Eddie Lin first tried snake wine about 16 years ago, when a friend purchased a bottle from a combination liquor and dried herbs store in downtown Hong Kong. The cobra inside seemed to be rearing up, poised for attack.
According to Lin, author of Extreme Cuisine and founder of Deep End Dining, a food blog dedicated to some of the world’s strangest dishes, the liquor tasted “straightforward: rice wine with a protein finish, like a fishy chicken”. His version was simply alcohol and snake, but the drink often includes herbs and spices, such as ginseng or wolfberries, to enhance the flavour.
Traditional Chinese medicine believes that snakes have important restorative and invigorative properties, from increasing virility to treating health conditions such as hair loss, back pain and rheumatism. That’s why it’s common to find snake dishes throughout Asia, such as snake soup: a Cantonese delicacy made with such ingredients as a spicy broth, chicken, abalone, mushrooms, pork, ginger, and of course, snake meat.
It’s also why some have gone so far as to drink the reptile: cutting its head off and pouring its spurting blood into a shot glass, or mixing snake bodily fluids – such as blood or bile – with alcohol.
The most common preparation, however, is to drop an entire venomous snake – sometimes still alive, and sometimes from an endangered species – into a jar of rice wine or other alcohol. It’s left there to steep for several months while the ethanol absorbs the "essence" from the snake and breaks down the venom.
This so-called “snake wine” can be found across Southeast Asia. It’s often sold in heavily touristy roadside stalls and shopping centres, usually as show-stopping centrepieces with full-hooded cobras and other creepy crawlies inside. “You'll never see this wine at a Chinese banquet,” Lin said. “That'd be akin to bringing a beer tube to a wedding reception.”
But as popular as this bucket-list delicacy is – are travellers also encouraging a dubious tradition?
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“Although the [snake wine] tradition has existed for centuries in Asia, the trade is presumed to have grown at a startling rate since Southeast Asia opened its doors to the West,” reports a 2010 University of Sydney study.
In August 2015, a You Tube video of a live snake being stuffed into a large bottle of alcohol during the making of snake wine went viral, with viewers shocked to watch the reptile drawing its last breaths.
At Taipei’s famous Snake Valley (formally known as the Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market), hawkers have been known to slice a snake along its underbelly and drain the blood into a glass filled with rice wine or grain alcohol in front of you. Travellers who see this live skinning of reptiles as a cruel relic of a past era are starting to steer clear.
And, although extremely rare, it seems as though some snakes can survive in the bottle for months – possibly due to their ability to hibernate – sinking their fangs into whoever is unlucky enough to awaken them. In 2013, gruesome reports surfaced of a woman from China’s Heilongjiang Province being bitten on the hand after a snake jumped out of a bottle of wine where it had been fermenting for three months. She’d made the medicinal drink herself, allegedly from a viper, after a friend suggested it would help her joint pain. Snake bottling karma, perhaps?
If all that hasn’t put you off, remember this: although the bottle might look great on your shelf, any venom-induced reptilian powers you think you get upon drinking it are quite possibly just another instance of the booze talking.