depending on the skill of the distiller. However, I found myself drinking at least a cup almost every night of my trek, while practicing my Nepalese and growing closer to the guides, porters and locals I met along the way. Sharing raksi is a social occasion, and became one of the memorable experiences that flavored my trip to Nepal.
Most countries have an indigenous beverage distilled at home — either legally or illegally. Some are tasty, some are scary, but all are potent. The difficulty of finding these local versions of America’s moonshine varies from location to location, but each provides an opportunity to learn a bit more about the people and places you’re visiting, giving you an unforgettable taste of a country and its culture.*
Made from fermented grain, this ubiquitous drink is shared by friends around the kitchen. Every batch is different — sometimes it’s smooth and easy to drink, while some batches could be used as paint thinner if the need arose. However, sharing a cup of raksi is a great way to get know the locals of Nepal and hear stories.
Chicha (or Chicha de Maiz): Colombia and Peru
Usually sold in the markets or on the streets, chicha is a fermented drink made from corn and sweetened with sugar cane. You’ll hear vendors crying out “chicha, chicha,” and sometimes see kids walking around with a cup. However, don’t be alarmed — there’s also a non-alcoholic version, which tastes very similar.
Often described as “fuerte,” or “strong,” puro (which means “pure”) is distilled from sugarcane and created in stills all over Ecuador. Bring your own empty water bottle and you can fill it up for minimal cost with this high-octane beverage. Just be sure to clearly mark the bottle so as to avoid swigging straight puro instead of water.
Feni: Goa, India
While there are several locally distilled alcohols produced in India, the most well-known to visitors is feni, found exclusively in Goa. Made from either cashews or coconuts (both versions are available), locals usually buy feni directly from the neighborhood distillers. However, India recently designated feni a cultural product — a heritage drink — and you can find commercially distributed bottles as well.
Technically, tej is mead — honey wine — not an alcohol, but this national drink, which resembles orange juice, still packs a serious punch. It can contain 19 percent alcohol or more, depending on how long it’s left to ferment, but the sweet flavor often masks the alcoholic taste, making it harder to remember how many you’ve had. You can find the drink in restaurants and tej houses, and each version is unique to the creator.
Slivovice: Czech Republic
Once produced in cellars and garages, this traditional Czech liquor is now being produced by small-batch distillers as well. Made from plums (another version is made from apricots), slivovice, pronounced “slivovitze,” is popular at weddings and other celebrations. If someone asks if you’d like to try pálenka, go for it — this is slang for homemade alcohol like slivovice.
Also called poteen and pronounced “potcheen,” this grain- or potato-based moonshine was historically made in small batches in hidden stills in rural Ireland. The illegal version was very potent (upwards of 80 percent alcohol) and rumored to cause blindness in some. However, poitín was declared legal in 1997 — under the condition that the alcohol content was reduced — and it can now be found in some pubs and liquor stores.
Tsipouro or Raki: Greece
Made from the remaining must from winemaking and allowed to ferment, raki, or tsipouro, is found around Greece. While this liquor is not difficult to find, it may be a bit more difficult to find tasty versions. Most of the best versions of raki are found in homes, where families distill it for their own use and break it out for gatherings and guests. Make friends with locals and see if they’ll let you sample their personal raki.
Witblits: South Africa
Witblits, Afrikaans for “white lightning,” is made from grapes and closely resembles Greek ouzo — it’s a clear brandy with a high alcohol content. As with other versions of moonshine, quality can vary greatly. Some families have handed down recipes for years, though, resulting in some very smooth ‘shine. Go to Philippolis in April and you might be able to participate in the Witblits Festival.
These are just some of the local moonshines you can seek out on your travels. The next time you visit a new place, ask around — see what the locals are drinking and make a few new friends. You never know what might be poured in your cup.
*A note of caution: These beverages are usually made at home and may not be created with the highest degree of cleanliness or with the purest ingredients. As with every experience, use caution and listen to the advice of those around you who may be more informed.