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Lào-láo and other rice spirits

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Drunk with gusto by the Lao is lào-láo, a clear rice alcohol with the fire of a blinding Mississippi moonshine. Most people indulge in local brews, the taste varying from region to region and even town to town.

Drinking lào-láo often takes on the air of a sacred ritual, albeit a rather boisterous one. After (or sometimes during) a meal, the host will bring out a bottle of lào-láo to share with the guests. The host begins the proceedings by pouring a shot of lào-láo and tossing it onto the ground to appease the house spirit. He then pours himself a measure, raising the glass for all to see before throwing back the drink and emptying the remaining droplets onto the floor, in order to empty the glass for the next drinker. The host then pours a shot for each guest in turn. After the host has completed one circuit, the bottle and the glass are passed along to a guest, who serves him- or herself first, then the rest of the party, one by one. Guests are expected to drink at least one shot in order not to offend the house spirit and the host, although in such situations there’s often pressure, however playful, to drink much more. One polite escape route is to take a sip of the shot and then dump out the rest on the floor during the “glass emptying” move.

Another rice alcohol, lào hái, also inspires a festive, communal drinking experience. Drunk from a large earthenware jar with thin bamboo straws, lào hái is fermented by households or villages in the countryside and is weaker than lào-láo, closer to a wine in taste than a backwoods whisky. Drinking lào hái, however, can be a bit risky as unboiled water is sometimes added to the jar during the fermentation process.

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