Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023’s People’s Choice Semi-Finalists On The Courage And The Cocktails To Win The Competition

Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival

It’s a contrast. To go from a dimly lit cocktail bar to the main stage at Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023, and to battle it out in their cocktail competition as one of the three people’s choice winners takes courage. And good whisky cocktails. 

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

They’ll have to face three discerning judges in the semi-final, and the final (if they make it that far), after all. They are The Dram Attic’s Priyanka Blah, who is also Asia’s 50 Best Bars Chairperson for South Asia, Nguyen Minh Khanh, proprietor of Saigon’s most well-stocked whisky bar, PK Maltroom, and modernist cocktail creator Richard McDonough, AKA The Mood Therapist. 

Ministry of Men Luce Kieu
Ministry of Men’s Luce Kieu admits to some nerves around big events like Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023’s cocktail competition.

“I get so jittery!”

“But just being in competition makes me feel a little shy,” Ministry Of Men’s Luce Kieu shakes her head. “I think it’s being on stage. I get so jittery. Fortunately, I got to work with Richard McDonough during his recent guest shift at Ministry Of Men, so that’s reassuring.”

“I’m the same,” Tran Gia Hao, from House Of Merlin,  nods. “If I could choose a superpower to help me through this it would be super confidence!” 

He’s especially fearful of Nguyen Minh Khanh. “Look, the competition is all about whisky, and I know that’s is Mr. Khanh’s specialist subject. You can’t trick him or hope to bluff your way through, so that’s intimidating. Priyanka is still something of an unknown quantity as a judge, and Richard, although he pretends to be scary, really isn’t!”

“I’m looking on the bright side,” Tuan Cuong, from Yugen Bar, smiles optimistically. “All three of these judges, I’m sure, can give me valuable insights, and help me to grow as a bartender, and those things can serve me well beyond the competition.” However, Priyanka and Richard do make him a little nervous. “I have to confess, I’m still working on my English skills – the presentation part is fine, but any unexpected questions will be harder!”

Tuan Cuong from Yugen Bar
Tuan Cuong from Yugen Bar: “Personally, I always look to highlight the flavor of the product I’m representing,”

A Twist On A Classic

So, as people’s choice winners, Luce Kieu, Tran Gia Hao, and Tuan Cuong will all be at InterContinental Saigon on Saturday 26 August for the semi-final of Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023’s cocktail competition. There, they will compete against Stir – Modern Classic’s Ngo Quoc Huy, who will be representing Bushmills Whiskey, local cocktail legend Nguyen Thanh Thien Dat, representing Bruichladdich, and Nguyen Hoang Bao Long, from Mizuwari, representing Kaibutsu Whisky.

And, in the semi-final, they’ll be asked to give a classic a twist. They get to use only one homemade ingredient – like a syrup or a garnish – to add their personal touch to the cocktail.  

“Life Is Too Short For Boring Drinks.”

But they’ve got this, they assure us. 

Luce is a self-described “vibrant and quirky girl from Planet Coconut.” She’s a big reason why the Ministry Of Men is such a welcoming place to be. “I try to bring a splash of excitement to every glass I pour. Life is too short for boring drinks!” After spending six months in Con Dao, she took a barback position at the perfume-scented Du Bar, and then learned under her mentor, Kata Simon, as a Junior Bartender at Ministry Of Men, “going from being a bit timid, and struggling with my personal goals and style to gradually becoming a lot more confident.”

And this is not Tran Gia Hao’s first competition. He fared well at World Class Vietnam 2022, achieving Top 20 status. “I think that was the biggest milestone of my career so far,” he smiles. Events like that one and now Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023 have a nice way of bringing people together. “Actually, at World Class, I met so many fellow bartenders, people who have gone on to teach me so much both about cocktails and about friendship.”

