Mongolians have a reputation for being heavy drinkers. Alcoholism and alcohol-related violence and domestic abuse are problems. It is unusual to see fights and drunk people vomiting on the streets. Some Mongolians drink heavily while they are working. “Seven Drunk Men” is a relatively common family name. Men who don’t drink are considered wimps. For hangovers, Mongolians have traditionally consumed pickled sheep eyeballs.

Vodka is the most commonly consumed alcoholic drink followed by beer. Genghis Khan is a popular brand of vodka — and beer. 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.

Mongolians have a long tradition of drinking fermented mare's milk. Mongolian nomads make two kinds of alcoholic drinks from fermented mare's milk: “airag” (also known as koumiss), which has an alcoholic content of 3 percent, and “arkhi, “or “shimni”, which is distilled airag and contains 12 percent alcohol. It is often served warm with yak butter in it. “Akhi” can also refer to vodka-like drinks made from grain, sometimes called Mongolian vodka. They also drink “shubat” (an alcoholic drink made from camel milk) and fizzy, colorless home-brewed drink made from cheese curd.

One of the most popular Mongolian beers is Genghis Beer. It has a picture of Genghis Khan on the label. Mongolia doesn't produce much of its own beer and shipping beer to Mongolia is expensive. Chinese, Russian and German brands are common. European beers are available. Russian beer is hoppy and sometimes rather flat.

Mongolians like to drink Russian- and Mongolian-made vodka from shot glasses. Drinking has traditionally been done at homes, restaurants and hotels rather than at bars. Bars are usually at hotels. Many restaurants take on a bar-like atmosphere late at night. There are also nightclubs and discos.

Some make their own potent, kerosene-flavored rice wine at home They keep two cisterns. One full of fully-fermented wine; another full of fermenting wine. That way they always have some to drink. In Inner Mongolia people drink baijiu, a potent clear liquor popular in northern China.

Airag (Koumiss)

Bowl of koumiss

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 the Kyrgyz, Mongols and Kazakhs. To make it: 1) fresh horse milk or camel milk is stored in leather churns; 2) yeast is added; 3) then the mixture is stirred continuously, heated and fermented fore three or four days until it is ready to drink. Koumiss contains a little alcohol and it is very hard to get drunk off it. Kazakhs and Kyrgyz regard it as a healthy drink: full of protein, minerals, vitamins and sugar. They have been fond of it since ancient times. ~

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.

Mongolian Vodka

The Mongolians didn’t drink much vodka until the Russians showed up but quickly developed a fondness for it. Over 200 distilleries were established in the Soviet Era, when Mongolia exported vodka to the Soviet Union. When the Russian left they Mongolians began drinking up much of the formerly exported vodka themselves.

APU, a leading beverage company in Mongolia, produces a range of premium Mongolian vodkas including the ultra premium Chinggis Khan Original Mongolian Vodka, which is now marketed in the United States. Other brands will include Soyombo (super premium) and Arkhi (premium) vodkas. [Source: Drinks Report, April 4, 2013 +++]

In 1924, APU was created as a state-owned company, the country’s first national brand, but today the beverage producer is in private ownership and one of the most technologically advanced producers of bottled water, soft drinks, beer and spirits (vodka represents approx 65 percent of APU’s sales – 20 million litres in 2012) in Mongolia. It employs over 800 people and has an annual turnover of around US$300 million. +++

The APU Company is built on the site of the last Emperor's Palace, the Bogd Khan’s Winter Palace located in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. According to Drink Report: “Synonymous in Mongolia with supreme quality and with access to the highest quality ingredients, wheat, water and minerals from the vast natural landscape, APU has developed a strong portfolio of national brands and is now poised to launch the its finest grade of vodka, Chinggis Khan Original Mongolian Vodka, internationally. +++

