Odd Spirits: Arkhi

It’s not every day you run across a traditional alcohol made out of fermented milk.

But that’s exactly what the industrious Mongolian people have been doing for years. Arkhi is typically found in rural areas of Mongolia and is distilled on domestic stoves from fermented mare’s milk, known as kumis. It’s a bit of a process to get a very small amount of return:

  • The milk is placed in a wok on the stove.
  • A special vat without top and bottom is placed on top of the wok.
  • In the center of the vat, a collector bowl is connected to a wooden channel leading out through the wall.
  • On top of the vat, a second wok serves as a lid, filled with cold water.
  • When the stove is fired up the milk vaporizes, starting with the alcohol.
  • The steam condenses when it touches the cold lid, and the convex shape leads it to drip right into the collector in the center.
  • The cold water on top gets replaced twice. The first round gives the highest quality liquor, the third and last round the lowest.
  • The wooden channel leads the condensate into a jar or bottle.

The lack of temperature control given by the simple equipment results in a concentration of only about 10% alcohol, but nevertheless has a good reputation among Mongolian men as it was the highest percentage alcohol they achieved.

Arkhi has a cheese-like taste, which is no surprise there, with an indistinct bitterness. Obviously it’s  quite strange for those who sample it for the first time. It might require some repeat efforts to be finally able to enjoy.

Generally, Arkhi isn’t readily available commercially. There is one product out there but overall it’s hard to find. While travelling in Mongolia, the milking season for horses tends to be between mid-June and early October so that tends to be the best time to try and find Arkhi.

Careful with poorly made Arkhi though, a sure sign that it’s not properly prepared is the distinct smell of goats (you’ll know it when you smell it).

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