The Curious Case Of Snake Wine: How This Odd Beverage Is Made

Informational

Snake wine in alcohol jars

When you hear “alcohol,” you may think of whiskey, vodka, rum, gin, beer, or wine. But did you know there is a realm of exotic alcohols made from the strangest ingredients? A great, quite intimidating example would be snake wine!

 

Snake wine is a popular alcoholic beverage in Southeast Asia made from rice wine with a whole snake submerged in it! At first glance, it seems to be not for the faint of heart, but once you get to know it, you may have a change of heart. 

If you want to be enlightened about this special drink, this blog contains some fascinating information you need to know. Read on!

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What is Snake Wine?

Snake wine is undoubtedly one of Southeast Asia’s most bizarre culinary offerings. It is made in various methods, but the most well-known way is to place a whole venomous snake in a container of alcohol, typically rice wine.

A living snake is frequently packed into a jar and allowed to sit for several months. Several specific spices and herbs are added to infuse the wine container with some unusual flavors. This drink is often consumed due to its supposed medicinal attributes.

What Does Snake Wine Taste Like?

Asian old couple drinking snake wine

Rice wine is often described as having a woody, somewhat sweet flavor, while the snake's presence imparts a fish or meat flavor. Incorporating various herbs or spices can sometimes produce a vegetal therapeutic taste and aroma for the wine.

But if you ask tourists or first-timers about the said drink, their descriptions may not be as positive. While most are successful at swallowing it, they seem to regret it afterward. 

They describe the smell as pungent and somewhat reminiscent of a dead animal or decayed meat. Tastewise is quite bitter, sour, earthy, and overall strong. The aftertaste also does not get better, so you might want to chase it with something to make it more tolerable. 

We guess people initially react this way because they already know beforehand that they will be drinking wine with a snake in it. After all, people eat or drink with their eyes first, so they probably assume it would be bad. If you want to test it on your friends or colleagues, try blindfolding them to see whether they will react differently. 

If you believe in its capacity to cure different conditions and continue to consume snake wine, chances are you will get used to its taste.

Snake Wine’s History

A Chinese medicine practitioner

The combination of snake and alcohol has been long known to have healing properties in different parts of the world. Snake wine was first recorded in China during the Western Zhou dynasty (771 BC).

The therapeutic usage of snakes was described in the medical treatise Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, the oldest Chinese materia medica still in existence. It was compiled between 300 BC and 200 AD. 

Bencao Gangmu, a 16th-century Chinese medicine and natural history Encyclopedia, goes into extensive detail about employing various snake excrement, body parts, and numerous preparations.

Yang Jisheng, a revolutionary historian and a Chinese journalist, was administered snake bile to cure ailments he sustained in jail in 1554.

Snake wine was also utilized by the ancient Greeks to treat retained placentas, while traditional healers and herbalists in Europe blended vodka with small snakes and calamus roots. On the other hand, snakes are soaked in fermented sugar cane juice in Brazil for religious purposes and to treat rheumatism, impotence, and bug bites.

While alcoholic snake medicines have been used for ages in various situations throughout continents, the practice is presently most widespread in Asia, including Cambodia, China, and Vietnam.

It's not uncommon to see bottles of snake wine as you travel down the streets and marketplaces in Vietnam. After all, snakes and their internal organs have traditionally been seen to promote energy and health by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners.

Snake Wine Preparation & Production

Venomous snake

There are a few ways to prepare snake wine. You may ferment the entire venomous snake alive, the extracted blood and bile after it is freshly killed, or just its meat. 

The first step starts by immersing the live snake in alcohol, preferably with a concentration of 50%, then sealing it for preservation. The ratio of the live snake to wine is 1:10, which means 500 grams of the snake must be steeped in 5 kg of liquor. 

Then, it is stored for at least two months before consuming it. However, the therapeutic effect is enhanced when marinated for six months or more.

The next method is killing the snake outright and combining its blood and bile with the chosen distilled liquor. Here, the snake is not soaked in the wine; the customer instantly consumes the mixture as a shot.

Another alternative is soaking the snake’s meat in rice wine or any other type of liquor. Before soaking it in the alcohol, the fresh snake flesh is rinsed with water and then disinfected with white wine for about 5 minutes. The snake to wine ratio should be roughly 1:5, letting the meat ferment for three months before drinking.

If preferred, you may add Chinese herbal medicines or other spices and herbs to the wine to improve its medicinal properties and flavor profile.

Is Snake Wine Safe to Drink?

Shot glass of snake wine

In general, yes, snake wine is safe to consume. But given that it’s not commonly sold anywhere and involves a live animal, one must be extra cautious when trying it.

As mentioned, snakes in such wines are usually alive and venomous. Despite containing such a dangerous toxin, this is neutralized by the high alcohol content of the rice wine, allowing the drinker to live another day after trying it.

Since snake wine is, first and foremost, alcohol, it becomes dangerous when consumed in large amounts. Its alleged medicinal properties may entice you, but it is important to know that moderate consumption is key when drinking, especially since snake wine is considered exotic alcohol.

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Health Benefits of Snake Wine

Snake wine from Golden triangle in Thailand

Snake venom has proven to be a particularly significant medicinal resource. It serves as an ingredient for clinical trials, diagnostics, and medication to manage increased blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, deep vein thrombosis, or blood clots, among other conditions.

In fact, medicines developed from venom research have benefited millions of people and generated billions of dollars.

In the USA, FDA-approved medications containing a synthetic chemical compound that behaves similarly to snake venom are used to treat cardiac problems. Captopril, Integrilin, and Aggrastat are some examples.

For many people who do not have access to advanced pharmaceuticals or medical treatment, medicines derived from snakes and other animals are frequently their only option.

