This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.
If you find yourself in central Myanmar and want a drink, this is what you should do: Hire a rattletrap truck or dilapidated motorbike to drive you out into the country to a toddy bar. In these open-air drinking holes, suntanned men wearing longyi's—the male long-skirts ubiquitous throughout Myanmar—will be sipping toddy under thatched palm leaf roofs, surrounded by the flat, verdant plains of the Irrawaddy delta.
Toddy (or htan ye) is the drink of choice for the Burmese farmer. It is made from the sap of palm trees and there are two varieties: the naturally fermented one that's light in alcohol content, and the head-bashing, distilled version. Though the distilled version—known as toddy wine—involves additional preparation, both libations require the same initial steps. I went to the Burmese boonies to see how the sweet spirit is made and to down a few rounds with the locals.
The toddy sap is collected by fearless men known as "tappers" who scale barefoot up the towering palm trees on jerry-rigged ladders strapped tightly to the trunks. Tied behind a tapper's waist is a machete in a wooden sheath that he will use to cut a palm frond at the top of the tree. Underneath the severed frond, he will hang a couple of black pots that the sap will drip into overnight.
The next day, the tapper will scale back up the tree and retrieve the pots. Floating in the pool of the cloudy soupy sap—also known as palm juice—is a collection of bee and fly carcasses. "So that's what gives the toddy its sting," joked a British traveler who was also there.
The palm juice actually naturally ferments by itself in these pots. The punch packed by the toddy is decided by what time the tapper retrieves the pots from the tree. The morning batches are less strong then the afternoon ones; however, neither drink is throat-burning. The toddy wine is what will make you cringe (and climb up one of the trees yourself if you're so drunkenly inclined), and making it involves a more laborious process.
To produce toddy wine, the collected palm juice must be boiled down and then dried into jaggery—little clumps of reddish palm sugar. Jaggery is also mixed with coconut flakes and eaten as a tasty snack.
After it's made, the jaggery is then put into a ceramic vat that's filled with water and has fermented sticky rice laid out on the bottom. The sugary jaggery activates the yeast in the sticky rice, which initiates the fermenting process.
Two days later, the vats are emptied into clay pots that are set over a charcoal-fired stove where the distillation process takes place. Placed over the pots are iron woks which are filled with cold water, and inside the pots is a shovel that catches the condensation from the fermented jaggery/rice mixture that drips down from the wok. The condensation is drained from the shovel into downward sloping tubes that lead the freshly distilled toddy into glass bottles. Each one takes about an hour and a half to fill.
We drank the palm wine at a table: a piece of palm tree trunk. The chairs, too, were cut pieces of palm trunk. Even the ladle used to refill my glass was made from palm tree parts, with the dark coconut-like seeds hanging from the top.
The un-distilled toddy tasted nutty and sweet, with a quickly fading sourness. Even in the afternoon variety, the alcohol was hardly noticeable and the drink was refreshing in the heat of the day.
I didn't mind that there were probably bee legs floating around in it.
In a decorated tray in the middle of the tree trunk table was an assortment of ingredients: sesame seeds, peanuts, fried broad beans, fried chickpeas and fermented spicy tea leaves. Everything is mixed together in a small plate and eaten with a spoon as a salty and crunchy accompaniment to the toddy. The Burmese beer snack was slightly spicy, but the real scovilles were to be found in the toddy wine, which we downed in little tin shot glasses. It tasted like a less deadly Chinese rice wine, but with a slightly nutty aftertaste.
For three dollars, I bought a bottle wrapped in interwoven strands of dried palm and left feeling finer then when I had arrived, which is the mark of any good experience.