GEORGE TOWN: It was 1pm on a Saturday afternoon. Eight men were sharing a bottle of whiskey at a kedai tuak (toddy shop) in Cantonment Road.
“None of us drink samsu here. We only drink whiskey or toddy,” said one of them when asked why not samsu.
Another man, declining to be named, said samsu was only consumed by those from the lower income groups.
“It’s a poison. The alcohol content is very strong,” he said.
“I worked in a hospital for 30 years before retiring and I have seen samsu drinkers being hospitalised.
“They drink it even in the morning and on an empty stomach. All they can think of is drinking samsu. It destroys their body,” he said.
There are four kedai tuak outlets on Penang island.
A senior official from the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) said these were legacies from the colonial era.
The licence for the toddy sale was issued by the Customs Department. MBPP manages the service contracts by open tender.
“That’s how it was before Independence. Our colonial masters had no problems letting Indians drink toddy and Chinese smoke opium,” said the MBPP official.
“It was stopped shortly after Independence, but we allow sellers the contracts to sell as long as they comply with several rules.”
Samsu is considered cheap, hard liquor (though it's still legal) with alcohol content of 30% to 40% or more.
Toddy, or palm wine, is made with the fermented sap of several types of palm trees. Its alcohol content is typically rather low at about 5% to 8%.
Less than 50m from a Kedai Tuak in Cantonment Road is Soon Huat, a liquor store that has been in business since 1946.
The shop sells mostly premium liquor but it also sells samsu legally.
Third-generation owner Siong Chuah, 48, said hardly any Malaysians buy samsu anymore.
“Mostly, it’s the foreign workers who buy it.
“It is at least RM5 a bottle now. There are no more RM1.50 bottles unless it is illegal,” he said.
Siong said he knew of many shops selling samsu illegally.
“They are mostly sundry shops. We were told by licensed samsu producers that some sellers collect samsu bottles and make fake liquor with alcohol, sugar and water,” he said.