Pulling into a gravel parking lot in Sakon Nakhon, a peaceful province of rolling hills and rice paddies in Thailand’s rural northeast, I double-check the GPS. It tells me I’m at Onson Distillery. But if it weren’t for the hand-painted mural of a naga—the mythical serpent in Thai Buddhism featured in Onson’s logo—that wraps around the walls, I’d swear I was at a tractor barn.
The distillery, a concrete warehouse with a lean-to in the back, seems to lack all frills, including power. The lights are off, the windows are open, and a few guys are lounging in camping chairs, cooling themselves with fans and watching airlocks pop on top of food-grade plastic containers.
This isn’t the setting you might expect from the makers of one of Thailand’s most interesting spirits, a clean, floral drink distilled from caramelized coconut flower sap—like a gin without the bite. But everything about making spirits in Thailand defies expectations.
Tammawit “Tiger” Limlertcharoenwanich, Onson’s 32-year-old co-founder, ambles up to me in a pa kao ma—a sarong traditionally worn by men in the northeast, a region known as Isan—and offers to show me around. As we sip his signature spirit, I ask him about the remarkably spartan setup. “We have strict limits. [With our license], we’re only allowed to use a total of 5 horsepower. That’s about the same as two hair dryers,” he explains. “That’s not enough for cold rooms or air conditioning.”
The Thai government issues just two types of distilling licenses, typically referred to as “community” and “special,” and they are meant to separate the Davids from the Goliaths. Or, rather, the Goliath. ThaiBev, maker of SangSom, Mekhong and Hong Thong—ubiquitous rums and whiskeys officially labeled as “brown spirits”—produces about 90 percent of Thailand’s liquor.
Special licenses allow companies to export their products and have few restrictions, but they are difficult to obtain. They require, for example, a minimum production capacity of 30,000 liters per day and environmental certification. Community licenses, like the one Onson has, are easier to get, but they come with major limitations. Onson can have only six employees. Limlertcharoenwanich also has to use wood fire to heat the boiler; anything more electrical use would go beyond the 5-horsepower limit. Like all alcohol brands in Thailand, Onson can’t advertise or promote drinking. To top it off, the community license stipulates that spirits can’t be labeled as gin, vodka or rum. Everything must be “lao khao” (white spirit) or “lao see” (colored, or brown, spirit).
For a brand like Onson, which only makes a few thousand bottles per year, the restrictions seem insurmountable. “But I don’t view it as a problem,” Limlertcharoenwanich says. “It’s a challenge I’m proud to take on.”
Unsurprisingly, the law has allowed powerhouse conglomerates like ThaiBev to dominate. Yet in the past three years, craft distilling has boomed. Limlertcharoenwanich estimates there are now more than 100 small Thai brands making spirits.
“For a lot of us, it’s a symbol of the fight against monopolization,” he says.
It’s also a movement to change minds and shatter stigmas.
“Historically, Thai drinkers saw lao see as elite,” associating it with expensive imported whiskey and rum. Unaged or “white” spirits like lao khao were “the poor man’s alcohol,” Limlertcharoenwanich explains.
Even when he started selling Onson in 2020, bartenders in Bangkok wouldn’t take it because it’s lao khao, a spirit associated with hangovers, impurities and poverty, he says. He wasn’t just battling legal restrictions; he had to overcome hard-set stereotypes against Isan people and products. But in 2022, opinions started to change.
As the progressive Move Forward Party put forward a bill to liberalize the production of beer and spirits, its members went to bat for small producers. In a television interview, influential party leader Pita Limjaroenrat name-dropped several of his favorite Thai spirits, including Onson. Ever since, the popularity of these brands has surged. Limlertcharoenwanich says his bottles sell out as soon as he releases them, and every week, visitors drop by the distillery in Sakon Nakhon, a province far off the country’s tourist trail, even for domestic travelers.
“Even my parents didn’t like what I was doing at first. But now it’s a point of pride for Sakon Nakhon. The mayor and police chief buy my bottles and give them as gifts,” he explains.
Other distilleries have experienced the same bump, perhaps because their use of native products has given them a stronger Thai identity that local consumers enjoy. Issan Rum and Chalong Bay, for example, use Thailand’s abundant local sugar cane—the country is the world’s second-biggest sugar exporter, after Brazil—to make rhum agricole. The rum is made from fresh-pressed juice rather than molasses, as it’s made in Martinique and other islands in the Caribbean formerly controlled by France. Krabi’s Kilo even makes its GN—so named to work around advertising laws barring use of the word “gin”—from a locally sourced sugar cane base.
On top of carrying Kilo and Chalong Bay in his company’s portfolio, Minway Chi, founder of Bangkok-based import and distribution company Bootleggers Trading Co., also produces his own gin. Made from a sugar cane base using an Armagnac still, which amplifies the floral notes and tamps down the funky, grassy flavor, according to Chi, his savory Grandma Jinn—another clever use of wordplay—is laced with Thai and Chinese aromatics like tangerine peel, angelica root and safflower.
Thanks to products like these, drinkers are increasingly viewing Thai spirits as fascinating boutique expressions beloved for their quality and sense of place. While many new producers are still finding their footing, brands like Issan Rum are already on the menu at hip Bangkok bars, including Asia Today. Chalong Bay exports to about a dozen countries, including France, Singapore and the U.K.
“Sometimes, restrictions force you to be more creative. In Thailand, you really have to experiment within the confines of the rules, and it’s resulting in some unique products.” Onson is living proof.
Limlertcharoenwanich says he originally used sugar cane juice, but when locals didn’t like his lao khao, he experimented with coconut sugar. He eventually went one step further, sourcing additive-free, caramelized coconut flower sap from a farm near a floating market outside Bangkok. This time, they loved it. Now, he’s aiming to give back to some of these same consumers.
In 2022, the Thai government started recognizing medium-sized distilleries, raising power limits to 50 horsepower and allowing up to 50 employees. Limlertcharoenwanich has applied for the license. With the extra capacity, he intends to purchase excess fruit and other products farmers can’t sell and turn it into lao khao, to give the farmers a new revenue stream.
“My dream is to make lao khao something everyone knows and [associates with] Thailand, like sake with Japan. Fruit, rice, palm sugar, coconut flower. If we share knowledge with one another, we can turn so many products into great spirits,” he says. “I want Sakon Nakhon to be the capital of lao khao.”