Snake wine has been promoted as a treatment for numerous medical problems, including arthritis, rheumatic diseases, back pain, fever, hair loss, dry skin, and farsightedness. But, it is best known and highly sought-after as a purportedly potent aphrodisiac, as snakes signify virility in Vietnamese culture and are typically connected with male potency.

While many studies prove the contribution of snake venom to the field of medicine, the same may not be said about snake wine. The snake itself is venomous, but its effect is reduced since the potent alcohol cancels out the venom.

That’s why there seems to be a lack of scientific evidence proving the effectiveness of snake wine as a legitimate cure for such diseases, especially in modern times. For now, people consume it solely on the beliefs of ancient practices and customs.

Where to Find Snake Wine

Chinese market

Snake wine is common in Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and Taiwan. 

It is often accessible at marketplaces and authentic snake restaurants and is typically offered on its own in casual settings rather than as part of a meal.

Traditional snake restaurants and establishments are usually family-owned and operated, with generations of expertise obtaining and managing venomous snakes. One example is the She Wong Lam restaurant in Hong Kong.

Beware of homemade snake wines or dubious snake wine merchants because their drink preparation might be hazardous to your health. There are some instances when rice wine is replaced with ethanol, rubbing alcohol, or vinegar. And instead of venomous snakes, they use non-fatal common keelbacks, which they stretch out to disguise as cobras.

The Dark Side of Snake Wine 

White and Brown Snake on the Grass

Snake wine may be popular and normal in Asia, but it may not be seen positively in other parts of the world. First and foremost, snakes are needed to make this drink, and while the wildlife trade occurs, it is not approved in other countries.

One study in Brazil documents how the snake trade is frequent but often unregulated, which could result in the overexploitation of such animals, including endangered species. No accurate statistics show how many snakes are used for medicinal purposes, which needs to be addressed to know this practice’s impact on the snake population.

The situation is the same in Vietnam, as Alice Hughes, Benjamin Marshall, and Colin Strine pointed out. They explained it in detail in their research showing the threat faced by thousands of reptile species due to the unregulated wildlife trade.

One of the consequences of this problem is an imbalance in the ecosystem. One report in Vietnam states that the issue of decreasing snakes leads to an increasing number of rats that cause damage to rice crops.

In addition, since snake wine is not widely available in other countries, you may think of creating your own batch. However, it’s not safe because it involves a dangerous living animal. Granted, the snake succumbs due to being submerged in alcohol for an extended period, but it’s not always the case.

Perhaps the most infamous story involving snake wine is the 2013 incident where a Chinese woman was bitten by a snake steeped in sorghum wine for three months. Liu from Shuangcheng reportedly had rheumatism, which she had hoped to combat with snake wine. 

When she opened her jar of snake wine to stir and get a glass, the pit viper jumped out and bit her hand. This occurrence rarely happens when snakes are kept in an improperly sealed container which allows air to enter the vessel. This puts the snakes in a hibernation-like state, allowing them to stay alive.

While Liu was rushed to the hospital and immediately treated, other people who had encounters with snake wine were not so lucky. Another Chinese woman bought a many-banded krait, a highly venomous snake, to make her own snake wine. Before she could, the snake bit her, putting her in a coma, where she eventually died. 

So if you are not an expert in this craft, it would be wise not to engage in it so you will not suffer the same fate as the woman. 

On another note, snakes are usually viewed as deadly, but some people see the process of making snake wine as inhumane. The fact that a live snake is drowned in alcohol or cut open to drain its blood is enough to make some people upset and alarmed. This is why snake wine is not legal in other countries.

Snake Wine FAQ

Bottles of different snake liquor

1. Is snake wine legal?

Snake wine is legal in Southeast Asia and countries like Korea and China. But importing snake wine to the United States as a souvenir or drink is a different matter. 

Bringing back products made of endangered species is prohibited in the US because these creatures are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, covering both live and dead animals. 

Cobras, the most popular snake used in snake wine, are banned from importation since they are endangered animals. On the other hand, snake wine manufactured from non-endangered species appears to be allowed as long as it is reported and adequately evaluated at the airport.

2. Does snake wine expire?

Snake wine uses rice wine or grain alcohol which are strictly high proof; thus, they have a longer shelf life than low ABV alcohols. This should be enough to preserve the snake and make the drink shelf-stable for a long time if unopened.

However, when it has been opened and left in the bottle, its quality may decline, as in many liquors. While there is no definite number of years that it’s still okay to drink, it’s safe to assume that it’s still good after a year from opening.

But when the liquid has become cloudy, it may indicate that it has gone bad and should be discarded.

3. What kind of snake is put in snake wine?

Snake wine is made with venomous snakes, and it is important to emphasize the difference between venomous snakes and poisonous snakes.

Although both are equally dangerous and bearers of harmful toxins, their approaches are different. Venomous snakes tend to be active, meaning they become deadly when they inject their toxins into you via biting or stinging.

On the other hand, poisonous snakes are passive, which means they become lethal when you come in contact with them or ingest them. Hence, you cannot drink wine infused with a dead or alive poisonous snake.

Copperheads, rattlesnakes, coral snakes, and cobras are some examples of venomous snakes. Snake winemakers usually use cobras for their exquisite infusion, perhaps because they have a hood, as a result of expanding their ribs and muscles by the neck, making them look more menacing.

Conclusion

There you have it - the bizarre and unique snake wine from Asia! It is commonly consumed for medicinal purposes rather than pleasure, but such medicinal attributes are still up for debate. 

If you decide to try it, ensure it comes from a legitimate source for your safety. 

Some people accept it, while others frown upon it. Nevertheless, it is still one intriguing drink! Check out the amazing peanut butter whiskey if you want to learn about another exotic liquor without a dead animal. 

What are your thoughts about snake wine? Let us know in the comments.

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