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Snake wine (蛇酒, pinyin: shéjiǔ; rượu rắn in Vietnamese) is an alcoholic beverage produced by infusing whole snakes in rice wine or grain alcohol. The drink was first recorded to have been consumed in China during the Western Zhou dynasty (ca. 1040–770 BC) and considered an important curative and believed to reinvigorate a person according to Traditional Chinese medicine. It can be found in China, Goa (India), Vietnam, and throughout Southeast Asia.
The snakes, preferably venomous ones, are not usually preserved for their meat but to have their "essence" and snake venom dissolved in the liquor. The snake venom poses no threat to the drinker. It is denatured by the ethanol—its proteins are unfolded and therefore inactive— and would be denatured by stomach acid anyway.
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There are two main types of snake wine, which utilize either parts of a live snake, or the entire snake itself.
- Steeped: A whole venomous snake is placed into a glass jar of rice wine or grain alcohol, sometimes along with smaller snakes and medicinal herbs and left to steep for many months. The wine is drunk as a restorative in small shots or cups. The snakes may be inserted into the container while still alive, causing them to drown on their own, or the snake may be stunned first by being placed on ice, after which the distiller cuts the snake open, guts it, and then sews it shut again. Upon removal from the ice, the snake will briefly reawaken and thrash around, before curling into an aggressive striking pose and dying. The latter method is sometimes preferred because the removal of the snake's digestive tract can noticeably reduce the pungent smell of the finished wine, and because the snakes often die in a coiled position that is visually attractive inside the jars, suggesting the snake was fierce in spirit.
- Mixed: The fresh body fluids of the snake are mixed directly into prepared alcohol and consumed immediately in the form of a shot. Snake blood wine is prepared by slicing a snake along its belly and draining its blood directly into the drinking vessel filled with rice wine or grain alcohol. Snake bile wine is done through a similar method by using the contents of the gall bladder, and snake heart wine contains the often still-beating heart of the snake.
Snakes and their tissue portions have long been considered by followers of Traditional Chinese medicine to be invaluable for the promotion of vitality and health. The drink was first recorded to be used in China during the Western Zhou dynasty (771 BC) and the medicinal use of snakes was noted in the medical manual Shen nong ben cao jing (神农本草经) compiled between 300 B.C. and 200 A.D. The detailed use of various snake species, their body parts, and various preparations were greatly elaborated in the medical manual Bencao Gangmu (本草綱目) of Li Shizhen in the Ming dynasty.
Snake wine can be found in many areas of Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Southern China.
Claims of medicinal value
Snakes are widely believed to possess medicinal qualities and the wine is often advertised to cure everything from farsightedness to hair loss, as well as to increase sexual performance. In Vietnam, snake wine (Rượu rắn) is widely believed by some individuals to improve health and virility. A similar drink is made with geckos or sea horses rather than snakes. Snake wine, due to its high alcohol percentage, is traditionally drunk in shot glasses. Braver drinkers may eat certain parts of the snake, such as the gall bladder, eyeballs and the stomach.
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- 蛇酒的泡制与药用 [The production and medicinal qualities of snake wine], 2007-04-09
- 关, 海珊 (2008-01-22), 趣谈蛇酒的来历与药用价值 [Leisure conversations on snake wine, its history and it medicinal properties]
- 李, 時珍 (1578–1593), 本草綱目 [Compendium of Materia Medica]
- Mandel, Peter (April 22, 2007), Snake Wine, The Washington Post Company
- Rich Phillips (May 7, 2009). "Name your poison: 'Snake wine' seized at airport". CNN. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
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