Bowl of koumiss

Kyrgyz have a long tradition of drinking “koumiss” (fermented mare's milk). They also drink kvass (mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented rye bread), “shubat” (fermented camel’s milk), “bozo “(a frothy drink made from boiled and fermented millet or other grain) and “jarma “(fermented barely drink). Jarma is also known as Shoro, the name of a popular brand name. Korut — small balls of cheese made from sheep milk — are diluted with water to make a summer drink called Chalap (many Westerners consider it an acquired taste).

In many homes — unless it is a strict Muslim one — eating also involves drinking. When alcohol is served guests are expected to drink. Don’t think that you can drink just a little – once started it can be difficult to decline further rounds – especially as drinks are often associated with toasts. It may be better to decide on complete abstinence (on religious or health grounds, for instance) than suffer the consequences of excessive hospitality later on. [Source: kyrgyz.net.my, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website, advantour]

The purchase and use of alcoholic beverages by people under a certain age is not prohibited by law in Kyrgyzstan. Of course, there are always some regulations or prohibitions at schools and universities concerning bringing alcohol to these places and drinking it there. But if you're in a shop buying a six-pack, and you see a 17 year- old do the same thing, don't be surprised. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Alcoholic Drinks in Kyrgyzstan

For Muslims, Kyrgyz can be surprisingly big drinkers. Public intoxication is prevalent among the local populace, especially during the winter. Vodka is the most commonly consumed alcoholic drink followed by beer, sweet wine and sweet champagne. Koumiss is popular during the mare-milking season in the summer. If you buy vodka try to get it at a state-run store. Vodka sold at other places may be dicey or even dangerous moonshine.

Kyrgyz drink a lot of vodka. It is mandatory at all celebrations. Bozo — an alcoholic drink made from boiled, fermented millet grains — is sometimes called “Kyrgyz beer”.Drinking is a ritual that has traditionally been done at homes, restaurants and hotels rather than in a bar. Bars are usually at hotels. Many restaurants take on a bar-like atmosphere late at night.

Arak (Kyrgyz for Vodka) is the most common and popular form of hard alcohol. Watch out for Samagonka — home made vodka. It can make people very sick and occasionally kills people. When drinking vodka, follow the example of your hosts. Both Russians and Kyrgyz like to drink vodka from shot clothes. Russians tend to drain their glasses – “down in one”. So too do many Kyrgyz – but a lot of Kyrgyz only drink half the glass.

Koumiss, the national drink, is made up of mare's fermented milk. A horse's fresh milk is fermented in the stomach of a horse. This fermented milk is mixed with roasted local grass (chi) to prepare the drink.

Different Alcoholic Drinks in Kyrgyzstan

Chagyrmak is the Kyrgyz name for vodka made of koumiss and other ingredients. Most Kyrgyz vodka is similar to Russian vodka. The expensive ones are good. However, cheap ones should be avoided as they are notorious for producing horrible hangovers. [Source: kyrgyz.net.my, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website]

Balsaam – sometimes known by its trade name Arashan – is made from a variety of local herbs and spices. It was popular in Soviet times for its medicinal properties. Slightly alcoholic, it is mixed with coffee, tea, or even vodka and is claimed to be useful for treating colds, coughs and other ailments.

Kyrgyzstan produces its own cognac. It comes in various qualities some of which are said to be quite good. Grapes are grown in Kyrgyzstan and a few wines are produces. Most of them are pretty sweet and dismissed by foreigners. The Champagne found in Kyrgyzstan is dryish.

Local Kyrgyz beers include Nashe Pivo, Arpa and Karabalta. These are not-so-great but worth a try. Russian beer is hopy and sometimes rather flat. Some European beers are available. Chinese brands and Turkish brands such as Efes are common. A German-Kyrgyz joint venture produces Steinbrau, a German type beer brewed locally in Bishkek. Many local brands are cheaper but do not keep well and need to be consumed “fresh” (i.e. within three days).


Kazakhs, Mongolians and other Central Asians like to drink koumiss, an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare's milk with salt added. Koumiss (also spelled kumys, kumis, and kumiss) is a sour, bitter-tasting milky drink, with bits of brown horse-milk fat floating it in it, made by adding yeast cultures to a mare's milk mixture. Ordinary koumiss has an alcoholic content of three percent—less than beer, which is generally four to six percent and less than wine, which is generally 12.5 to 14.5 percent. Koumiss is called airag in Mongolia and is regarded as the Mongolian national drink. The word koumiss is of Turkic origin. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, July 19, 2002]

