RISE OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN SPIRITS
Why the region is a hotbed for premium rums and gin
Surprise - the next artisanal, award-winning rum or gin you reach for may just come from Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines or Indonesia. June Lee investigates the new wave of premium spirit-makers washing up on our shores.
When Native Bar opened in Singapore in 2016, owner Vijay Mudaliar immediately grabbed local and international headlines with his compelling pitch – it’s Asia’s time to shine in the mixology world. As recently as 10 years ago, would a rum from Philippines or Thailand have been taken seriously in the craft scene in London or New York?
In the last decade, Asian craft bars and craft bartenders have swiftly made it to the top of the game, thanks to the best they could find, from talents and franchises to equipment and ingredients – including the top alcohol brands. While those juggernaut spirits still form the backbone of the craft bar scene, a small glimmer of premium, locally produced tipples are starting to stand out. Forget the locally made cheap alcohol that gave boozing at Kamala or Kuta Beach a bad name – this wave is more likely than not to be twice distilled, handcrafted in small copper stills, corked in unique bottles and sipped rather than slugged back. We take a look at four rums and a gin that are making it into our glasses this year.
He explains, “The name comes from necessity.
Thai law prohibits the type of alcohol from being printed on the label, so you can only put ‘White Spirit Distilled From ___’. Some people get around it by putting a large R (rum) or V (vodka) on the label but we didn’t want to do that. Jinn is actually a very common Thai nickname for people of Chinese decent and also the nickname of my wife’s grandmother. It’s a way of saying gin without saying it.”
It’s a daunting task to create a gin recipe from scratch. Chi’s ah-ha moment came when he tried but failed to make a neutral grain spirit. “I was inspired by St. George’s Dry Rye gin and realised I didn’t have to follow all the traditional boundaries of gin. Why couldn’t I use an agricole base? Sugarcane is native to Asia and is one of the few spirits that has its own terroir. Instead of shying away from that, I leant into it and embraced Thai flavours.” The resulting recipe #1 uses an agricole rum distilled up to 80 percent to retain a bit of earthiness that’s the flavour of the land. Aside from juniper berries, all the other botanicals such as coriander seed, angelica root, fresh ginger root, tangerine peel and Thai saffron leaves are from Thailand. Recipe #2, now in the works, will play around with Thai flowers.
With over 2,400 gins being produced in the world and growing every month, there is no consensus on what ‘New Asian gins’ should taste like, says Chi. “The same can be said for New World gins coming from America and all around the world. I like what Paper Lantern and Iron Balls are doing; the more players there are in Asia, the better.”
Much more established by now is Chalong Bay Rum, started in 2013 by French expat couple Thibault Spithakis and Marine Lucchini in the area of the same name in Phuket. It was an uphill
task to set up the first rum distillery in Phuket, with obstacles in importing equipment and convincing the farmers to work with them, alongside marketing the pioneering product to sceptics.
Describes Spithakis, “The locally made premium (craft) rum and even the rum market in general was quite small at the time. In fact, the Thai market was dominated by brown spirits of the lao khao category (very low priced white spirits). Very few people then would believe in a locally made white spirit, as the Thai market was far from being known as a quality white spirit producer.”
Today, the company works with 10 farms, employs 28 staff and produces more than 40,000 bottles annually, which is a “reasonable” stage. “Number of bottles and growth is good, but we also measure success through quality and social parameters. We believe in sustainability and these quality and social parameters are fundamental pillars of our vision to continue bringing diversity and drive the premium craft rum segment in Southeast Asia,” he iterates. Chalong Bay’s story was developed along the way as the couple discovered the plight of small farmers within the sugar industry, and their growing techniques that were disappearing because of the constant research for better yields. As a result, Chalong Bay’s rum adheres to making natural rum from fresh sugarcane juice, from an indigenous variety of plants, growing pesticide-free produce, and using the most traditional distilling practices.
Spithakis sums up, “Even though spirits can be perceived as just ‘commodities’ for some consumers, the cocktail revolution through cocktail bars and the cocktail culture has had a strong role in promoting the quality of what we drink.”
The Rosita Cocktail with Samai Rum
Thibaut Spithakis and Marine Lucchini from Chalong Bay Rum
Don Papa Samai Rum