Tuan Cuong has been focused on this career path since dropping out of college in 2018 to become a bartender. “The next big decision was in 2020, leaving Danang to come to Saigon,” Tuan Cuong adds. Thankfully, in October that year he got a position at Yugen Bar, one of Saigon’s most sophisticated cocktail bars, and, fortunately, with lots of whiskies. 

Tran Gia Hao from House of Merlin
Tran Gia Hao, from House Of Merlin: “If I could choose a superpower to help me through this it would be super confidence!” 

Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023’s Competition Time 

In the semi-finals, in response to the ‘Twist On A Classic’ brief, all three have been thinking hard. 

“I always aspire to combine unique and distinctive flavors from the world of spirits – in this case Shanky’s Whip – Black Irish Whiskey Liqueur – with the comforting essence of my Vietnamese roots with our rich culinary culture,” Luce explains. 

For this event, she’s going to prepare a highball. “But here’s the catch,” Luce smiles mischievously, “imagine a Highball cocktail as a sensory adventure. Picture a tall, glistening glass filled with effervescent bubbles; a drink that entices you with its vibrant colors and tantalizing aromas.” 

Naturally, there’ll be some fresh coconut flavor, to give the drink creamy and tropical undertones. “The taste will instantly transport you to sun-kissed beaches and swaying coconut trees.”

Tran Gia Hao is constantly seeking inspiration. “And it comes from everywhere,” he tells us. “I guess it’s just observing day-to-day life. I keep a notebook full of scribblings about different flavors I’ve experienced and ideas I’ve had. Then, back at the bar, I’m always experimenting with different methods and ways to extract flavor.”

For this competition, he’ll be using The Glenturret as his base spirit. It’s a single malt that comes from Scotland’s oldest working distillery. “They’ve been making small batch whisky since 1763,” Hao nods. “And for the competition, I’ll use Glenturret 12 Triple Wood. It has all the characteristics I like in a whisky, fruitiness, nuttiness, and some spice.” 

He’s a little guarded on the drink he plans to make. All he’ll say is the judges should expect “a very unique Whisky Sour.”

“Personally, I always look to highlight the flavor of the product I’m representing,” Tuan Cuong says. For this event, it’s Stranahan’s, a smooth, flavorful American single malt whiskey distilled in Colorado. “So, I especially want to emphasize its warm caramel and dried fruit flavors, like spiced pear.”

For the semi-final, he’s going to attempt an audacious combination of two classics, a Manhattan and a Whisky Highball. “But it’s not too risky,” Tuan Cuong assures us. “The cocktails I make are often based on classics, to which I bring something fresh and new.”

Cocktail at Yugen
The three people’s choice semi-finalists will have to produce high-quality cocktails (like this one at Yugen bar) to impress judges Priyanka Blah, Khanh and Richard McDonough.

Getting Ahead Of Ourselves

We’re hesitant to look too far ahead, but what, we wonder, would Luce, Tuan Cuong and Hao do with the prize if they won. 

“The big objective for me is overcoming fear and having a new experience,” Tuan Cuong says. “So the result isn’t the only thing that matters. But if I win? Well, the first thing I’d do is invite the entire Yugen Bar team to dinner. They’ve been so supportive of me, especially throughout this competition.”

“Always invest in yourself,” Hao adds. “I would use the money to invest in my bartending knowledge. Growing my career means everything to me right now.”

Luce, on the other hand, has travel plans. “I’m preparing for a new chapter in my life,” she explains. “At the end of the month, I’ll take another small step on my adventures as a bartender. This particular journey promises to be a thrilling one. I’m going to Bangkok, to continue to work in this industry, learning from experts there, and blending my cocktail-making skills with the spirit of that bustling city!”

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First up is the semi-final of Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival’s cocktail competition, on Saturday, and then the final the following day. 

Vietnam Whisky and Cocktail Festival 2023 is held on 26-27 August from 2:00PM to 9:00PM on the 3rd Floor of InterContinental Saigon. You can learn more here and get tickets here.

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