I Drank Snake Wine

An experience with snake wine, a weird Asian booze containing the corpse of a venomous snake.

There are a lot of movies at Sundance, but there are also a lot of parties. A truly successful Sundance trip balances the two, but of course when Tim League and Drafthouse Films throws a party ideas like 'balance,' 'moderation' and 'reasonable behavior' go out the window.

The party was co-hosted by the good people at TopSpin Media, and Tim's main contribution was 20 bottles of liquor and a 20-sided die. He brought with him a game he had played as a student at Rice University, where you rolled the die three times; each bottle was numbered and a shot constructed of the three liquors you rolled was consumed. You were then able to name your shot. My first shot was a mixture of SoCo, absinthe and Jagermeister. 

Lucky liquor 13 was something truly special. A small bottle of clear alcohol, bottle 13 contained within it the coiled corpse of a snake - a cobra, I think - which had been steeping in the strong rice wine (or maybe grain alcohol. Nobody's quite sure) for years. It was an Asian oddity called snake wine. 

Snake wine dates back to China in 771BC. It's considered medicinal, and snake wine is used to treat hair loss and is considered an aphrodisiac and virility supplement. Drinking the wine - usually in a tiny shot - makes you more manly. 

The point of steeping the snake is to get its venom and 'essence' into the alcohol, which is what gives you the virility. It turns out that the ethanol in the drink actually deactivates the venom, making it safe to drink. But here's the thing - nothing tastes or feels like snake wine, and when you knock it back it's easy to imagine that the bizarre numbing sensation you feel is the venom doing its best to kill you.

Because the odds of rolling a 13 weren't that high (although Sam Zimmerman of Fangoria totally did it), the bravest of us took eyedropper shots of the snake wine. You could feel the effect immediately; the alcohol tastes horrible, like your first drink of booze when you were 15. But then the sensation works its way down your throat, numbing and burning as it goes. Russ Fisher of Slashfilm compared it to the sensation of drinking a shag rag. 

There was a story making the rounds online last year about an Indian woman who was bottling her own snake wine; when she opened the bottle after letting the snake steep for three months it popped out and bit her. That seems unlikely, but I haven't had the interest in looking it up. At the party it made for a fine bit of lore as each new person was persuaded to try the nasty stuff. 

Snake wine is rare in the United States, but it's very available throughout Southeast Asia. Our bottle was a gift to Tim, and originated in Vietnam. It's now empty. The snake is still within.