From snake wine to fire water, brandy is all medicinal

Halfway from Hanoi to Haiphong and nearby Ha Long Bay, the weary driver of the four-hour bus trip makes a pit stop. It’s a convenient one: a craft centre, and among the souvenirs for sale is Vietnam’s famous ruou thuoc or snake wine, a medicinal wine.

For those who enjoy wine – the adventure of it, and everything else – there are many countries where the tourist is hard done by. Move outside the comfort of traditional wine-producing nations and the pleasure trip becomes tricky, the liquid in your glass a negotiated local settlement. And interesting, as in the case of Vietnam.

Religious-based prohibition in some countries have alcohol-free landscapes, except in those strangely isolated foreigner spaces where you are allowed to get your fix behind closed doors – with a hefty mark-up for run-of-the-mill brands and a generous tax.

But even in places where alcoholic beverages don’t hide in the dark, it can be tricky to get wine, let alone a decent one.

Cross our northern border and the challenge is on. Fly northeast and all lingering thoughts of Cape winelands gratification evaporate.

The wine is a costly import of bland reds and whites. Labels are more likely evidence of the original wine producer’s marketing reach and trading skills than an indication of your host’s connoisseur suss.

“Better to stick to beer” is a handy rule for many of the countries beyond our borders – the big beer companies are doing the big-money merger and buyout tangos, so the beverage should be good.

Or you can try, depending on your sense of adventure, whatever is brewed or distilled on local soil. Call yourself a culture indulgent. Take Vietnam’s snake wine as an example.

Steeped in what is probably rice spirits in the clear glass bottle is an ominous presence: a real (dead) snake. In others there are infused giant scorpions.

For those daring enough, a small tasting glass looms. Beyond the high alcohol content is a horrible taste, best hastily swallowed and put out of your mind.

According to legend and custom, this is medication for all ailments of mind and body. This is easy to understand – the shock of it is probably the cure.

Alcohol has, for centuries, played its part as a cure or health supplement. Only months ago, some study group submitted that champagne was good for the mind. And red wine goes in and out of curative fashion.

In South Africa the dop to drink for just about all disorders has always been brandy. Well, there was, and is, also mampoer. But, if we take it that brandy is truly the spirit of the grape, it is this “fire water” that generations have turned to in time of need.

Say what you will, but dop en dam (brandy and a dash of water) is still the elixir to solve all farming problems as the sun sets over yonder windmill. (Perhaps it takes on more poignancy in these hard days of drought.)

Buchu brandy has cured more illnesses than doctors will recognise, and many a meal has had its just rewards in the finest of gold spirits in a snifter glass.

Right now South African brandy distillers are producing some of the finest in the world. At the top end, at good ages of 12 to 18 years and beyond, the names of KWV, Oude Meester, Van Rijn and a host of others offer the most exciting drink when consideration counts.

Spirit of the weekend

Oude Meester Souverein 18-year-old brandy. Crowned with five stars in the new Platter wine guide and double gold at Veritas, this is a golden masterpiece to sniff and savour.

Melvyn Minnaar
Guest Author
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