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Three glass jars of snake wine.
Three glass jars of snake wine.

Snake Wine: The Mysterious Drink from Okinawa!

James LauJames Lau
Published Time
Posted on June 14, 2024

Snake wine is a traditional Okinawan liquor that combines awamori with a venomous habu snake. This unique drink was once known for its healing properties. Made through intriguing methods, habushu has a distinctive flavor profile ranging from sweet and spicy to bold and intense. Let’s learn why this Okinawan alcohol, with a coiled snake in the bottle, attracts adventurous drinkers worldwide!

What is snake wine?

Snake wine, or habushu, is a traditional liquor from Okinawa that combines awamori, a spirit distilled from rice and black koji, with a venomous pit viper. This unique drink traces its long history back to the 1300s when people considered it a delicacy for the wealthy. They believed it possessed medicinal properties, such as boosting energy, removing poison from the body, and aiding in conditions like arthritis.

Two jars of snake wine.
Snake wine is also known as “habushu”. Image via Shutterstock

Despite being a novelty for tourists today, habushu was popular among all social classes in the 1900s. The drink’s distinctive flavor can range from sweet and spicy to harsh, depending on the production method. People often mistake it for sake due to its rice-based origin, but it is different due to its use of awamori. While its popularity has increased, it’s still popular among tourists and some locals.

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Which snakes do they use for it?

Habushu is named after the venomous habu snake, a member of the pit viper family, which is used in alcohol. These snakes are native to Southeast Asia and Japanese islands. It’s the largest and most venomous snake in the islands. The habu snake’s bite can be very dangerous, causing symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Even though it can be fatal, people can survive with prompt treatment. Although risky, some people believe the habu snake has medicinal properties when used in habushu.

A live pit viper snake.
The Habu snake is native to Southeast Asia, close to Okinawa. Image via Wikimedia

The main allure of habushu is in the visual of a venomous habu snake coiled at the bottom of the bottle. This sight attracts many due to its unusualness. The bottle’s snake shows the drink’s uniqueness and serves as a conversation starter, making it a memorable souvenir for visitors! This visual element enhances the drinking experience, appealing to those looking for a bold taste and an adventurous story!

How do they make it?

There are two main methods for this process. The first method involves placing a live habu snake directly into the bottle, where it drowns. The awamori is mixed with herbs, spices, and honey to create a pleasant flavor. This mixture soaks for at least a month, when the alcohol nullifies the snake’s venom, making it safe to drink.

The second method is different. First, brewers make the snake unconscious using ice. Then, they gut it, sew it back up, and place it in a container of ethanol for about a month. This step helps remove any odors. After this, transfer the snake to a jar with the awamori mixture, which soaks and ages for at least another month. This process ensures full preservation of the snake, and the resulting drink has a milder, sweeter taste.

What does it taste like?

Glasses of awamori.
Awamori is distilled from rice. Image via Shutterstock

Snake wine offers a unique and diverse taste experience. Generally, it has a mild flavor that’s sweet with light herbal and spicy notes, thanks to the addition of honey and a mix of herbs and spices. The drink often has a pleasant tea-like aroma and a pale-yellow color. However, the taste can differ from bottle to bottle—those with more herbs might have a drier flavor, while bottles containing the snake can deliver a stronger kick.

Two jars of habushu in Okinawa.
Some people consider snake wine to be a medicine! Image via Shutterstock

The production methods also influence the flavor. Some bottles may have mellow notes of sweetness and spice, while others might be more intense and harsher. For a smoother and more enjoyable experience, many distillers recommend choosing a bottle without the snake inside. Overall, habushu’s taste is a blend of sweet, spicy, and herbal elements, making it a unique drink worth trying for the adventurous drinker!

Is it safe to drink snake wine?

Two jars of snake wine with pit vipers inside.
Have you ever drunk habushu before? Image via Wikimedia

Snake wine may seem scary due to its unique ingredients, but it’s safe to drink. Despite containing a pit viper, the venom is harmless by soaking the snake in ethanol. So, while it might look scary, there’s no need to worry about its safety! Have you ever tried habushu? If so, what did it taste like? Let us know in the comments below!

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