Walk long enough through the night market in Hoi An, Vietnam, and you will eventually spot white-eyed cobras in glass bottles, coiled upright in a mass of yellow liquid. These bottles contain snake wine, a strong alcoholic beverage that can be found all over South China and Southeast Asia. Although this concoction is often sold for its tourist-shock factor, it actually has a long tradition as a medicinal drink, stretching back to China’s Western Zhou dynasty.
In traditional Chinese medicine, distilling a snake’s “essence” into wine is said to cure everything from rheumatism to hair loss. Although venomous snakes are considered especially powerful, any venom gets denatured by the ethanol in the wine. The drink is also widely touted as an aphrodisiac that enhances virility.
Wine-makers typically use one large snake per bottle. They might throw in roots, berries, and herbs to enhance the flavor or healing properties, or add smaller snakes, scorpions, or geckos. After filling the bottle with rice wine (whiskey is a popular alternative in Thailand and Laos), they'll leave the resulting brew to steep for months.
The resulting elixir is meant to be sipped slowly and savored. The flavor of snake wine been described as earthy and likened to “rice wine with a protein finish, like a fishy chicken." Most versions supply the burning snap of strong liquor.
Precision and expertise counts in the making of a good, safe batch of snake wine. If the snake hasn’t been properly cleaned and gutted, it may contain parasites, which can prove fatal. Sometimes, a wine-maker might drown a live snake in the alcohol. For those who might consider this cruel, know that the snake sometimes has its revenge. If the animal is not drowned properly, it can remain alive and dormant in the wine for months, ready to jump out and attack an unsuspecting drinker. This is rare, but it did happen to a woman in China’s Heilongjiang province in 2013.