“Chinggis Khan Original Mongolian Vodka draws its high-end luxury status and enduring power from the land. Made with the finest Mongolian wheat from Mongolian Steppes and a six-step distillation with the purest grain spirit, Chinggis Khan Vodka is then filtered using charcoal, quartz, diamonds, black pearls and silver to create one of the very finest examples of vodka in the world. The water used to make Chinggis Khan has melted from the snow on the Sacred Bogd Khan Mountains, which were formed more than 800,000 years ago, and has flowed under the lands across which the nomadic tribes still move, bringing Mongolia's natural spirit to Chinggis Khan Original Mongolian Vodka. +++

“The vodka is also the highest grade of spirit possible (alpha-grade, which is more superior than luxury-grade). By using the finest of ingredients, an uncompromising six-step distillation and filtration process, it has exceptionally smooth taste…and that’s what will attract it to the vodka consumers with a desire to discover new and unique vodka expressions.” +++

Marketing and History of Alcohol in Mongolia

Genghis Khan vodka

Louisa Lim of NPR wrote: “One reason for the high level of alcoholism is the sheer availability of alcohol. Mongolia has one shop selling alcohol for every 270 people, the highest number anywhere in world. Most supermarkets have an aisle dedicated to vodka, sometimes with more than 25 types of vodka alone, costing just $2 for a half-pint. Many politicians have a direct interest in the alcohol industry, and alcohol taxes and licenses generate large revenues for the government. [Source: Louisa Lim, NPR, September 9, 2009 */]

"Alcohol is one of the single most important sources of income for the Mongolian government," says Sean Armstrong, who is researching alcoholism in Mongolia. "Currently, 20 to 23 percent of the government income comes from taxes directly related to alcohol use and sales." A couple of years ago, even the then-health minister had his own highly profitable vodka brand. Many vodka brands appeal to national pride, invoking national heroes like the founder of the Mongol empire, Chinggis Khaan, known in the West as Genghis Khan. */

“Drinking plays a core part in Mongolian culture. But Armstrong says alcohol was also used by Mongolia's successive colonizers, first the Chinese, then the Russians. "It has been a very important tool of colonization. At least in the 1870s, it was a key tool of the Manchus to assist in the colonization of the country and the exploitation by economic means," Armstrong says. "Most Mongolians will tell you in their opinion, the Russians were quite smart — first they brought vodka, then they brought communism, and after vodka, anything would seem like a good idea."

Zeest, a Mongolian company, began importing whisky from Scotland in 2007. Genghis Khan Scottish Whisky comes in two strengths: three-year-old Silver Label and twelve-year Gold Label. A new $17 million Tiger Beer brewery, the first foreign brewery to be built in Mongolia, produces 60,000 bottles a day and provide 150 jobs. [Source: Sam Knight, Times of London, July 21, 2007]

Alcoholism in Mongolia

In a district of Ulan Bator settled by former herders, unconscious bodies — presumably drunks — lie by the roadside, ignored. Other drunks stumble past, held up by staggering friends. In small groups, men huddle around roadside fires, drinking. Some started their day with a shot of vodka. A report by the World Health Organization said that alcohol abuse could be Mongolia's biggest obstacle to economic and social progress. A 2006 survey carried out by Mongolia's Ministry of Health and WHO found that 22 percent of Mongolian men and 5 percent of women are dependent on alcohol, rates three times higher than in Europe. Surveys indicate that 72 percent of violent crime is driven by alcohol. Almost one in five Mongolian men binge-drink on a weekly basis. [Source: Louisa Lim, NPR, September 9, 2009 */]

Louisa Lim of NPR wrote: “At midnight in Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator, 14 people are in the "sobering-up" cells at a district police station on a recent evening. This and police stations like it are on the frontline of Mongolia's battle against alcohol abuse. People are brought to the cells to prevent them from freezing to death in the winter, and from doing harm to others. The station's top-ranking policeman says the level of alcohol abuse has worsened drastically since Mongolia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1990. He blames the social upheaval that came with post-Soviet economic liberalization. */

