Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mongolia Inside & Out 104 - Alcohol

Last time in Mongolia Inside & Out, readers were treated to an info-dump of tips for dining in Ulaanbaatar along with some general comments on Mongolian cuisine.  In the 103 post, I alluded to alcohol, particularly with recommendations for good beer in the capital.  But alcohol in Mongolia merits an entire post of its own.

Chinggis: world-conqueror and premium-quality vodka

A few words on drinking alcohol in Mongolia:

Every country has its own drinking culture, or numerous drinking subcultures.  Mongolia is no exception.  The production, exchange, and consumption of several kinds of alcohol are significant components of Mongolian society.  Official visits to someone's home, religious celebrations, national holidays, graduations, weddings, and office parties all involve vodka or some sort of alcoholic beverage (often airag, fermented mare's milk produced primarily at the household level).

What to drink:
But it's not all bad news: drinking culture in Mongolia includes a lot of merry-making, singing, jokes, and bonding.  But what do you drink when you're in Mongolia?  The primary alcoholic beverages you will encounter in Mongolia are the Big Three: vodka, fermented mare's milk, and beer.

Vodka  (arikh)

This photo is appropriate for my Mongolian vodka consumption experience on several levels

On vodka: imbibe with caution!  If you attend any ceremonies or parties in Mongolia, you will probably have to take at least one or two shots of vodka.  Sorry, there's not much way to get around it.  Refusing food and drink in Mongolia is very rude, although most Mongolians are too polite to tell you that you are being disrespectful of your host, so just accept the shot glass.  Like with all items in Mongolian society, accept your glass with both hands or your right hand (supported under the elbow by your left hand) to show your host respect.  You may observe some of the older folks dip a fingertip into the vodka and flick outward in several directions.  They are offering some of the vodka to the spirits and ancestors.  Some argue that this practice originally arose as a method of detecting poisoned drinks: let a little of the liquid run down the finger to a ring.  If the stone or metal of the ring changed colors, the drink was poisoned.

PRO-TIP: if you are taking shots, touch the contents to your lips and then hold your glass until everyone else gets distracted.  Then surreptitiously dump the contents in a corner and pretend to take your shot.  You will not be able to match your Mongolian friends shot for shot, so don't bother trying.  If you get caught, just laugh it off with good humor and take the next shot without making a fuss (but go ahead and try to dump it again when you get your 2nd or 3rd shot).  Note: this trick does not work unless you are 1) in a ger with a gap between the wall and carpet/flooring or 2) are out-of-doors; learn from my mistakes.

Or you can just tough it out and take your shot/bowl of vodka, as I did in 2008
(Dundgovi Province)

Strictly speaking, vodka (arikh) is mass-produced domestically or imported from abroad.  There are several variants of Mongolian moon-shine that are made by home-distilling milk products.  These high-proof clear alcohols - nermel and shimiin arikh - are potent.  I've heard different explanations for the differences between nermel and shimiin arikh, and I'm not buying it.  The salient differences reside in the kind of milk which has been distilled: mare's milk vs. camel milk vs. cow's milk (I haven't hear of yak, sheep, or goat milk being used, but I wouldn't rule it out).  However, I'm not expert enough for a detailed discussion on the finer points of Mongolian moonshine.  Clearly, further research into Mongolian moonshine is required.

Vodka is a common gift, although the donor risks having to share the bottle if the recipient decides it's time to enjoy the gift here and now.  There are a number of high-end Mongolian brands that come in gorgeous, elaborate packaging partly due to the common practice of giving vodka as a gift on special occasions.  Vodka is also used in traditional ceremonies; for example, while I am hardly well-versed on the intricacies of shamanism in modern Mongolia, my understanding is that a shaman may use vodka to entice the spirit into entering his/her body or to placate other spirits during a visitation.  I can say with great surety that empty vodka bottles are left at ovoo worship sites all the time, likely as offerings, although I have never actually seen someone leave vodka at an ovoo.  But with the number of bottles that pile up on the larger ovoo, it must happen quite frequently!

Fermented mare's milk (airag)

A lovely wooden bowl full of strong airag served to us at the Arkhust Naadam in 2015
Airag is actually a staple of the Mongolian diet and one of the most important comestibles in Mongolian culture.  Airag is only made during the summer, when families who herd horses will tie foals to a hitching line and milk the mothers every two hours.  The mare's milk is collected in a large container and 'pumped' with a huge plunger constantly for days: every family member, irrespective of age, has to do up to 1,000 pumps at a time.  The alcohol content of airag is generally less than beer and children routinely drink airag without incident.  Indeed, airag is a sort of food-drink combo that sustains many families throughout the summer when they prefer not to butcher their animals.

