“I dance like I’m from the Carribean. I have the attitude of an old-school Italian dad. I cook like I’m French. But I’m living the dream here in Vietnam!” Roddy Battajon laughs. All that culture is captured in every bottle of Rhum Belami. “It’s not just any bottle of rhum,” he assures us when we meet at his micro-distillery. “It’s an idea, a promise, a rebellion, and a declaration of independence!”
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
First, the name. ‘Bel-Ami’ was a book by Guy de Maupassant about the inexorable rise of its anti-hero Georges Duroy. There’s something of Duroy in Roddy Battajon, who grew up in Martinique to a local mother and Italian father, and who moved to Paris to learn the F&B business, before relocating to Vietnam in 2015. “Look, when we launched in 2016 it was a revolution for craft spirits in Vietnam. Now, there’s all kinds of craft spirits produced here – coffee-cocoa liquors and craft gins. It was the right time and place for me to bloom; to smash the glass ceiling…”
He labeled his first barrel 00034, “because it took 34 attempts to get there”. But he was definitely on to something as Rhum Belami went on to win the Gold Medal for Top Rum at World Spirit Awards 2019-2020. It has been exported to France, Taiwan, and The USA. And it even recently popped-up in Mexico.
“This Rhum Might Make Me A Heretic In Martinique”
As it was for Georges Duroy, things haven’t always been easy. In the early days, there were issues with importing barrels from Spain in which to age the rhum. He used recycled bottles, which needed corks that would fit. Each bottle took around 45-minutes to create. After all that, there was the challenge convincing suppliers to take this small craft distillery seriously. And there have been tough luxury-goods taxes to endure.
In fairness, there have been a lot of victories too. “There was that gold medal, which I dedicated to my dear grandma, and to Vietnam. There was some early, meaningful media coverage. And, biggest of all, this brand, which took 34 tries to create, continues to grow…”
There are other rhums he admires: the Martinique rhum, A1710 Bondieu Horse, that he calls his inspiration because of its luxurious packaging and quality product. There’s the Bologne XO 6-Year Rhum, a model of best practice in the rhum distilling industry which also uses different varieties of sugar cane – which became an influence on Roddy to explore the use of black sugar cane.
He likes La Favorite Millésime too. It’s another rhum from Martinique that, he says, checks all the boxes. And there’s Clement Rhum and St. James Rhum too, which he likes “for their dedication to the industry over decades” and which he only began to appreciate after training his palate following the years, he says, he was dumbing it down with commercial rums like Bacardi and Captain Morgan.
That’s not to say Roddy ever wanted to imitate other brands. His approach to making rhum, he thinks, means he’d probably be viewed as a heretic in his home country of Martinique. That’s partly because Roddy’s rhum is flavored with the botanicals he curates.
It’s a bit like the botanical-infusion in gin, only in his process, Roddy would infuse the barrel with spices giving the oak a kind of perfume, which he then ages the rhum in. It’s different to an arrangé Rhum, or flavored rhum where the spices and the spirit come into direct contact.
When The Right Ingredients Meet The Right Timing
Domestically, he has a tough audience to please. “My daughter was born just after we launched, so she’s seen everything,” he nods. “Now, while I’m busy crafting the bottles, she stays busy peppering me with questions!”
“I usually tell her that making Rhum Belami is like making my Bolognese sauce that she loves. It’s about the right ingredients. And it’s about the right timing. And even before all that, it was about choosing the right mono-varietal sugar cane – black sugar cane – to make this rhum with.”
“Once we get the juice, which smells of freshly-cut grass and is green and not black, then it’s about patience. That’s the second major ingredient after sugar cane. The juice sleeps with some natural yeasts. And a few days later, we can heat the liquid to release and concentrate all the flavors. Then, it sleeps again, in a wooden bed – the barrel – where we’ve added some botanicals. And then, invigorated by a good rest, every day it becomes better.”
At least his daughter gets it. The Bolognese always tastes better the next day as well.
Part Of A Rich History Of Rhum Making
There’s a rich history of rum in the Caribbean – it might have come from Brazil originally where they’d begun making a spirit from sugarcane in the 16th century. And the name rhum distinguishes drinks made from fresh sugar cane juice from rums made from molasses – a dark, syrupy liquid produced when extracting sugars from sugarcane.
Despite Vietnam’s fertile sugarcane plantations and the culture of drinking refreshing nước mía, or sugarcane juice, by the roadside, when Roddy arrived in 2015, there were no locally-made rums.
To make Rhum Belami, Roddy took the unusual decision to utilize East-Asian black sugarcane. “We’re definitely the first to use Asian black sugar cane,” Roddy says. “The only rhum that compares to it is Bologne Rhum, a product made in Guadeloupe – that’s actually an excellent spirit. They also use a similar kind of sugar cane that must have come from Asia. Besides that, I can’t think of anything like ours.”
Subtropical climate and humidity in Vietnam directly affects the aging process of Rhum Belami. At times temperatures here tip towards 40 degrees, causing significant evaporation in the barrel-aging product. It’s something called the ‘angel’s share’ in the industry.