“Unemployment and poverty are the main issues why people get drunk. In the early '90s the manufacturing plants closed down, and their workers became very poor. With the market economy, the unemployment rate became critical and the drinking really started. "Unemployment and poverty are the main issues why people get drunk. In the early '90s the manufacturing plants closed down, and their workers became very poor. With the market economy, the unemployment rate became critical and the drinking really started," says the officer, Davkharbayar.*/

“Alcohol-related domestic violence prompted the arrests of the 14 people in lockup on this recent evening. "All of these 14 calls came from homes complaining," says Davkharbayar. "It's all domestic. These men are all our regular customers. We know them all." */

“The social problems emanating from Mongolia's drinking culture are even the subject of a hip-hop parody in "Reverse Day," a sardonic song by the popular band Tatar. All the women in the music video have their front teeth missing, a clear reference to the high level of alcohol-fueled domestic violence. "The Earth is spinning a bit too fast," the lyrics say. "Have one more, the alcohol is evaporating."” */

Alcohol Rehab Mongolia-Style

Louisa Lim of NPR wrote: “In a shabby building on the outskirts of Ulan Bator, the state narcology center offers a place for people who want voluntarily to quit the habit. Burly security men man the doors, which are locked behind anyone entering. It is the only state-run rehab facility in Mongolia, yet it has only 50 beds for inpatients, meaning capacity is about 1,800 patients per year — far less than needed. Patients stay for just 10 days, receiving medication for the first five and attending lectures. Some patients receive post-treatment checkups, but others don't. [Source: Louisa Lim, NPR, September 9, 2009 */]

In the television room, a small man who doesn't want to give his name says he is a train driver who has been in the facility for a week. He says he came because he got scared about what he might do. "I drank too much, then I couldn't go to work. My only fear was that by being drunk I could cause deaths, since I am responsible for so many people. It was a huge problem," he says. He admits that had it not been for this place, he would not have known where to turn for help. "I would probably have looked for an alternative method," he says, "like shamanism, and piercing the tongue and that sort of thing. People say that's not very reliable, though."

Non-Alcoholic Drinks in Mongolia

According to Chinatravel.com: “Milk remains a staple in the Mongolian diet, however. It is also consumed as: yoghurt; milk wine (i.e., fermented milk, the most prized of which is fermented mare's milk, which can be further fermented into a frothy, beer-like drink called airag); milk tofu (a process involving coagulated, fermented milk, where the dry parts are separated and form into a stiff, tofu-like texture); sour milk (i.e., "buttermilk"); a cottage-cheese like product derived as a "waste product" from the production of certain types of butter. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Milk tea (Mongolian Tea) is the most important beverage for Mongolians who live — either all or part of the year — in the traditional nomadic style. Similar to Tibetan milk tea, it is made by “boiling crushed brick tea for a few minutes, then slowly adding milk (1 part milk to 3-6 parts tea) while stirring constantly; and of course as butter itself, which comes in several varieties depending on how it is made and the animals from whence it comes. Sometimes the thick cream of milk is cooled and eaten as is, with a spoon, or parts of it are skimmed off forming naipizi, or "milk skin", which tastes like a cross between butter and cream, and also eaten as is.” \=/

▪ Black tea is popular among Russians. Coffee is often Nescafe. Other common drinks include “sok” (heavily diluted juice), yogurt drinks, local fizzy soft drinks, and soft drinks like Coke, Pepsi, Fanta and counterfeit Coca-Cola. Milk is often not pasteurized. Sheep and cow’s milk is almost always boiled. Only mare’s milk is consumed unboiled, but has been its left to sour first. In southern Mongolia, a tea is made from a root of a plant found in the Gobi desert.

