At age 3, Itsara Ounnarath migrated with his family from Laos to the central Texas city of Abilene. Years of wrestling with displacement both physical and cultural left him with a central, unanswered question: Who am I?
"Am I American? Am I Laotian?" Ounnarath, a now 38-year-old Army laboratory officer living in Abingdon, recalled thinking. "I was shy about my culture. People don't know Laos. ... We're not on the map, and I wanted to change that."
A few years ago, Ounnarath realized he could introduce American consumers to his Southeast Asian heritage through alcohol.
"Drinking is one thing Laotians like to do with families," said a smiling Ounnarath. "It brings people together."
In March, Ounnarath launched White Tiger Distillery, a nascent operation on the Eastern Shore's Kent Island that the owner hopes will eventually spread his family's distinct, Laotian take on rice whiskey and other products around the world. For now, it's a hobby Ounnarath runs with the help of his wife and co-owner, Nory Ounnarath, on weekends. But when he retires from Bethesda's Walter Reed National Military Medical Center next year, Itsara Ounnarath will finally be able to focus on his passion full time.
"I came into the Army when I was 19. I did three tours in Iraq," said Ounnarath, who grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and moved to Maryland in 2008. "It's time to retire."
He's particularly excited about his next endeavor because the reception to his three products — a rice wine spirit called laoLao; aged rice whiskey; and Coquito, a coconut liqueur native to Nory's Puerto Rico — has been positive. (The products are for sale at the distillery, and the whiskey can be found at Blue Pit BBQ in Hampden and Parts and Labor in Remington, while supplies last.)
The key, he said, is simply introducing the brand to the unfamiliar public. The laoLao ($61.96, 750 milliliters) and whiskey ($56.96, 375 milliliters) present a hurdle that scares off some before they even open a bottle: "120 proof," or 60 percent pure alcohol, reads the label. (The difference between the two: The whiskey is distilled twice and aged in an oak barrel, while the laoLao is not. In both, the only ingredients are rice, water and yeast.)
My sampling began on a recent Sunday with the clear-colored laoLao, and let me warn you: This is not for everyone. Vodkas, whiskeys and other mainstream spirits often hover in the 70- to 90-proof range, and the added bite to White Tiger's is noticeable immediately, like a warm liquid blanket evaporating into your cranium. Still, I detected the nutty, floral notes on the nose that Ounnarath, who recommends it sipped neat, pointed out. I imagined it working best chilled.
Its punch is a knockout, but laoLao is smooth and subtle, too, with a sweetness that kicks in at the end. Ounnarath credits his mother, who recalled her family's recipe from Laos from memory, with correcting his initial recipe. He won't disclose the details, though.
"I was missing a very, very critical step, but it's a secret," he said. "You can YouTube it and learn how to make it, but you won't get the same quality."
Production is laborious. After the rice is rehydrated, Ounnarath steams it the way they do in Laos — not with a rice cooker, but with a small metal pot and bamboo basket. The rice, water and yeast ferment for a few months on average. Ounnarath and volunteers then hand-wring the rice mash in cheesecloths, a slow process that separates the liquid from the rice. (White Tiger donates the latter to local farms that use it for feed, Ounnarath said.)
The liquid byproduct is distilled twice to create the whiskey, which was an unexpected experiment, Ounnarath said. His initial plan was to only create the laoLao, but federal regulations would not allow him to call it whiskey, as its called in Laos.
His solution: Age it in an oak barrel for a week and see what happens. Luckily, Ounnarath liked the results.
"Traditionally, we don't age it at all," he said. "Now that we're learning [that] as it ages in the barrel, it actually just intensifies and brings out that traditional wood, oaky whiskey flavor."
The first run resulted in only 250 bottles of week-aged whiskey. When the hand-numbered bottles run out (there were fewer than 30 bottles left at the Kent Island distillery on my visit), that product won't be made again, Ounnarath said.
"It actually turned out pretty good, but it was missing another element," he said. "It didn't fully mature yet. We said, 'OK, let's let it age a little bit longer.'"
In December, White Tiger will release the next generation — a six-month-aged whiskey. The plan, Ounnarath said, is to eventually release three editions: copper (aged six months), gold (one year) and platinum (two years).
I tried the seven-day whiskey and the not-yet available six-month version, and the difference was striking. Both are good — unique twists on familiar whiskey notes, with that ever-present heat from the high alcohol content — but more aging clearly translated to a more-rounded flavor. The eye test was a strong indicator, too: The one-week version was a faint yellow, while the six-month had an inviting, rich amber color.
The company's secret weapon is Nory's Coquito ($35.78, 750 milliliters), an 80-proof dessert liqueur that has quietly become White Tiger's best seller at the distillery. People use it on cupcakes and ice cream, or drink it over ice. In Puerto Rico, rum is typically the base, but White Tiger uses the laoLao, and the result is addictively refreshing.
While White Tiger has 19 other silent investors, many of whom have military backgrounds, it is essentially a two-person operation between Ounnarath and his wife right now. And they're building a brand seemingly made for the times: Small-batch production using time-honored procedures, all through the lens of an American proud of his roots.
He hopes to introduce imbibers around the world to White Tiger, but until then, Ounnarath knows the key is spreading his story, even if it's one customer at a time.
"If you go to the liquor store and you see this sitting on the shelf at 120 proof, without knowing the history and the story behind it, you're going to go right past it," he said, before pausing.
"You try it, then you know."