I had the privilege of spending my Chinese New Year in Shanwei, Guangdong, meeting my Chinese girlfriend’s family. I spent the week going from house to house, eating glorious feasts and drinking my weight in fine Chinese liquor, cognac, and beer. The hospitality shown me was beyond anything I had ever experienced. Relatives were giving me gifts left and right. And while all of them were generous, probably the most special gift I received was from a cousin: a leather flask of Mongolian milk liquor.
The Mongolians — of Genghis Kahn fame — are known for a few things. First, they have a tradition of being fierce, fearless warriors. Second, they primarily eat meat, and mostly beef. And they eat every part of the animal, including the head and eyeballs. Third, they are world-famous horse riders. And fourth, unlike most Chinese people, Mongolians eat and drink lots of dairy products. As I learned, they distill liquor from cow’s milk.
One of the interesting things about this liquor was its presentation. It came in a leather flask with Chinese characters on it. I could read the characters for milk alcohol, and Mongolian, but that was all. Fair enough: they told me what I needed to know. Mongolian milk liquor is made by allowing cow’s milk to ferment, then distilling it to purify it. Despite what I imagined, it was clear and not white. This is from the distillation process, by which the white milk alcohol is boiled, and the steam from the evaporation is collected, leaving behind the milk solids.
This clear liquor had the distinct smell of sweet milk. I was thus expecting it to taste like milk, but to my surprise, it did not. Rather, it had a distinctly sharp, bitter flavor that was frankly shocking. However, after a few sips, though the bitterness remained, the milky element bore a very faint presence as an aftertaste. The alcohol content was not listed on the flask, but I would place it somewhere around 45%.
As I took sips of the Mongolian milk liquor, I imagined that I was a soldier in Genghis Kahn’s army, hundreds of years ago. We ride our horses bareback across the steppes, a horde of men for whom war is life. We approach a town. The guards in the watchtower have sounded the alarm, and the local militia waits for us. Kahn raises his hand and shouts, and we stop for a moment. We know that battle is imminent, and that blood will flow freely this day. We all pull our leather flasks from our sacks, and take a long swig of our milk liquor to prepare us for battle. As Kahn shouts his command, we goad our horses into the fray, ready for life or for death, whichever may come.