In Vietnam’s long tradition of distillation, its most famous alcohol is ruou, or rice wine. Cheap, ubiquitous and potent, ruou is widely consumed. This is thanks to a proliferation of the small home distilleries throughout the country, where the land’s staple crop of rice is cooked, mashed, fermented and distilled to produce a strong, clear alcohol.
In recent years, however, ruou has been losing ground to beer, amidst concerns over the safety, hygiene, and quality of home distilleries. To most of the urban youths, it’s perceived as somewhat old-fashioned and uncool. Enter Son Tinh, a range of artisanal, handcrafted ruou infused with authentic Vietnamese flavours such as fragrant rice, seasonal fruits, and traditional herbs and spices. With several international spirits awards under its belt, it is poised to make waves on the global cocktail scene.
How did Son Tinh transform ruou from small-time local moonshine to an international award-winning liquor in its own category? That’s what I’m about to find out in Hanoi.
ESSENCE OF THE MOUNTAINS
It’s 11am when our taxi winds its way past the farmland, houses and pagodas of Le Chi village north-east of Hanoi, where the Son Tinh distillery is located. Nicolas Legroux, Son Tinh’s marketing and PR manager, explains that this site was chosen because it has the best water quality in the capital region. “We filter it five more times to get it as close to mountain water as we can,” says Hung, Son Tinh’s accountant who doubles as our translator and tour guide.
Despite its location in an industrial cluster, the spacious distillery compound is laid out with lush gardens and ivy-covered buildings. Off to the side is a rustic wooden structure reminiscent of a communal village hall. In the mid morning heat, two dogs are lazing sleepily on the floor. The scene is rustic and bucolic. Here we meet Hong, the distillery’s general manager. In preparation for the day’s imbibition, he serves us small cups of strong tea as we sit on wooden benches and talk Son Tinh’s history.
In 1994, Swiss-born Markus Madeja visited Vietnam for his anthropology studies. His life took a turn when he met his wife-to-be, Thoa, who belongs to the fourth generation of a distinguished ruou-making family. It wasn’t long before Madeja started experimenting making ruou at home, combining his knowledge of schnapps distillation techniques with recipes passed down through the generations in Thoa’s family.
They started with selling small batches to family and friends. It wasn’t until Madeja met business partner Dan Dockery that the two expats decided to take Son Tinh a step further. Bonding over shared interests in Vietnamese food and drink, they opened Highway 4 restaurant in 1999, showcasing Madeja’s ruou paired with traditional dishes. Diners began to sit up and take notice; business boomed, and with it came a growing demand for more ruou.
Madeja realised that scaling up production while maintaining consistent high quality would require a proper factory. With the purchase of a copper reflux still, and the lease of a large plot of land, the Son Tinh Distillery was born in 2006.
By 2011, Son Tinh had won two silver medals at the International Wine & Spirit Competition. It became Vietnam’s first (and only) internationally-awarded liquor, and is now often the only product that foreigners associate with Vietnam.
CRAFTED IN TIME
First stop on our distillery tour is a traditional concrete hut housing a basic pot still―a 10-litre metal pot, a furnace, and some pipes. This is how ruou is usually made by small family producers, explains Hong. Son Tinh used to brew this way too, but now preserves the hut as a museum and testament to their origins.
The tour continues to the distillery proper, a huge, high-ceilinged space with tall steel tanks sitting quiescent in corners. No distilling is taking place today, as production cycles are aligned to local fruit harvest seasons for maximum intensity of flavour.
“Apricots in April, plums in May, rose apples in September, and passion fruit in November,” Hong shares―I didn’t even realise such fruits were grown in Vietnam. A commitment to using ingredients at peak freshness means that harvest times can be extremely busy, with as many as 15 additional seasonal staff roped in to wash and process the incoming truckloads of fruits and herbs.
Next, he shows us a large German copper reflux still; it’s the first and only one in Vietnam. This is the heart of the distillery, the modern equipment that replaced the pot still we saw earlier. Son Tinh’s ruou is produced from a fragrant variety of sticky rice, sourced from the Red River Delta regions. The rice is used unpolished, though husked, because the main flavours lies in the thin brown ‘skin’ around the kernels. After the rice is ground and cooked into a ‘soup’, an enzyme is added to convert the starch into sugar. The mixture is then left to ferment for a week before distillation.
During distillation, the ‘head’ and ‘tail’ runs of the distillate are thrown away, with only the middle run kept and distilled twice for high concentration of flavours. Unlike other producers, Son Tinh’s ruou rests for a lengthy five years between the first and second distillations. This is for flavours to develop and for toxins to naturally break down. Even with precise equipment, distilling is an art best practiced with experience. With pride, Hong shows us his record books, which methodically lists the results from years of experimentation. The numbers are remarkably consistent, with the double-distilled alcohol averaging an unusually pristine 90% ABV, having eliminated most of the impurities that can affect taste.
The alcohol is then diluted by slowly adding pure water over several weeks, and then allowed a second maturation period of several months to years. To make Son Tinh’s clear base liquor, it takes six years from start to finish. With the additional infusion of fruits, herbs and spices, it can take up to 10 years for full aging of the final product. It’s a long-term process, no less than the best Champagnes and wines.
