Teaching in China has its disadvantages—working on Christmas and the occasional weekend, the time difference from the US, and the coronavirus madness among them—but one huge perk is a generous winter vacation. While the Western world is nursing hangovers and New Year’s resolutions, my coworkers and I have 4-5 weeks between January and February to explore Asia or go back home.
This year, I chose to hop around Asia. My first stint was in Koh Samui, Thailand, where I suffered/enjoyed a 90-minute Muay Thai workout most days. The others, I explored the unexpected number of Italian restaurants and bars, Thai food and night markets that cluster Lamai Beach, where I had the pleasure of staying.
At the beginning, I befriended one of the Italian restaurant owners and made plans to review his prestigious Grappa for my first MALT review; unfortunately, a case of food poisoning robbed me of the chance. Left with a desire to contribute SOMETHING to the community my esteemed peers have created, I elected to review instead SangSom Rum, Thailand’s mainstay and extremely affordable spirit. I paid about 5 US dollars for a 200ml bottle, while my friend Jeff (whom you’ll meet shortly) paid $20 in Busan, South Korea for a full-size bottle.
I took a year off “fun solo travel” in 2018 to save money, meaning that while I went home, I didn’t explore a ton of distilleries or go to other countries just for the hell of it. Now that I’ve resumed, as an even bigger whiskey fan than I was before then, I’ve thought a lot about bourbon—or the lack of it—abroad.
My own path to loving America’s self-proclaimed spirit began when I drank wine in Argentina. Since I was raised in a teetotaling religious family, alcohol was strictly forbidden; more than that, it wasn’t even a thing one would mention in order to be told it wasn’t allowed! That said, I’ve always felt like “everything in moderation” is a good principle. As a student about to study abroad myself back in 2006, I heard a fellow churchgoer complain how boring her three-month stay in Spain had been. Why? She’d refused to go out at night with other students since there was often alcohol involved.
I admire anyone who sticks to their values with such fervor, but my own weren’t fully formed yet. I decided, for the first of many times, to be more open to what my new culture could teach me. For me, that meant exploring anything Argentina offered—even if it might be verboten back home. In moderation, of course.
Thus, in Buenos Aires, I took a timid sip one night of a strawberry daiquiri. Never a fan of sweet drinks, I “advanced”—if that’s the term—quickly to red wine. Over Spring Break, new girlfriends and I took a bus across the whole of the country, crossing from east to west to explore Mendoza. While I’ve never grown to love Malbec (Argentina’s signature offering) as much as a Cabernet Sauvignon, it is there that I grew to love wine.
Next, I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada for six years. My career grew as my experiences with alcohol did; thankfully, my role as a high school teacher kept me from ever getting too into the party scene. Instead, I enjoyed discovering wine tastings and enjoying the occasional perks (say, free drink tickets) that came with being a local woman in her twenties.
Towards the end of my time there, I discovered the Double Helix Wine & Whiskey Lounge on a date in Town Square. This delightful place offered, and still does, dozens of amazing Scotches, ryes and bourbons, and it was there that a lightbulb went off: whisk(e)y was not just a grandpa’s drink. Anyone could enjoy its flavor nuances, just like wine.
Fast forward a few years, and I’d discovered the Bourbon Trail, craft cocktail bars in Florida and illegal liquor in Kuwait. Those are stories for later, but the point is this: while the United States and Europe offer more whiskey than one could ever dream, other countries aren’t so lucky. What’s a girl to do, then?
Falling back on my old ethos: try the local fare! It’s all about openness and discovery. In Koh Samui, Grappa would have been an easier move—even a copout—due to my love of wine, but maybe things turned out for the best. After all, how could I not enjoy Thailand’s national spirit before tackling an imported liquor?
According to a myriad of sources, the rum was crafted in 1977 and does contain additives and coloring that make it a less-than-pure spirit. As I saw in Koh Samui, it’s often listed under “whiskey” on a restaurant’s list of liquors, but it is made from molasses. Aged for approximately three years, it comes in at 40% ABV with a light golden hue that complements its taste and makes it perfect for a long nap by the pool.
Since this is my first review, I decided to ask someone whose ability to combine apt, well-formed descriptions impressed me upon our first whiskey tasting together. Jeff Harrison, aka @whiskyguykorea, shared some amazing places in South Korea to drink bourbon when we met, but he also knows area spirits. Having lived in Asia for the better part of 30 years, he is better acquainted with Sangsom than me. Consequently, his notes are also included in hopes of better equipping you, dear reader, with the most accurate perspective.
SangSom Thai Rum – Abigail’s Review
Color: resinous honey.
On the nose: astringent, very bright, notes of citrus and honey. Reminds me of illegal liquor I had in Kuwait, but perhaps that was just the last time I drank rum like this. Or, to be honest, it could have been this same stuff, repackaged.
In the mouth: low burn on the front end, but more in the throat. Sweet, but in a light, affected way that lacks the syrupy overload of darker rums. Weight of honey on the tongue. The finish: not much of one, but still lingers in the mouth a bit. The sweetness is a light aftertaste that, again, lacks the sickening, heavy syrup overload of rums with darker additives.
SangSom Thai Rum – Jeff’s Review
Color: dark amber to light brown.
On the nose: molasses and burnt caramel, with a small hint of citrus and spice hiding in the shadows.
In the mouth: no alcohol burn. Brown sugar, raisins, ginger, and those spicy Christmas gum drops you hated as a child but now find oddly delicious. Fruitcake. The finish comes after the ginger gets done doing its thing, it gets shooed out the door by the raisins, who linger and frolic on the tongue and gums on a slab of fruitcake.
Score: including monetary value 6/10. On taste alone, 4/10.
This is surprisingly drinkable and lacks the atrocious hangovers of my illicit Kuwaiti experiences. That said, it’s not incredibly complex, and it’s definitely more palatable with a mixer. Still, not a bad face for Thailand to put forward… and a fun way to remember my time in the tropics. Maybe it’ll wash away any coronavirus hanging out on me after my recent layover near Wuhan…