My mother doesn’t talk about her childhood much, so the few stories she’s shared have made a big impression on me. The only thing she ever told me about her years at boarding school in Pennsylvania was that she and her friends used to stash jugs of apple juice up on the roof and wait until the sun gave it some kick. The juice fermented and produced an alcoholic cider. It was thrilling to picture my mom in a uniform getting tipsy on a steep Mary Poppins–type rooftop. It made the apple juice in my lunchbox seem much more exciting, packed with potential.
If instead she had been a Himalayan yak herder jonesing for a cocktail, she would have had to come up with other methods for making spirits. Apples are hard to come by above the tree line. Most yak herders subsist on dried meat, barley, butter, and, in some regions, rice. But they do jones, and indeed there is a long tradition of making booze from whatever is available. I’m now writing from Bhutan, which is famous for its ara, a potent and ubiquitous form of wine that is surprisingly easy to make. Though often made from rice, ara can be made from millet, wheat, or corn. It’s your basic moonshine with a Bhutanese twist.
I know of two methods to make ara: fermenting and distilling (fermenting is the easier one). And there are even more ways to serve it—hot and clear, cold, swimming with butter and poached egg, chunky style with rice and scrambled egg—all of which will leave one quite drunk and not so ready for a drive home through dense fog on a single-lane road riddled with hairpin turns through narrow canyons. It’s hard stuff, and as I was contemplating sharing the recipe, I started to have some misgivings. This is a Buddhist magazine. The subject of alcohol is controversial. Depending on which yana one follows, alcohol consumption can be either strictly forbidden, winked at, or used as a method. Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche wrote in his Extracting the Quintessence of Accomplishment that “wine should be taken as an element of samaya [Vajrayana vows], but not drunk without control, to the point of intoxication.” For the most part, drinking is not recommended, but it depends on who is doing the asking, who is asked, and how they interpret the Buddha’s five precepts. As the Tibetans say, lung re re bla ma red, bla ma re re chos red: “Every valley has its lama, and every lama has his dharma.”
The first time I made rice wine, I was under the tutelage of a monk. It was a bitterly cold winter at the retreat house, and I’d have tried just about anything to keep warm, including lighting my insides on fire with homemade white lightning. We put rice in a big jar with some yeast and water, waited a week, and in the end we had a very strong brew on our hands. I’ve since come across other methods.
The main variables are grain, yeast, process, container, time, and fun additives. The yeast is the most difficult to manage because it’s not something you can buy in a store wrapped up in tinfoil, and almost impossible to find outside of the Himalayan region. Which makes one wonder: what is yeast exactly? And where does it come from? In Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet, one can buy cakes of herbed yeast at any vegetable market. It seems making yeast is no mystery for an ama [mother] who’s been doing it like her mama did it and her mama’s mama before that. But when you try to break the code, details become obscure. I asked around, and no less than three people promised to take me to one of their “aunties” who was an expert, but these aunties never materialized.
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