FRUIT OF THE LAND
Bearing a tray of clean shot glasses, Hong leads the way to the behemoth steel tanks, and opens a tap. “This is rose apple,” he says, filling our glasses with an amber coloured liquid. I sniff at mine. It’s a fragrant mix of soft floral notes and apple cider. What I wasn’t expecting was a taste almost like cognac—rich, full-bodied, and overlaid with the slightly sweet, slightly sour astringency of fruit. It hits home that this is a liquor, and not merely a ‘wine’.
On to the next tank, containing Moc Sa Pa, made from over 30 herbs sourced from the rainforests of Sapa in Vietnam’s wild north. It’s dark brown in colour, a complex accord of earthy notes and a long aftertaste. Though based on traditional medicinal wine recipes, it is more popularly used as bitters. “How many flavours are there?” I ask. “Only 12,” Hong says, with a grin. He informs us that there are 47 on record, but only 12 are in continual production. Two down and I’m already in a slight daze. We enter another building to find more storage tanks.
Though already a finished product, Son Tinh’s ruou is only bottled just before it is shipped out, to ensure maximum maturation. Among the row of tanks, there are special reserve batches that have been aging for over 20 years. In quick succession, we try more flavours. Minh Mang, adapted from a historic tonic made famous by a particularly virile Emperor, is a spicy, full-bodied and surprisingly balanced concoction that could conceivably replace whiskey. There is also the palate-pleasing Man Do, made using a combination of several local varieties of plum: tart, sweet and vividly red-coloured; and Chanh Leo, flavoured with the purple-skinned variety of passionfruit sourced from the central highlands around Dalat: sour, smooth, with honey notes.
Nep Phu Loc, the clear base liquor, was a revelation: an unusual creamy note that differentiates it from its sake and soju cousins. ‘Nep’ refers to sticky rice, and ‘Phu Loc’ is a province in Northern Vietnam. Long years of maturation contribute to its exceptionally smooth texture. I could imagine drinking it straight, though it probably makes a great cocktail base too.
The most interesting though, was Nhat Da, a dark, complex herbal liquor with sweet and bitter hints of grass, apricot stone and coffee. “It’s a digestif,” Legroux begins, only to be interrupted by Hong, “It’s a medicine; very stimulating.” As its name suggests―Nhat Da means ‘One Night’, this liquor’s energising effects are mostly felt after sunset. Hung gets the last word by recounting how a customer had called it the drink that allowed him to perform “one night, five times!” We all laugh, and move to the bottling and packing area.
Legroux points out Son Tinh’s attention to detail: glass bottles made by Saverglass in France, designed with skinny necks for bartenders to twirl and show off their pouring skills; as well as handmade mahogany bottle corks and custom bottle seals where each flavour has its own colour. Tipsy from the tasting, I take it all in with an agreeable nod. My eyes can’t quite focus.
The ride to Hanoi’s atmospheric Old Quarter passes in a blur. Ruou apparently should never be had on an empty stomach, and we are about to remedy that. Our late lunch is at one of the Highway 4 restaurants, a display of how native herbs and spices are used in both Vietnamese cuisine and alcohol. Over an incredibly tasty meal of catfish spring rolls, banana flower salad, fried rice, and roasted crickets dipped in lime and salt, Legroux introduces even more flavours of Son Tinh. Mo Vang (apricot), served as an aperitif over ice, was especially delicious. It is spicy, sour, floral, and fruity all at the same time, and is one of Son Tinh’s most popular flavours. Vietnamese apricots, packing twice the amount of flavour versus their Western counterparts, are used.
For digestifs, we have Vuong Tuu and My Tuu, well-balanced herbal concoctions with a pleasant aftertaste. On the menu are also classic cocktails like mojitos and magaritas, all made with ruou. In the mellow aftermath of full bellies and alcoholic fog, Legroux shares Son Tinh’s vision for the future. By next year, production capacity will double to 400,000 bottles a year because of overseas demand, especially from the U.S. market. Mixologists and connoisseurs in Europe have also taken an interest in the fermented rice liquor, and Legroux will be kept busy with trade shows and meetings with distributors.
As for its reception in Asia, Son Tinh was recently featured at the 2017 Singapore Cocktail Festival, when visiting bartenders from Vietnam employed Mo Vang to create drinks representative of their country. One such cocktail was the Saigon City of Dreams, where the apricot liquor was mixed with jackfruit-infused Sailor Jerry Rum, MONIN Le Fruit pineapple purée, pineapple and kumquat sherbet, lime, and kumquats to create a fruity concoction. But perhaps the surest sign of success is closest to home: Son Tinh’s ruou is carried by most major hotels and travel brands in Vietnam, and specialty cocktail bars in Ho Chi Minh City have also used Son Tinh to create signature cocktails that the younger generations are lapping up.
While Son Tinh, with its international awards, versatility of use, and popular reception could certainly expand more quickly, Legroux says that the distillery’s priority is to maintain its values as a small-batch, artisanal producer. Quality, authenticity and sustainability are the main aim of the game, and it’s crucial to find the right distributors who will market Son Tinh as a unique, premium product, inextricably tied to its Vietnamese heritage. “Son Tinh means ‘essence of the mountains’, and while we use modern production, nature and tradition are still very important,” he stresses.
Stumbling half drunk, I left the restaurant with a newfound appreciation of how one traditional alcohol, made in new ways, can become a flag-bearer for introducing Vietnamese culture and cuisine to the world.
Highway 4 restaurant is located at 25 Bát Sứ, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam. Tel: +84 24 3926 0639