What’s left of Rhum Belami is a spirit full of Vietnamese flavor. “You’ve got the aromas of the Long An sugar cane plantations, there are rich fruity notes and spices that include grilled pineapple, turmeric, cinnamon, and even wood. And the finish has some Phu Quoc pepper to it,” Roddy explains.
Bottling Is Synonymous With Branding
Roddy wanted a unique bottle, something strongly reflective of the Rhum Belami brand. Machine bottling and labeling felt too impersonal. And his small-batch approach meant he was able to do it himself.
“A machine will do the job for a price, but it won’t feel authentic, and it won’t feel like a creation crafted by a distiller,” Roddy explains. So, each bottle of Rhum Belami carries a wax stamp done by Roddy himself, and with the initials R.B. which stand both for Rhum Belami, Roddy Battajon, and for his daugher, Raphaëlle Battajon. It’s arduous work. “Sometimes, I burn myself and I get cramps and back pains. But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make until I’m not able to do it any more”.
Stamping each bottle of rhum serves two more purposes he tells us. First, it seals the bottle as part of a third protective layer of packaging. Second, adding the logo to the stamp proves the authenticity of the bottle.
Rhum Belami’s Brand Collaborations
Gradually, Roddy began exploring the possibilities of collaborations for Rhum Belami. Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat with their strong branding, delicious products, and made-in-Vietnam story were an obvious choice as collaborators. “I was just impressed by the quality of their chocolate. Plus, there was the compelling story of the two founders. I was looking for something both locals and foreigners could discover or maybe rediscover by presenting it in a new way,” Roddy says.
The success of his collaboration with Marou encouraged him to continue to search for like-minded souls. In the South of France, the French brewers La Brasserie Du Lez shared their talent for craft beer. To that they added some Rhum Belami Legacy Millésime to create a very special IPA. “It was a total surprise when we heard that it won the Gold Medal at the International Frankfurt Trophy, a major competition for wines, beers, and spirits!” Roddy remembers.
Next, Roddy approached another legend. Serial entrepreneur, Fred Sotteau, had developed a number of coffee brands and products, including, most recently, the Ýespresso CapsuleCup – a plastic-free solution to coffee capsules.
Together Fred and Roddy created the limited-edition Rhum Belami Barrel-Aged Coffee that employed a new process. They rolled un-roasted coffee beans in a barrel that was once used to brew spirits. And the beans they chose came directly from coffee farms in the highlands of Vietnam. The coffee beans, once they’ve been rolled in the barrel, took on a very strong rhum flavor, but only a small amount of alcohol.
As he’s been broadening the range of collaborators, he’s been ensuring Rhum Belami is available in the bars and restaurants that he admires in Saigon. “You can find it at Hervé Dining Room, Quince and An An. And you can also get Rhum Belami at Six Senses and Mia resorts…” he smiles. Then there’s eateries like Okra, bars like Birdy, and clubs like The Lighthouse.
International Expansion For Rhum Belami
Besides collaborations, the obvious next step for Rhum Belami was to expand its international reach. Awareness has grown, but the accessibility of Rhum Belami to consumers hasn’t always kept up with it.
“It’s true, some customers struggle to get their hands on a bottle,” Roddy accepts. “A week ago, I woke up to a message on our Facebook page that a fan of the brand had managed to get a bottle in Mexico,” he remembered, “and I swear, that made me smile all day!”
So, as part of his growth initiatives, Roddy attended the Taiwan Spirits Festival 2023 along with his small Taipei-based team, held in the 101 Taipei tower. There, things went so well that they ran out of stock by day 3 of the 4-day event. “It was all hands on deck,” Roddy beams. “The team is new, but they really came through. They made this whole booth, there was music playing, and there was space for me to make a few cocktails.”
He’d make simple drinks like his Legacy Millésime on crushed ice, that allowed the spirit to shine. “To that I added frozen lime zest and some roasted pineapple jam. That’s it. Or maybe, if someone asked nicely, I’d add fresh calamansi roughly crushed and placed on top, and maybe a salt rim made with the seeds and the pulp. And I’d remind them not to panic, it’s all organic,” he says, laughing again.
Now, he has his sights set on major Asian markets like Japan and Korea. And Italy looks promising too.
“Anyway, for now, Taiwan is on track,” he smiles, brushing off the idea of a rapid expansion. “And I have to trust in that and get back to the distillery. There’s going to be a lot of sugar cane to cook up and lots of bottles to fill and craft. Then, who knows…”
The desert island distiller
Although it doesn’t sound like Roddy is stopping anytime soon, we wonder where he would retire to if he could. “It would be an island with sugar cane, obviously!” he decides immediately. “I’d drink the juice in the day, and make a pit fire from the waste to stay warm at night. I can imagine the smells already. I’d take a cooking pot — one I could distill with too — a cane for fishing and some knives to cut up some sashimi, and some pigment to paint when I can’t sleep, and a Wilson volleyball…”
It sounds very cinematic. “Who would I want to play me in the story of my life?” he asks. “Definitely George Clooney. The salt and pepper hair. The charisma to charm his way through difficult situations. I’m picturing him now, in a light khaki vest and an ill-fitting green military hat, isolated in the jungle, reinventing himself, discovering cane spirits, falling in love…”