Viet­nam’s first hand­crafted rum

Oi Vietnam - - Contents - Text by Wes Grover Im­ages by Ngoc Tran

Viet­nam’s first hand­crafted rum


his grand­mother’s hands, weath­ered un­der the Caribbean sun, in­spect­ing each fruit that would fer­ment in­side a wooden bar­rel con­structed by his grand­fa­ther, as she crafted a batch of the fam­ily rum. It was a ri­tual ob­served dur­ing his child­hood, not for busi­ness, but for cre­at­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence with friends and fam­ily.

“I was very young then and did not com­pletely un­der­stand the process, but the pas­sion was no­tice­able,” he re­calls of his time grow­ing up on the French Caribbean is­land of Mar­tinique. “She would add herbs to cre­ate dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions in each bar­rel and I had quite deep feel­ings when I watched that.”

Years later, af­ter study­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of dis­til­la­tion, fer­men­ta­tion and mixol­ogy, both in school and in bars and bistros around the world, Roddy has brought his fam­ily tra­di­tion to Saigon, where he stands as the maker of Viet­nam’s first hand­crafted rum: Rhum Be­lami.

Sit­ting in his apart­ment in Dis­trict 2, where he tinkers with dif­fer­ent recipes and tech­niques in a small lab used to sup­plant the com­pany’s main fa­cil­ity, he’s ea­ger to share his work. Com­prised of a lean, three-per­son team, Roddy is un­doubt­edly the sci­en­tist be­hind the rum, though he cred­its the syn­ergy be­tween him­self, gen­eral man­ager

Juyee Cheng, and de­signer Chris­tian Gazia, who spear­heads brand­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, for bring­ing Rhum Be­lami to life.

He pours a glass of the Legacy Edition, serv­ing it neat, and care­fully watches my face while sip­ping it down. At first taste, the gold elixir is sweet and crisp with pas­sion­fruit and traces of herbs and flow­ers na­tive to Viet­nam, such as lemon­grass and hibis­cus. Then, the fla­vor evolves and the oak bar­rel that the rum is aged in be­comes present, fol­lowed by a twist that’s spicy, the re­sult of red and black pep­per. What’s most sur­pris­ing, though, is that it goes down dan­ger­ously easy at 55% ABV.

Drink­ing it, as the maker de­scribes it him­self, is an ex­pe­ri­ence, and one that re­quires pa­tience and pre­ci­sion to cre­ate. Af­ter dis­till­ing sug­ar­cane juice, he ob­tains a pure ethanol so­lu­tion of 96% ABV and in­te­grates the var­i­ous fla­vors at dif­fer­ent parts of the process. “For ex­am­ple,” he ex­plains, “a flower can­not be in­tro­duced dur­ing fer­men­ta­tion. You have to use cold ex­trac­tion.” Re­fer­ring to the bandé wood that can be tasted in the darker Pre­mium Rhum, he notes, “For a wood fla­vor, you can cre­ate a so­lu­tion and blend it with the rum af­ter­wards.”

As we talk, it be­comes ap­par­ent that this ex­pe­ri­ence Roddy has man­aged to bot­tle is the com­bi­na­tion of his life’s jour­ney and the coun­try in which Rhum Be­lami is made. Stay­ing true to his her­itage, he’s brought the fun­da­men­tals of Mar­tinique’s rum tra­di­tion with him, yet the in­gre­di­ents, like the os­man­thus flower, the wa­ter from the Cen­tral High­lands, and the pep­per from Phu Quoc, come al­most en­tirely from Viet­nam.

Sim­ply find­ing these in­gre­di­ents of sat­is­fy­ing qual­ity can be a main chal­lenge in ob­tain­ing con­sis­tency with each batch. “It’s a real ad­ven­ture when I go to the mar­ket here and look around at the prod­ucts,” says Roddy. “Like my grand­mother, I use my hands to touch the fruit and in­spect it closely. I need to be very care­ful choos­ing my sup­pli­ers to en­sure we have the same qual­ity ev­ery time.

“If you un­der­stand the process be­hind wine, then you can un­der­stand why I’m so picky with our rum. We use the same process with the weather and the nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents. Like with wine, you can keep

this rum for a long time and af­ter three years the taste will change. It will be more pow­er­ful.”

“There are lots of dif­fer­ent spices and flow­ers that we can use here, like hibis­cus and roses,” he goes on. “It’s per­fect. That’s why I can say this is Viet­namese rum. I only im­port two or three prod­ucts, one of which is the cof­fee beans used in the Pre­mium Rhum. I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate the Kopi Luwak from In­done­sia. The fla­vor and the bit­ter­ness of this cof­fee. It’s ex­pen­sive, but in the end you can taste it.”

In or­der to fully grasp how highly the con­nec­tion with the lo­ca­tion of pro­duc­tion is re­garded, it’s worth not­ing that Mar­tinique holds the only dis­tinc­tion of ap­pel­la­tion d'orig­ine

con­trolee (AOC) in the rum in­dus­try, rec­og­nized un­der French and Euro­pean law. Typ­i­cally re­served for prod­ucts like wine and cheese, the des­ig­na­tion is given to a food or bev­er­age that’s truly unique to a re­gion. This is a par­tic­u­lar point of pride on Mar­tinique, where fresh sug­ar­cane juice and lo­cal spices are a hall­mark of the rum, giv­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics and fla­vors spe­cific to the is­land.

Emerg­ing from this tra­di­tion,

Rhum Be­lami is made strictly with sug­ar­cane juice as the base in­gre­di­ent, re­quir­ing im­me­di­ate fer­men­ta­tion un­like the al­ter­na­tive of mo­lasses. The lat­ter is more preva­lently used by large pro­duc­ers, al­low­ing them to store the pri­mary in­gre­di­ent and ex­port it around the world as needed.

Roddy fur­ther ex­plains this dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, say­ing, “In the Caribbean, you have some coun­tries that make rum with mo­lasses and oth­ers with fresh sug­ar­cane. The dif­fer­ence is tra­di­tion. Be­cause of my her­itage and be­cause you can get every­thing fresh in Viet­nam, I wanted to use fresh sug­ar­cane.

Work­ing with a fresh prod­uct, the fla­vor is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. The color is dif­fer­ent. You can­not com­pare the two.”

Es­tab­lish­ing a small-batch spirit in a mar­ket that’s pre­dom­i­nantly fa­mil­iar with large-scale pro­duc­ers like Bac­ardi and Ha­vana Club has been one of the ini­tial ob­sta­cles faced. While he’s con­fi­dent that it’s mainly a mat­ter of ex­pos­ing Viet­nam’s drinkers to Rhum Be­lami, Roddy con­cedes that “a lot of peo­ple are at­tracted to marketing, sto­ry­telling, and sharing it on a web­site. A lot of com­pa­nies make money like that, but we try to be dif­fer­ent.”

“We want a new way to con­sume al­co­hol,” he says. “If you change that, I think you change the way peo­ple spend a night to­gether with friends. You change the ex­pe­ri­ence.” At the mo­ment, it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence that can be found at a grow­ing list of bars and restau­rants in Saigon, in­clud­ing Cuba Casa del Mo­jito and La Bodega, as well as Co­hibaR and Fac­tory 47 in Da Nang.

Ul­ti­mately, though, the am­bi­tious dis­tiller has larger plans for Viet­nam’s first hand­crafted rum. “I hope we can open a show­room here soon to show peo­ple what we do and teach them about the process,” he says, sharing his vi­sion that al­ready seems to be in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture af­ter just launch­ing in April.

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