PRO-TIP: do not eat something and drink airag in the same sitting.  Trust me.  You can eat a meal or you can drink airag; you cannot safely do both.  Unless you want to start projectile-vomiting in front of your Mongolian friends and hosts, that is.

In terms of flavor, airag is an acquired taste.  I would describe it as tangy, bubbly yogurt-beer.  The actual flavor profile and consistency varies wildly depending on the region, the time of year, and how long the particular batch has been fermenting.  The best airag is made in Saikhan soum, Bulgan aimag (Saikhan county of Bulgan province), and a canny vendor will claim that his/her airag is from this area to increase sales.  Airag gets strong as fall approaches and the vegetation dries out, although this can also happen earlier in areas impacted by drought.

PRO-TIP: when you are offered a bowl of airag, take a small sip and sit with the bowl in your hands as you visit with your Mongolian hosts.  You are never expected to down the whole bowl on your own in one sitting.  In fact, it is considered back luck to drain a single bowl by yourself in one sitting, as it means that the mares will dry up for that season and produce no more milk.  Instead, take a few sips slowly over a few minutes, and politely hand your bowl back to your host with both hands.  Your host will refill the bowl and pass it to another guest in the ger.

In addition to airag, Mongolians who herd camels produce something called khoormog (aka ингэний хоормог or ingenii khoormog), which is the camel's answer to fermented mare's milk.  Khoormog can be distilled into its own version of nermel.  I've only had khoormog once or twice, and I've never had camel's milk moonshine, but don't find it as flavorful as the best airag.  On the other hand, I readily admit that I likely haven't had the best fermented camel's milk that Mongolia has to offer and am willing to suspend judgment until I can do a proper taste-test.

Beer (shar airag, piv)

Enjoying a cold Kaltenberg on the banks of the Orkhon River in 2015
Beer is alternatively referred to as "yellow airag" (shar airag) or the Mongolian pronunciation of the Russian word for beer (piv, pronounced "peev").  While Mongolian beer hasn't gained global recognition, there are some labels that I, a non-connoisseur, really enjoy; admittedly the really cheap stuff like Borgio isn't much to write home about.  In UB , you can go to a few places that brew their own beer (see Mongolia 102).  Either in the city or increasingly in the countryside, try finding one of the following:

-Chinggis: perhaps the best widely-served beer in Mongolia
-GEM draft
-Kaltenberg: yeasty and strong!

Cheaper and more common alternatives include:
-Senguur (my top pick amongst the 2nd-tier beers)
-Altangovi (Golden Gobi)
-Tiger (the non-Mongolian option)

Many younger people have intentionally switched to drinking beer in the place of vodka, after seeing the effects of alcoholism on their families, neighbors, and society.  Beer is unlikely to replace vodka, as vodka plays a role in numerous traditions and celebrations, but is increasingly popular amongst Mongolians.  Wine, on the other hand, has been a bit less quick to catch on.

Drinking beyond the Big Three
While one's options outside of Ulaanbaatar are mostly limited to beer, airag, and vodka (imported and home-made), things in the capital are quite different.  The last 10 years have brought imported wines, cocktails, and other hard liquor to the watering holes, restaurants, and hot-spots of Ulaanbaatar.  Here are some highlights:

-Mojito House on Seoul Street does a mean passion fruit mojito, but avoid the Mind Eraser Tower unless you have a death wish

-California (further west along Seoul Street) blends an amazing seabuckthorn mojito

-Broadway Pizza - the T.G.I. Friday's of Mongolia - serves a delicious mango colada

-Buy your own bottle of wine at World Wine (head southeast of the Beatles Statue and look for the basement level entrance) or in the wine shop attached to Nayra Cafe

-L'Usine (first floor of Regency Apartments immediately east of the Children's Park) does the only whisky sour in Mongolia that I'm aware of

-Bitter House (across the street from the now-closed Natural History Museum) serves a variety of delightful cocktails with a Mongolian twist

-Veranda Terrazza in Zaisan Square, along with the flagship restaurant near Chojin Lama monastery, has an excellent wine list

Not that you can't get wine or cocktails in the countryside.  Almost anyone who's worked on a field project or done an extended volunteer stay in rural Mongolia will tell you about some concoction meant to replicate a 'fun' drink: the steppe martini (pickle juice and vodka) and the Khovd sunrise (orange Fanta and vodka)  readily spring to mind.  Some families make berry wines or liquors with indigenous herbs and plants, although you're unlikely to see these options in stores or restaurants.  However, if you become friendly with someone who hails from the verdant parts of Mongolia - the khangai and further north - you may get a chance to try home-wines made from local berries or store-bought fruit.

