Yerlo and Yerlo Reserve produced by Lo Artisan Distillery are both made from rice. (Michelle Higginbotham / American Press)
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 2:15 PM
MOSS BLUFF — Believe this. Spirits from the hills are potent, no matter who the master brewer is.
That notion may seem like a “duh” moment. But sometimes a single worldview can blind a person to the reality that out beyond the hills and bayou, a big world exists and with it, top-notch white lightning.
Until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about Hmong spirits, and unless you are an adventurous traveler or military veteran who was stationed in Southeast Asia, you probably are in the dark at this moment like I was initially.
Po Lo, 40, can pat himself on the back for introducing one aspect of the Hmong culture to drinkers — including myself — throughout 12 states, including Louisiana.
Lo is the owner of Lo Artisan Distillery in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. The product he produces is named Yerlo — after his mother — and Yerlo Reserve. Both are made from rice.
“What we make is a traditional rice spirit that’s made by Hmongs. Most of the elders make it at home,” Lo said. “No Hmong makes this legally or commercially other than me. Honestly, we’re the only ones in the world.”
Lo and his family produce a certain amount of Yerlo. Every step — from culturing yeast (family recipe) to labeling each bottle — is done by hand.
What does Yerlo taste like?
Lo describes it as “high-content alcohol with flavor, smooth and 100 percent gluten free.”
Personally, I found the spirit to be a delightful tush-kicker. I like my spirits straight and sampling this version of Asian hill country hooch was one to remember.
In order to take in the most flavor, Yerlo is best tasted fast (shooter). Within seconds the whiskey will rattle the taste and smell senses and follow that with flavor. Yerlo is 120 proof with 60 percent alcohol.
Lo said it takes five months to make Yerlo, with four of those for fermentation and at least three weeks to distill, bottle and package.
Yerlo Reserve is 130 proof and ferments for six months.
Lo stresses that all of his products are “smooth,” which is a description I would agree with.
When you really consider this rice spirit, it’s fair to conclude that it’s similar to American-style moonshine, with the only difference being that the base of Yerlo is Thai sweet rice.
Following a few shots of Yerlo, George Jones’ song “White Lightning” started playing in my head with special emphasis on the following verses: “I took a little sip and right away I knew. As my eyes bugged out and my face turned blue. Lightnin’, started flashing’ and thunder started crashin’. Shhhoooh ... white lightnin’.”
From a cultural standpoint, Lo is proud that his product is in Louisiana, Montana, Rhode Island, Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Minnesota and California.
Making the rice spirit allows the public to be acquainted with Hmong culture.
Hmongs have lived in the mountain areas of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
During the Vietnam War, Hmongs fought with Americans and after the war thousands migrated to America.
“The sole purpose of making this spirit commercially was to preserve my heritage and culture,” Lo said. “Yerlo does remind a lot of people of moonshine, but my product has a more robust flavor.”
Hmong cuisine is noted for being spicy. Paring Yerlo with spicy food will intensify flavors on your palate.
Now that you know a little bit about Yerlo, I want to explain the part of the story that you may be wondering about.
What is Lo’s connection to Louisiana and why is he making a spirit in the Midwest.
First, Lo and his wife, Dr. Charlotte D. Vang, own A Complete Foot Center at 212 W. McNeese St. They’ve lived in Calcasieu Parish since 2002.
Lo started conceptualizing his distillery in 2009 and wanted to build a manufacturing facility in Lake Charles.
“Well, we tried to do this here, but ran into a few hangups because of some dry areas. I wanted to be in downtown Lake Charles, but was not able to get the financing I needed,” Lo said.
He eventually went back to Wisconsin and found a location, had the distillery installed, and began making the spirit.
What follows is one of Lo’s personal recipes that can be paired with a few shots of Yerlo.
• 4-6 chicken tenderloins
• 1/2 package spicy dry rice powder
• Fresh cilantro to taste
• Fresh mint to taste
• Fresh white basil to taste
• 2 tablespoons fish sauce
• 1 teaspoon salt
• Fresh Thai chili peppers to taste
• Finely chopped fresh ginger to taste
• 1/4 cup chopped green onions
• Juice from one fresh lime
• Boil or cook chicken tenderloins until cooked.
• Chop chicken, herbs and pepper.
• Mix all ingredients in a large container gradually adding rice powder.
• Add fish sauce and juice from lime half.
• Taste. Add rest of lime juice, salt and chili pepper if needed.
From Po Lo, Lo Artisan Distillery