Alcohol in Vietnam and Vietnamese Drinking Culture
Drinking is a big part of Vietnamese culture. A testament to its popularity can be seen throughout the country in major cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi where pavements are flanked with crowds of locals gathering together to ‘nhau’, which means “together” but in this context means to eat and drink.
While beer, Vietnamese rice wine, and whiskey drinks are typically consumed on such merry occasions, a new wave of craft alcoholic beverages and bespoke artisanal liquor is making its way into the hearts (and livers) of a younger, more affluent Vietnamese audience.
Today, it is not uncommon to find innovative Vietnamese cocktails featuring herbs and spices unique to Vietnam in your glass at upscale bars and restaurants around Saigon.
Cocktail Ready: 5 Vietnamese Spirits
In the past few years, a wave of craft distillers has stepped up to create artisanal spirits – gin, rum, vodka – that are distinctly Vietnamese drinks.
Blending herbs and ingredients unique to the country such as lemongrass, many of these spirits pay tribute to the country’s biodiverse terroir, climate as well as flora and fauna.
1. Sông Cái Gin
Perhaps the most well-known Vietnamese artisanal spirit, Sông Cái Gin is the brainchild of Daniel Nguyen, founder of Vietnam’s first-ever gin distillery.
Armed with a background in agroforestry and sustainable agriculture, Daniel leverages the versatility and creative freedom of gin to showcase the country’s botanicals.
The cocktail tastes of jungle pepper, black cardamom, green turmeric, heirloom pomelo, local cinnamon leaf and bark, indigenous woods and white liquorice root. Usual pairings include tonic (of course) as well as lime juice, Song Cai also suggests that the cocktail is prepared with a pinch of salt.
For Daniel, Song Cai is an opportunity to “showcase the biodiverse terroir of Vietnam” as well as tell a story of its culture. In particular, Sông Cái’s dry gin is a beverage love letter to the northern highlands, its terroir, and its people.
To date, Sông Cái has bagged notable internationally-acclaimed awards such as the Platinum and Double Gold at the 2020 Sip Awards.
2. Lady Trieu Gin
Named after 3rd-century Vietnamese warrior and folk hero, Lady Trieu Gin is an artisanal gin helmed by Master Distiller Adam Westbrook. Made in Saigon, each bottle is handcrafted in small batches using 12 Vietnamese botanicals, plus the finest Italian juniper.
Crowd favourites include the Mekong Delta Dry Gin, Dalat Flowerbomb Gin and the latest release from the series – Sapa Citrus Tea Gin, which explores the beauty of Northern Vietnam and takes inspiration from the mountainous region of Sapa.
This winning formula culminates into a heady, aromatic gin, blending herbal notes of Oolong black tea with layered citrus fruit tones and warming pepper.
Served with your favourite tonic water garnished with fresh pomelo zest or Dry Martini and you’ll have a pair of refreshing alcoholic drinks perfect for a sweltering hot day!
3. Mashed Up Gin
This Vietnamese gin is the world’s first to be made from upcycled craft beer and recycled beer bottles. It all started when Thomas, a Danish brewer and founder of Furbrew, began to brew small batches of craft beer that were unconventional and untraditional.
Occasionally, some of these beers wouldn’t make the cut and instead of wasting them, Thomas would distil them into gin. In a nutshell, Mashed Up gin possess all the characteristics of the beer but in ‘gin form’.
Using Furbrew’s unique blend of imported hops and wheat malt mash, the gin is combined with juniper berries and Vietnamese kumquat. The spirit is then double distilled for a silkier texture and comprises mainly malty notes from the beer combined with refreshing botanic aromas and zesty citrus.
Continuing the strive for sustainability, Mashed Up is bottled in recycled beer bottles, leftover distilled herbs are given to local farms for pig food, and the heads and tails go to pharmacy alcohol production.
4. Rhum Belami
Rhum Belami is Vietnam’s first premium rhum. Founded by Roddy Battajon, Rhum Belami is based on a family recipe passed onto Roddy by his grandmother but with a Vietnamese twist using native local ingredients.
Taking advantage of Vietnam’s unique access to some of the best sugarcane in the world, Roddy set out to democratize rum consumption in Southeast Asia after arriving in Vietnam in 2016.
