For this month’s installment of my international series, I looked a bit closer to home. Just around the corner from my house sits BKK Cookshop, a restaurant focused on Thai-style street food. This tiny neighborhood kitchen is one of my favorite restaurants in DC. The kitchen is helmed by co-owner Aschara Vigsittaboot, who has built a small Thai-focused culinary empire in DC, and her dishes provide a respite from the more common dishes of Thai fare. Though the usual suspects of Pad Thai and curries are available (with a very BKK spin), the menu brings diners the opportunity to taste new` flavors from the Southeast Asian country.
Noodle bowls dominate the menu, as they are the mainstay of Thai street food hawkers. My favorite dish is the Hot and Spicy Noodle Bowl, a mélange of sour, spicy, and umami that melds together to form a wholly unique and satisfying culinary experience. But what is a good meal without a good drink?
Enter Mekhong, the self-proclaimed “Spirit of Thailand.”
Mekhong’s story began in Thailand’s first distillery, opened by the Thai government in 1914. After many in Thailand acquired a taste for whiskey in the 1920s and 30s, the government began producing a spirit uniquely Thai. This new liquor was infused with herbs and spices used in Thai cuisine and traditional medicine in order to provide an alternative to the many imported whiskies flooding in, and to combat a boozy trade deficit. Fast forward to 1941, and, as their website indicates, the first bottle of “Mekhong” was born out of swell of Thai patriotism during the First Indochina War.
Mekhong is a liquor distilled from sugar cane and glutinous rice, which is then infused with a “secret recipe of natural Thai herbs and spices.” It is a common liquor throughout Thailand, and comes fairly cheaply, though in recent years (and after its 2011 launch into the U.S. and European markets) has been branded as more of a premium spirit. It is commonly found in super markets, and even some convenience stores across Thailand. One person I spoke with labeled it a “poor man’s whiskey,” especially in a land where ordering Johnnie Walker Black bottle service at a bar is the norm.
The flavor on its own is inoffensive, though the nose will sting a bit. Sitting at 70 proof, Mekhong is actually rather smooth, with hints of both sweetness and fragrant herbs that make it a great base for a cocktail. Ralph Brabham, co-owner of BKK, quickly saw a place for Mekhong as part of their weekly draft cocktail rotation, and found it could play well with Campari. “I love bitter drinks. Boulevardiers are my favorite.” And thus the Mekhong Negroni was born.
Since BKK does not have space for a full bar, they focus their cocktails on recipes that are easy for their servers to make quickly, like drinks on tap. The Mekhong Negroni is simple: equal parts Mekhong, Campari, and Dolin Rouge (you can easily sub in your favorite sweet vermouth). Pour over ice and top with an orange twist, and you have a perfect companion to the spiciest and most fragrant of Thai dishes.
The beauty of Mekhong is in its versatility: it can find a home in rum, bourbon, and gin cocktails alike. The dark sweetness of the sugar cane is a clear corollary to rums and bourbons, while its abundance of botanicals and spices makes it kin to gin. This bottle is a great way to add a little something extra to your usual rotation, especially if you love Thai food. Mekhong – in any form – is best served alongside its native cuisine, and I suggest the spicier the better.