There is an unfortunate dark side to the numerous roles of alcohol in Mongolian social life.  Alcoholism is a serious problem in Ulaanbaatar and rural Mongolia: domestic violence, assault, alcohol poisoning, liver disease, traffic collisions, and even deaths by misadventure (drownings and freezing to death during winter) are regularly linked to excessive consumption of vodka.  Like other forms of substance addition, I think increased alcoholism in Ulaanbaatar (and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Mongolia) is linked to the stresses of transitioning from society as it was during the Socialist era to the increasing modernized, ever-changing city that is Ulaanbaatar today; in particular, the systematic dismantling of state social welfare programs, the disappearance of almost all industrial and factory jobs in the early 90s, and the ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor in Mongolia.  If this sounds like a familiar situation, it's because I believe that many of Mongolia's current problems are by no means unique; rather, Mongolia is struggling through the crises and contortions that most nations embracing global capitalism face.

I highly recommend this post written by Brian White about alcoholism and alcohol consumption in Mongolia from 2014:  White makes the excellent point that per capita alcohol consumption in Mongolia actually falls behind many hard-drinking countries (including the US and Russia) and that a specific sector of Mongolian society seems to be driving the rate and volume of alcohol consumption tied to alcoholism (i.e., men between 25 and 50).  The World Health Organization estimated that about 5% of Mongolian men were alcohol dependent in 2010 ( and the United Nations Development Program reports that alcohol consumption is a factor in 72% of all serious crime in Mongolia (  While I haven't seen the hard numbers, I have heard from numerous sources that alcohol consumption, particularly hard liquor like vodka, is driving rampant rates of domestic violent and child abuse in the country (i.e., 1 in 3 Mongolian women are estimated to experience domestic violence in their lifetime: [Note: one difficulty amongst many in analyzing domestic violence and child abuse in Mongolia, aside from under-reporting and cultural attitudes that such matters are private affairs that should not to be discussed in public, is that many advocacy and monitoring groups seem to inconsistently lump or split domestic violence, violence against women, child abuse, and sexual assault as categories in their analyses and reports]

White's observations jive with my own experiences: while parties and celebrations usually involve heavy drinking, these aren't daily occurrences for most Mongolians (and are more on-par with hard-partying settings in plenty of places I've traveled to or lived in).  In fact, I would say that most public drunkenness is either a function of late-night party-goers or (what I perceive to be) alcoholics who do not represent average Mongolian behavior or lifestyles.  Alcoholics in Mongolia disproportionately seem to be working-class men noticeable from the outside for the severity of their addictions (passing out on sidewalks, fighting in the streets, etc.).   However, the plural of an anecdote is not data, and I do not presume to be an expert on addiction and alcoholism in Mongolia.

I would urge those visiting Mongolia, especially Ulaanbaatar, to be aware of alcoholism and its consequences.  Make sure your driver is sober before setting off and, if you've arranged for a private driver for a countryside trip, confirm that your driver will abstain while working.  This has rarely been an issue for me personally, but better safe than sorry.  Do everything you can to avoid intoxicated people in public.  If you see someone who you suspect is drunk in a public space, avoid eye contact, maintain physical distance, and try to move to a different location quickly and unobtrusively.  The biggest danger comes when an inebriated person is able to make physical contact and, in my experience, most drunks on the street are too slow or far-gone to catch you if you walk quickly and keep your distance.  While most alcoholics are more a danger to themselves than to others - every year drinking-related accidents and misadventures claim the lives of many heavy drinkers, from freezing to death outside in winter to drowning in rivers in summer - many of the Mongolians and non-Mongolians I know who have experienced interpersonal violence in-country have had unfortunate run-ins with drunken people (usually men) in public.

But I hope that my readers will have positive experiences with alcohol when they visit or work in Mongolia.  Airag and khoormog are mildly alcoholic beverages that you'll find few others places in the world; many of Mongolia's home wines are just as rare and unusual, and I will sing the praises of mimosa-esque braash until the cows come home; Kaltenberg, Chinggis, and GEM draft are genuinely tasty Mongolian-brewed beers; sipping a seabuckthorn mojito or ukhriin nud (gooseberry - more on Mongolian fruits and berries in a future post) cosmopolitan at a rooftop bar while watching the sun set over the hills west of Ulaanbaatar is one of the best ways to end a summer's day.  So raise your glass and toast, tuluu!

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