Sometimes, an expertly fermented grape or grain just isn't enough to pique the interest of drinkers. All around the world, there's a rich tradition of infusing wine and liquor with animals that are supposed to confer various health benefits upon the the imbiber: think of the worm at the bottom of a bottle of Mexican tequila, the whole snakes coiled at the bottom of some containers of Asian rice wine, and—less commonly seen—the bones of wild tigers, which are steeped in rice wine and aged for up to eight years (the wine's value increasing over time).
In spite of global efforts to tamp down on the illegal poaching of endangered wild tigers for use in these bone wines, Chinese thirst for the beverage continues apace and, in fact, has recently been revived by a reinvigorated tiger farming industry that has helped remove some of the stigma of using the animals' pelts and bones.
The use of tiger parts in Chinese food and drink has been a part of the culture for over a thousand years. To ingest an animal of such strength (and now, rarity) is believed to confer medicinal properties upon the eater. Tiger parts such as eyes, whiskers, and teeth are used in medical compounds to treat ailments ranging from insomnia to meningitis, malaria to bad skin. The calcium and protein found in tiger bones are said to have anti-inflammatory properties and to promote healing. Makers of tiger bone wine tout its pain-relieving properties, and its high alcohol content probably doesn't hurt, either.
In 1950, Mao Zedong declared wild tigers to be one of the four pests threatening Chinese progress, and within years, just around 1,000 remained. Those that did were subject to widespread hunting to support the demand for parts for medicine and for the animals' decorative pelts. In 1993, when numbers had dropped precipitously low—globally, fewer than 4,000 wild tigers are believed to exist today, and in China that number stands at 45—China banned the domestic trade of animal parts, but poaching has continued to be a major problem for the animals.
In 2005, the Chinese government authorized certain businesses to use captive-bred tiger bone for medicine, and since then, the bare-bones, often-depressing "farms" have proliferated across the country. China has about 200 tiger farms, housing between five and six thousand animals. And although the country's tiger-farming lobby argues that the availability of farmed tigers for use in traditional medicine—and wine—will alleviate pressure on China's wild tiger population, the opposite has proven to be true. Because it is cheaper to kill wild tigers and smuggle their bodies over borders than it is to raise and kill domestic tigers, poachers in nearby Asian nations such as India are killing off their own tigers and smuggling them into China, where the brains, bile, fat, and even genitals make their way into various powders and tonics for sale in special dispensaries. The very rarity of wild tigers holds a certain cachet with some high-rolling Chinese consumers who would rather pay the often astronomical prices for wild tiger parts, believing them to be more "pure" and desirable than their farmed counterparts.
Because tiger bone wine is a black market product, it's hard to get any precise numbers on how many Chinese distilleries produce it or how many consumers drink it. In 1986, China's People's Daily newspaper reported that 116 factories were producing the wine, but that figure is likely much larger now. What is clear is that whatever medicinal benefits the wine is purported to have, it's much more desirable as a luxury or status product. Tiger bone wines aged for three years sell for around the equivalent of $80 USD; a six-year bottle will set you back $155; and an eight-year wine costs around $290. And although Chinese tiger bone wine might not cure eczema, it could very well impress friends at a fancy dinner party—regardless of its true price to the animal world.