Unlike many rum brands, Rhum Belami contains only the essential chemicals and replaces many chemicals (glycerin etc.) with natural products such as turmeric and curcumin. Almost 90% of Rhum Belami’s ingredients is sourced from Vietnam such as Vietnamese sugar cane, coconuts, passion fruit, pineapple, coconut and cacao bean. Other interesting products such as Goji berry, Kopi Luwak coffee beans as well as Baobab powder are also used.
This is part of Rhum Belami’s ethos of making the beverage:
“fruity and spicy without being too close to rum arrange and to stay as natural as possible”
This winning formula (Rhum Belami « Legacy » Édition : 2020 Gold medal awarded) creates a rum that is as close to a cocktail and easily poured on the rocks or neat.
As the icing on the cake, every bottle is handmade and personalised with a handwritten note by Roddy as well as his family seal “RB” in honor of his family and to guarantee quality.
5. Son Tinh Rice Liquor
Sơn Tinh loosely translates into ‘The spirit of the mountains’ and is Vietnam’s only internationally awarded craft rice liquor (Rượu).
Since its incorporation in 2002, Sơn Tinh has snagged an array of international accolades and awards including ‘Vietnam’s Distillery of The Year’ and the ‘Gold Medal for Sơn Tinh Nếp Phú Lộc Sticky Rice Liquor’.
Sơn Tinh features a unique selection of natural -and unique Vietnamese flavours to evolve a 1000-year-old drinking tradition. This is part of an effort to maintain the traditional flavours of Vietnam, while appealing to mainstream cocktail bars globally.
To date, distinct must-try flavours include Vuong Tuu (based on a traditional recipe produced for a Chinese Empress) and Red Plum (made using famous Vietnam’s Ta Van plums).
The liquors are carefully hand-crafted in small batches from 100% natural ingredients and well matured over many years. The result is a sweet distillate from sticky rice that comprises a clear distillate and 11 liqueurs made by maceration of Vietnamese traditional herbs, spices and fruits.
The quality of this traditional yet trendy product accords Sơn Tinh its status of being the first internationally recognised and awarded liquor, as an original Vietnamese spirit category called “Rượu”.
The Popularity of Vietnamese Rice Wine (Rượu đế)
Vietnamese rice wine is one of the most famous Vietnamese spirits. Also known as ‘rượu đế’, it is a form of distilled liquor and is made from either glutinous or non-glutinous rice.
It was formerly made illegally and is thus similar to moonshine.
Although termed ‘wine’, rice wine has a higher alcohol content than most wine at around 20%. Generally, the drink has a sweet, mild taste, often served neat in small glasses, where the drink is sipped or drunk as a shot.
Black glutinous rice wine is made from nutritional black glutinous rice and yeasts (or so-called starter culture “banh men”) – which is a trademark drink of North-west folks. Known for its bitter taste and medicinal properties, it is common to drink black glutinous rice wine as a form of preventive medicine in traditional medicine.
Consuming black glutinous rice wine within reason can help to prevent diarrhoea, dysfunction and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Furthermore, it is also known to lower the risk of cancer due to its anti-carcinogenic properties.
However, younger Vietnamese people are increasingly opting to drink Western liquor brands over Vietnamese sticky rice wine thus making it more difficult for visitors to find in major hubs such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Da Nang.
For those looking to have a taste of Vietnamese rice wine, be sure to venture out into the rural areas of Vietnam to your nearest street side bia hoi! Or if you are lucky, local rice wine is sometimes used cocktail bars.
Raise your glass to Vietnam’s up-and-coming alcohol scene
Gone are the days of simply sipping beers by the side of the street in Vietnam. Alcohol in Vietnam has moved past just that. As Vietnamese distillers continue to test the boundaries of ‘traditional meets modern’ and ‘East meets West’, Vietnam’s bar culture and alcohol scene will evolve alongside it.
Unsurprisingly, it’s already happening in economic hubs such as Hanoi and Saigon where mixologists, restaurants and bars are embracing this new wave of artisanal Vietnamese spirits creating innovative signature cocktails and drinks around them.
While much of the attention paid to this drink movement of artisanal craft spirits is domestic, it is a matter of time until the world takes notice.
With an aggressive economic growth strategy largely focused on foreign direct investment coupled with a strong tourists-driven bounce back on the horizon, Vietnam’s coming-of-age alcohol scene and its esteemed distillers and tastemakers are redefining what it means to be a ‘Vietnamese alcohol’ and what goes into a cocktail.
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