The cheapest alcohol in the world: Laos rice whiskey
One of the by-products of putting together a database of travel prices in well over 100 cities around the world is that you are going to come across some rather remarkable data. Previous examples we covered were the world's cheapest beer, which is in Vietnam, and the world's cheapest hostel, which is in Cambodia.
Well, the trend of amazingly cheap things in mainland Southeast Asia continues here, with what is certainly the world's cheapest liquor, in Laos. For a long time the cheapest vodkas in Russia might have been contenders in this category, but recent rules regarding minimum prices there (at least for the legal stuff) have made those at least five times more expensive than what you can still get in Laos today.
Lao-lao – Laos rice whiskey
In Vientiane you can find this stuff in small shops all over the tourist district for under US$1 for a full-size bottle, with an alcohol percentage of 40 or 45. In a retail setting it's usually clear, but there are other varieties that have an amber color to them.
Cheapest price spotted: .7-liter/45% alcohol for 6000 Lao kip = US$0.74
That's right, for just under 75 US cents you can be the proud owner of your own bottle of locally produced rice whiskey, usually known as lao-lao. It's a simply made whiskey that is distilled from rice, and it's available all over Laos. If you watch various travel shows you might have seen the hosts sampling lao-lao right next to the M*A*S*H-style still that produced it in the jungle, but it's also available in normal retail outlets, obviously produced in large quantities.
And the taste and so forth?
Many people see the price and automatically assume it tastes like turpentine and/or will give you a massive hangover, so they won't even try the stuff. Those people are missing out, in my opinion. The lao-lao that I tried in many different places in the country is actually quite good, and I (surprisingly, perhaps) never experienced any sort of hangover beyond what would be normal with any similar spirit costing 25 times more.
The taste is actually quite mild, and reminds me a little of vanilla, although it's also a very neutral taste so it mixes well with any of the fresh fruit juices that are also cheaply available all over Laos. I'd take the lao-lao instead of a US$10 bottle of grocery-store vodka in the US any day. Not everyone is going to like the stuff, but it's worth a try when you are in Laos, and it's very easy on the budget if you do like it.
As mentioned, you can find the stuff all over Laos, in nearly any road-side shop or market. Weirdly enough, I noticed that it was incredibly cheap in the capital city of Vientiane, but about three times more expensive in Luang Prabang. I asked a few locals why such a big difference, and none could properly explain it, especially since they say that the stuff is produced closer to Luang Prabang than Vientiane anyway. Most things are more expensive in Luang Prabang, but not by this much.
You can also find a free-flowing version of this rice whiskey in many tourist restaurants. A small glass will set you back under 50 cents, and what they say on the menu is a “bottle” is usually under US$2. The “bottle” at restaurants will actually be a Pepsi or other soft drink bottle filled with the stuff from some much larger container.
Since fresh fruit juices are usually US$1 or less at these same restaurants, you can easily mix your own cocktails as a group, or just try it straight like the locals tend to do.
I've also been told that the local villagers buy it in plastic bags themselves, which obviously saves on packaging and cleaning of bottles, and means an even lower price. I never saw rice whiskey available by the bag though, so I don't know how much less it costs or how it might taste.
Visiting Whiskey Village near Luang Prabang
If you take a boat tour, or even a bus tour, to the (disappointing) Pak Ou Caves north of the city, you will definitely also stop at what they call Whiskey Village. When I went in late 2010, it consisted of one table filled with variations of lao-lao, which you do get to sample, and a few unrelated souvenir stands.
This lao-lao comes in a few different flavors, some of which are sweet, and is sold in small designer bottles. It's much more expensive than the stuff you find in shops or restaurants, but probably better quality, and you do get to see the equipment they claim they make the stuff in as well.