“Choose only one whisky to drink for the rest of my life?” Nguyen Minh Khanh frowns. “If that were the case, then I’d rather just abstain from alcohol!”
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Khanh is the debonair proprietor of Saigon’s PK Maltroom, which moved here, to Dang Tat Street in District 1’s Tan Dinh Ward, from its original location on Vo Van Tan Street, in late October 2019.
The name ‘PK,’ refers both to Khanh and PK Maltroom’s co-founder, Phuong Huynh, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who spent seven years in total in the States before returning to Saigon. “Actually, maybe you should speak to him,” Khanh ponders, a little self consciously, “because his English is better than mine!”
Still, Khanh is the more public facing of the two co-founders, which is why we’re catching up at PK Maltroom today.
A Shared Passion
When they met, Khanh says they immediately realized they had a shared passion for single malts. “We were both looking for a place to enjoy whisky back then,” he explains. So, not long after that first meeting, Khanh and Phuong Huynh committed to creating a bar together “that could last for 100 years or more.”
“And, in all honesty, PK Maltroom wouldn’t exist without him,” Khanh adds approvingly.
Shelves Full Of Whiskies
Today, PK Maltroom has Vietnam’s largest selection of whiskies – shelves full of them and some stashed in cupboards below that aren’t even for sale.
There’s a Secret Orkney Distillery 1999 PKSp and a Macallan 1958-59 Anniversary Malt up there somewhere. “We picked and bottled the Secret Orkney Distillery 1999 for PK Maltroom ourselves,” Khanh explains. “It’s not an official bottling and it doesn’t have a distillers name on it. But with that in mind, and after tasting it, you would completely understand why we exist – to showcase the wonderful world of whiskies beyond just Johnny Walker or Macallan.”
“That being said, the Macallan 1958-59 Anniversary Malt, because it was bottled around 40 years ago, is worth highlighting. It’s classed as a legendary or unobtainable bottle – hard to find on the secondary market. And it’s even harder to find one that’s already open and available to try in a bar.”
A Cultured Kind Of Neighborhood Drinking Den
Because of that curatorial attention to detail – Khanh even creates a playlist in the morning every day as he sips his first coffee – and some perfectly made classic cocktails, PK Maltroom, has become revered as a cultured kind of neighborhood drinking den, as well as an after-hours industry hangout, in District 1’s ever-evolving Tan Dinh Ward.
Just as Khanh is showing us his playlist for the day on Spotify, that goes from an easy listening mix between 5:30 PM and 9:30PM and a more emotive and jazzy selection after that, the door opens and the first guest of the evening wanders in – a fresh-off-the-plane, London-based movie executive.
Industry strikes have halted production and, he says, most of his colleagues are somewhere in Asia enjoying the downtime. But he’s quickly distracted from his story by the mesmerizing array of bottles on the shelves. “We have some very good rum too,” Khanh informs him, breaking the spell again for a moment as he points over to the set of Caroni Employees rum.
Everybody Needs Good Neighbors
This part of downtown Saigon, low-rise and residential, is fast becoming a bar and restaurant enclave too.
Francis Thuan, and his award-winning Esta Eatery, is two minutes away – and Francis drops by after shifts most nights. Across the street and next door (there’s two of the restaurant’s buildings opposite each other) is the perennial locals’ favorite place for homestyle Vietnamese cuisine, Cuch Gach Quan. And Hoang Tung’s starry Å by T.U.N.G, and the atmospheric Ủ Bar, and below it French-Vietnamese restaurant Miên Saigon, are all a short walk away.
Khanh’s love of whisky and an intense passion for the industry aside, he admits he co-founded PK Maltroom as an escape; somewhere to go once the kids were in bed.
There he holds court, usually while liberally dispensing not-yet-on-the-market Duval-Leroy Blanc De Blancs Brut Grand Cru Champagne. “It’s community service,” he assures us, filling our and the movie executive’s glasses.
