Even Daniel Nguyen was surprised. “Amazing,” Sông Cái’s founder and master distiller shakes his head disbelievingly. He’s still processing the fact that the distillery received so many entries for the first ever Sông Cái Distillery Competition.
In total 78 bartenders from seven provinces responded to the brief to create a new drink with an inspirational story. Naturally, it had to contain Sông Cái, the small-batch artisanal gin created by the Hanoian master distiller using foraged botanicals. That’s because Sông Cái has quite a story itself. The ingredients alone are intriguing: “Jungle pepper, black cardamom, green turmeric, heirloom pomelo, cinnamon leaf and bark, indigenous woods, white liquorice root, and sun-dried citrus pods.” Daniel says listing off the botanicals that give Sông Cái its warmly complex flavour.
But even more interestingly, Sông Cái partner with farming families in remote, mountainous Northern Highlands of Vietnam beyond Lao Cai in places like Si Ma Ca. “There, foraging is a part of people’s lives,” Daniel explains, “and people live in harmony with the land.”
He’s travelled extensively in the region and worked with ethnic minorities there accessing knowledge that has been preserved and passed down through generations.
That deep connection with rural communities helped Sông Cái to their Gold Medal at Gin Masters 2020. “Very formal,” Daniel remembers, and the dress code required him to wear a three-piece suit and trenchcoat for the event held in London. At least it was formal until they started serving gin and “things became a lot more relaxed.” Now Sông Cái have imbued their own cocktail competition with the same spirit of strict quality control mixed with fun and informality. The event is also a chance for Sông Cái to showcase their new floral gin, and their gin bottle label’s new artwork that’s a Hang Trong-style painting.
The eight finalists, who represent some of the most exciting cocktail bars in the country right now, are still breathlessly recalling their adventures last week in Ha Giang and the north-east living locally, doing their own foraging, and even picking up some of the local dialect. But by the Sông Cái Distillery Competition’s finale, the finalists are singing and pouring the jubilant winners (more on them later) Sông Cái dry gin straight out of the bottle. Even Daniel is served a few large gulps as the other esteemed judges – Luke Nguyen, Nguyen Huu Phu, Chung Hoang Chuong, Pham Tien Tiep – fade back into the crowd gathered at The Reverie Hotel’s Café Cardinal.
During the six-hour drive up to Ha Giang from Hanoi and the four- or five-hour excursions deeper into the border country, the participants had lots of time to consider the cocktails that they had to create for this final. And to learn about local ingredients and ways of life. “I’m Vietnamese,” Hoang Quyen says, “but I didn’t know anything about this part of my country…but now I do,” she smiles flipping through videos on her phone of bumpy mountain roads overlooking breathtaking ravines.
And at the end, Hoang Quyen, from Saigon’s Below Whiskey Den & Cocktail Bar, picks up the runner-up prize after the judges’ long and intense deliberations with her Happiness cocktail that contains corn shrub, lime wine, and Sông Cái Dry Gin. “It’s my tribute to the simplest of ingredients, corn. For local people there, it’s their main economic source and form of sustenance. So I called it Happiness in celebration of people appreciating what they have…”
“Actually, I had the idea for my cocktail while doing yoga,” Drinking & Healing’s Phan Nam laughs. And his deeply thought-out cocktail, “We are the river”, wins him the main prize — a cash award from Sông Cái and a long weekend stay at our first Wink Hotel. That’s partly thanks to his confident delivery of the concept to the intimidating panel of judges.
In the panel is Chung Hoang Chuong, professor emeritus and one of the founders of the Vietnamese American Studies Department at San Francisco State University and a specialist in climate change, ecology, culture, and livelihood development. Then there’s Luke Nguyen who barely needs an introduction — celebrity chef and pioneer of modern Vietnamese cuisine. Also on the panel is award-winning mixologist Pham Tien Tiep. His desire to turn Vietnamese dishes into cocktails led him to found Nê.Cocktailbar and Attic Cocktail & Wine Lab in the capital. And Nguyễn Hữu Phú, or Phil as he’s sometimes known, is Saigon’s Irusu Lounge’s bar manager and Vietnam Bartender of the Year 2019 according to the Vietnam Bar Awards. Add master distiller Daniel Nguyen to the list and it’s clearly a difficult audience to impress.
Phan Nam explains his winning cocktail’s name: “We all had this feeling of unity during the trip to Ha Giang, with each other, but also with the people of the north-east. All these people are like tiny streams – water has that magical way of overcoming obstacles without using force – and they came together to form a river and that’s how I got the cocktail’s name ‘We are the river’”. The ingredients are relatively simple, but typically rural north-eastern. There’s hương nhu trắng cordial, made from the white holy basil plant – a popular ingredient in traditional and folk medicine – and corn liqueur, and Sông Cái Gin.
And even though the five-person panel had to pick a winner and runner-up, listening to the finalists’ stories, it’s clear everyone: including Do Hong Que, Nam Hai, Kim Uyen, Quan Trong, Hoang Cuong, and Pham Duy Nhu won something — friends, unforgettable experiences, a treasure trove of new ingredients — during their time with Sông Cái Distillery’s first competition.
Photos of Sông Cái Distillery’s first annual competition by Sông Cái. Additional photos of the finalists and video by Khooa Nguyen, Tuan Jerry, and Johnny Viet.