Fresh milk still warm from the animal, with sugar mixed in, and heated over a dung fire is said to be very tasty. Cathy Ang wrote: “Sour milk: This milk product is made from raw milk or cooked milk. To do so, the milk is kept at about sixty-four degrees Fahrenheit in jars and allowed to ferment for about two days. The milk appears to form chucks. When making sour milk from cooked milk, the milk is boiled first and needs to sit a while longer until it gets slightly sour.[Source: Cathy Ang, Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods, Spring Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(1) page(s): 7 and 8 ^=^]

Mongolian Tea

Mongolians are big tea drinkers. They like “suutetsia” (tea mixed with milk, sugar and/ or salt). The milk can come from a cow, sheep, goat, mare, camel or yak. The tea usually comes from a brick. Salted tea can taste nasty but it is impolite to refuse it if it is offered to you. Sometimes it is made with hot water, milk, butter, salt and rice and doesn’t even have tea in it. In Ulaan Baatar suutetsia often refers to simple milk tea with sugar

Mongolia tea is usually served with either milk, mutton fat or baked salted milk skin. Describing the process nomads use to make Mongolian tea, Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein wrote in National Geographic: She "was using a butcher knife to chip a handful of leaves off a rock-hard brick of Georgian tea. She boiled the leaves in water, adding milk, butter and salt."

Cathy Ang wrote: Milk tea: “is also referred to as Mongolian Tea. It is the most important beverage used by the Mongolians and their shepherds. To make milk tea, brick tea is crushed into pieces then boiled for three minutes with water. While boiling, it is constantly stirred. Fresh milk is slowly added to this tea in proportions of one part milk to three to six parts water. A little salt is sometimes added. Milk tea can be served with some fried millet in it. [Source: Cathy Ang, Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods, Spring Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(1) page(s): 7 and 8 ^=^]

“Tea in Mongolia are categorized by color type. There are three color categories. The red tea that the Han Chinese drink is referred to as black tea and it is enjoyed in Mongolia. They drink Jasmine tea and call it yellow tea. The third type, brick tea is called blue tea. This latter type of tea is the most popular, some say because of convenience in carrying it around. Nowadays, most brick teas used by Mongolians come from India. ^=^

“Tea drinking is natural and important in Mongolia. Tea beverages such as milk tea are very popular. Tea is consumed at each of the three main meals every day; tea is served to guestst it is the beverage of choice at all snack times and used whenever someone is thirsty. In addition to regular tea, flowers, leaves, and stems of some locally grown plants are also used to make tea and other beverages.”

Mongolian Drinking Customs

Tea is offered as a welcomed gesture and a form of hospitality. It is given to both close relatives and strangers. Rural Mongolians are shocked the by idea the that some vendors in Ulaanbaatar actually sell tea.

Mongolians are big tea drinkers. They like “suutetsia” (tea mixed with milk, sugar and/ or salt). The milk can come from a cow, sheep, goat, mare, camel or yak. The tea usually comes from a brick. Salted tea can taste nasty but it is impolite to refuse it if it is offered to you. Sometimes it is made with hot water, milk, butter, salt and rice and doesn’t even have tea in it. In Ulaanbaatar suutetsia often refers to simple milk tea with sugar

Tea is served in little bowls. When drinking tea in a social situation your Mongolian host will present it to you with a bow and two hands. You are expected to take it with your right hand or two hands. Your host will also constantly refill your bowl until you turn it upside down, which means you have had enough.

When offered a glass of vodka dip you finger into it and flick it once towards the sky and once towards to the ground and some on your forshead in honor of local spirits. If you don’t want any vodka go through the same ritual, but put you finger to you forehead, say thanks and return the glass to the table.

On sharing some vodka with a northern Mongolia shaman, David Stern wrote in National Geographic: “After Nergui had recovered from his trance, he opened the bottle of vodka I’d brought as a gift and poured us each a shot into a shallow teacup. I accepted the cup with my right hand—to receive anything with your left can be a grievous insult—and before drinking, I made an offering to the spirits in three directions. I lightly dipped my fingers in the liquid, flicked a few drops into the air and then toward the ground, and finally dabbed my forehead.” [Source: David Stern, National Geographic, December 2012]

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

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