“To put it simply, I’m a whisky lover. I see my main job is to tell stories about my love at PK Maltroom,” he adds, with all the grandeur of an opera singer. It is, it turns out, no coincidence. Khanh is a trained opera singer – a graduate of Vietnam’s National Academy of Music where he studied bel canto, the kind of operatic singing you’d hear in the works of Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini.
“Phuong Huynh and I do make quite a combination – me an opera singer and he a mathematician,” he laughs.
“I wanted PK Maltroom to feel a bit like an opera house”
It’s not too much of a leap of the imagination to connect the bel canto-style which flourished in the 18th and early 19th centuries with whiskies – some of the oldest Scotch distilleries began production around the same time: Ardbeg Distillery began commercial production in 1815, the Bowmore Distillery, the oldest running distillery on Islay, was established 36 years before that.
PK Maltroom feels grandly European too with its art deco lamp shades swaying gently above the long wooden countertop and the walls painted a warm Parisien-bistro red.
“Actually,” Khanh elaborates, “I wanted PK Maltroom to feel a bit like an opera house – the place where, in my youth, I thought I would be spending my time!”
A Front Row Seat To Watch The Industry Evolve
From behind the PK Maltroom counter, he gets to see Vietnam’s evolving appetite for single malts. “Vietnamese people, I think, have a refined palate for cuisine. But, for now, the understanding of whisky is some way behind that. Traditionally, Vietnamese drink to get drunk,” he explains, nodding towards the nearby canal with its endless lines of rowdy nhau joints.
“With that in mind, they prefer cheap, cold beers and easy-drinking wines. Therefore, I always try to help people approach whisky in an informal way, gently helping them to better understand the beverage as well as their own taste. That only works when we smell carefully, drink slowly and taste as many different whiskies as possible.”
That’s kind of how Khanh first discovered it too, he tells us. “It must have been about ten years ago,” he frowns, trying to remember. “And it was the first time I smelled an Islay peated single malt. I was late. So, I missed the tasting but took a long inhalation from my friend’s empty glass. It was still intoxicating – love at first smell, I guess you’d call it.”
Creating A More Cohesive Community
Khanh’s certainly not pessimistic about whisky’s future in Vietnam and the F&B industry more broadly. “I mean, sure, economically, it hasn’t been the brightest year, but overall, the conditions of the industry are improving. As evidence, we have three bars in Asia’s 50 Best Bars extended 51-100 list instead of the one we had last year.”
He says the pandemic provoked a healthy clear out too, “something like natural selection,” when only the best places survived. Since then, the industry has regenerated while becoming more mutually supportive. “I think back then, our connections weren’t well developed. But since, we’re all trying to build a more cohesive community,” he smiles, topping up our Duval-Leroy Brut Reserve Champagne again.
Meet The Team
PK Maltroom’s team, including Nhu Dac, the formidable bar manager who joined just after the move to Dang Tat Street, and Pham Duy Nhut, the head bartender “who’s good at classics and classic with a twist,” and who teaches at bartending school, make amicable and able hosts when Khanh’s away, as he sometimes is.
At the end of August, for example, he was over at the InterContinental Saigon as the discerning judge of Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023 along with Priyanka Blah and Richard McDonough. He was, he admits, a tough observer: “I can give some direct feedback and be brutally honest at times – but I will always try to recognize achievements and efforts in any form and provide as much encouragement if I can.”
Khanh says, some of his fondest memories came from trips to Europe. “Like the first time I attended Whisky Live Paris. Or when I visited the city’s famous Golden Promise whisky bar – where they have over 1,000 bottles – while catching up with my mentors in this industry. Or sitting and drinking and watching the sun set over the slopes of Langhe Mountain in Piemonte with a dear, old friend,” he sighs.
He’s traveling soon too, for a Beam Suntory event in Singapore, called ‘Bowmore Exceptional Pairings’ where they’ll open a bottle of Bowmore 50yo 1969.
At Home At PK Maltroom
Still, Khanh seems most at home here, at PK Maltroom. And so, immediately, does the London-based movie executive. “I can’t believe I found a place like this in Vietnam,” he marvels, looking at the shelves of whisky, as his champagne glass is topped up once again.