Generally made in the summer, koumiss is the traditional beverage of the Kyrgyz. It is sold from the roadside throughout the country in the summer. The best stuff, it is said, is made fresh by herders themselves in remote mountain regions such as around Son-Kul. Refusing a drink of koumiss can cause offence. The traditional way of making koumiss is for mare's milk to be stored in animal skins (chinach), which are cleaned and smoked over a fire of pine branches to give the drink a special smell and taste. One third of yesterday's milk is mixed with new milk and allowed to ferment in the warmth of the yurt. It is then churned, beaten with a wooden stick (a bishkek) and becomes alcoholic before turning into lactic acid. [Source: advantour]

Koumiss is an acquired taste that many Westerners don’t go for. The taste of koumiss has been described as "across between buttermilk and champagne" with a “tang reminiscent of good pickled brine” or a strong smoked gouda and is said to be high in vitamin C. Hillary Clinton tried some when she visited Central Asia . She said it tasted like yoghurt. Other have said it tastes like “stomach bile.” Its white color is equated with purity.

Drinking Customs in Kyrgyzstan

In the summer a traditional drink called koumisss is available. This is made of fermented mare's milk, and is drunk at celebrations when it is in season. Multiple shots of vodka are mandatory at all celebrations. It is a custom for Kyrgyzstani people to drink a lot of alcohol for holiday celebrations. The drinks usually vary between beer, wine, Champaign, and vodka or sometimes altogether.

Being a guest in some Kyrgyzstani houses, you may be pressured to drink more than you usually do. If you attend a big event like a Birthday party or a national holiday, there is going to be a lot of toasting, and often times people drink "bottoms up" to most of the toast. If you are a guest of honor (and being a foreigner you may expect to be one), people would drink a lot to you, and you're expected to knock it all down no matter how much or little you enjoy it. For someone who is not used to it, such heavy drinking may be difficult to keep up with, and the main goal for someone like that would be no to stay sober, but avoid getting sick. So, if you really do not feel like drinking, just say politely "no" and do not drink -this is the best way out in such a situation. Often you may accept one drink, thinking that one means one, but if accept the first drink custom will often dictate that you drink with the rest until the end of the bottle. Women have an easier time refusing alcohol then do men. They say there is a very short period between the first and the second (drink or sometimes (what happens more oftenly)bottles). [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Toasting is a big part of any drinking event, just like drinking is a big part of any social event. Everybody is supposed to be able to make a long toast. The longer the toast, the better. Long toast supposedly show your intelligence. To make a toast is the same as to make a speech before a big auditorium. Many find pride in being given a toast, and many find offense in not being offered to propose one. That is why the host or the toast-master often would not call it a day until everybody has had his or her chance to propose a toast. Also be sure to pour drinks for everybody, then for yourself, to pour for yourself first is very odd here. ~~

Koumiss (slightly fermented mare’s milk) is usually ladled out of a large container and served in pint-size bowls. It is often handed around in a communal bowl. One must drink a lot of it to get high. It is sometimes poured from glass to glass several times to make it thick like whipped cream. Before drinking it many Central Asians dip their ring finger in it and smear some of their forehead and flick it in the four compass directions as a sign of respect to airag itself. Some Mongolians drink ten liters of the stuff a day. Describing a herder drinking koumiss, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “He lifts a bowl to his mouth, drinks deeply and practically belches an emphatic, ‘Ahhhh!’ He licks his lips...Then he does it all over again.”

Tea and Non-Alcoholic Drinks in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz are big tea drinkers. They like tea (chai) with milk, salt, sugar and/or butter. This is how Tibetans, Mongolians and Kazakhs drink their tea. In Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan they like green tea consumed straight without sugar from a bowl or a glass, not a cup. Black is popular among Russians. Coffee is either instant or espresso-style served on a small cup, without milk.

In northern Kyrgyzstan, tea is usually made strong and mixed with hot water when served, but in the south it is poured direct from the pot. Don't be surprised if you see the hostess pour the first few cups back into the pot – this is normal. It may well be served in a small bowl rather than a cup. Tea tea is a popular refreshment and pre-meal appetizer too. Chai (tea) is brewed strong with boiled water added according to the person's preference. In the old days tea and sugar were so valuable to the Kyrgyz, men kept it on their person.

A favorite drink for Kyrgyz is goat milk. Mothers have traditionally been reluctant to give their children milk because they were worried it would give them diarrhea and ultimately kill them.

Jarma (maksim) is a wheat based drink that Kyrgyz like to drink in the summer and is said to be particularly healthy. Jarma is made from dry wheat and water, with salt added and boiled. It is an ancient drink. In the old days, to make the drinks more tasty and exciting, nomads included sugar, honey, buckthorn, aconite roots, black tea and barberry. Today, Shoro is a brand name which is sold from Barrels on Bishkek streets)

Airan (also known as Kefir) is a milk drink that resembles a drinking yoghurt. It is generally served cold and tastes like sour yogurt and beer. Chalap is a traditional drink that you might encounter in rural areas. It is made from korut (small balls of cheese made from sheep milk) and then diluted with cold water.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.