So this is why Bhutan is the world’s happiest country!

Serving Ara, Bhutan’s most celebrated drink, in traditional dress

On a recent visit, Neeta Lal discovers Bhutan is a tippler’s paradise

At the Simply Bhutan interactive museum in the capital city, Thimphu, the guide points to a fascinating array of handcrafted containers used to store ara, the local liquor made from high altitude
barley, rice, wheat, potatoes or buckwheat and either fermented or distilled.

“This one, for instance,” says the guide, picking up a long, cylindrical black wooden flask with silver decorations, “is used by the rich to store ara, while that cane-knitted, sturdy one with a leather strap is carried by farmers to their fields.”

In another corner nestles a line-up of wooden casks and tools used by families or commercial producers to ferment and produce the celebrated drink. Indeed, ara is tightly woven into the warp and weft of Bhutan’s cultural fabric. It is consumed as a beverage, offered to the gods, and used as an antidote for snake bites. Children are known to carry ara in their satchels to ‘protect’ themselves against evil spirits while at booze-fuelled archery tournaments, the drink is said to ‘improve’ the archer’s aim! Additionally, the Bhutanese also splash ara into many dishes including scrambled eggs and rice pilafs!

I sample an ara shot at the tour’s end as the guide pours the clear, white liquid from a black, silver-embellished flask into a tiny cup. I find its sting sharp. It is definitely an acquired taste.

Different types of handcrafted containers for storing ‘ara’, the popular local liquor

Mindboggling range
Interestingly, ara is just one of the dozens of drinks and spirits this tiny Himalayan country, inhabited by warm and hospitable people, produces. Over the course of a week-long trip, I’m giddy with the sheer range on offer. From home-brewed artisanal beers to draught beers, dark ales, wheat beers, apple ciders, red rice lagers as well as whiskies, vodkas and single malts, not to mention red and white wines, and fruity peach and apricot wines. A ‘spirit-ual’ experiene awaits tipplers in Bhutan.

Chang, the traditional homemade beer crafted from fermented grains, is said to keep one warm during the punishingly cold, winter months. For an immersive experience, I visit one of the several artisanal breweries where you can watch first hand the production of draught beer, apple cider, wine, apple brandy and more.

“The Bhutanese have a solid alcohol culture. We serve alcohol as a sign of respect and to honour and welcome guests, celebrate family events, and send off loved ones. It is also consumed as a dessert, and as a nightcap for restful slumber,” the guide informs me.

Hic Hic Hurray!

A thali of Bhutanese delicacies washed down with a variety of local liquor

At Latitude 27, the bar at Le Meridien Thimphu, a stunning five-star property located smack dab in the heart of Thimphu, Bartender Tashi Namgay initiates me into a liquor smorgasbord. There are over a dozen varieties of local artisanal beers including wheat beer, as well as brands like Druk 11000, Druk Lager, Druk Supreme, Thunder 15000 Strong, Red Panda and so on.

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For oenophiles, there’s Vintria Shiraz dry wine, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon Raven Red, both locally produced. Popular whiskies lining the bar’s oaken interiors range from Bhutan Grain Whisky to Ter Single Malt as well as the eponymous K5 named after the 5th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. A smooth and easy drink, it has a mellow flavour combining Scottish malt with locally-grown organic grain spirit. So proud are the Bhutanese of their spirits, that each bottle prominently flaunts a ‘Product of Bhutan’ label.

Cocktails, too, are a popular choice among the young across Bhutan, says Namgay, before recommending ‘Hair On The Dog’, a palate pleasing combo of ara, Bhutanese peppers, fresh lemon juice and epchi or chilli flakes. Up next is ‘The Fresh & Fruit Mocktail’ crafted from Bhutanese Szechwan peppers, fresh mint, and orange and lemon juice. I pair my poisons with delicious nibbles like Datshi Ezzay salsa canapés, Bhumthang chilli Poppers and Juma meat skewers.

For lunch, the next day, I try Druk Lager, a pleasant and smooth beer with a gargantuan Bhutanese thali at Le Meridien’s all-day dining restaurant that boasts a lively open kitchen, an inspired buffet and an à la carte menu. The platter offers yummies like buckwheat noodles, buckwheat pancakes, red rice,  jatsha maru, minced chicken in a garlicky-cheesy gravy, saag ngo ngo stir-fried greens and the national dish, ema datshi, chillies infused in a fondue-like melted cheese gravy.

TanTalizing Tipples

Zumzin Peach wine, Vintria Shiraz dry wine and Raven Red Cabernet Sauvignon proudly produced in Bhutan

More liquid pleasures await me at Como Uma Paro, a boutique property perched vertiginously on a Himalayan mountainside flanked by thick pine forests. Apart from lip-smacking food, much of it crafted from sustainably grown organic produce, there’s lots to wash it all down with as well.

At the hotel’s award-winning Bukhari restaurant overlooking verdant forests and the Po-chu River, I try signature Bhutanese delicacies like pakshee paa, sliced pork with chillies and radishes; ema datshi and hewa datsee with potatoes, cheese and chillies. All is washed down with Zumzin Peach Wine, redolent of the fruit’s perfume.

Como Uma’s well-curated beverage menu also offers a range of cocktails, mocktails, whiskies and wines. Young mixologist Kinley Dorji recommends their most popular cocktail, Pepperlicious which is a mélange of Bhutanese green chillies, gin, sugar and lime syrup, muddled with some more chillies. I give it a shot and find it strangely habit forming.

Complimenting Dorji on his flavourful creation, I raise my glass to Bhutan, a country that has not only fed me well but also raised my spirits with its tantalizing tipples! Little wonder that this tiny kingdom is consistently ranked No. 1 on the world happiness index.