Country Focus: Whisky is booming in Vietnam

Country Focus: Whisky is booming in Vietnam

How is one of South-East Asia’s biggest growing markets embracing the category?

Whisky & Culture | 08 Dec 2021 | Issue 179 | By Millie Milliken

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When Andy Simpson, co-founder of whisky valuation consultancy Rare Whisky 101, got a phone call from the PA of a Vietnamese businessman in April 2019 asking for a valuation of the latter’s whisky collection, it was a surreal experience. “The first call I received was Mr Viet’s PA saying, ‘My boss wants to fly you to Vietnam next week, you will stay in five-star accommodation and value his whisky’.” Simpson didn’t fly to Vietnam, but instead Viet and his PA, who were in London at the time, postponed their flight home and went to meet him at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society on Edinburgh’s Queen Street.

After Simpson’s valuation, Viet Nguyen Dinh Tuan’s whisky collection (which includes a 1919 Springbank, a Macallan 1926, and Bowmore’s oldest vintage) was officially named the world’s most expensive by the Guinness Book of Records, sitting at a cool £10.8m. Two years on, Simpson reckons Viet’s 535-plus bottles of Scotch and Japanese whisky could now be closer to £20m.

Whisky-drinking culture in Vietnam is growing. Where the likes of Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker were once the mainstays of collections and home bars, now Dewar’s, Bowmore, The Balvenie – and even bourbons – are getting a look in.

Back in 2019, the IWSR reported that whisky held 57 per cent of the value share in Vietnam, with 89 per cent of that being premium whisky. While we were enduring a lockdown for this year’s Burns Night, my brother (who has been living in Vietnam for four years) was at a Burns Night supper, donning a kilt and dining on haggis – and, of course, drinking plenty of Scotch. And with the recent explosion of cocktail bar culture, a growing middle class, a rise in disposable income and the first ever whisky festival happening in Vietnam in January 2022, the whisky boom shows no signs of dampening.

“There’s been an appreciation in Vietnam of whisky for a long time,” explains Stewart Warmbath, area manager for Indochina at Bacardi. During Tê´t Nguyên Đán (Vietnam’s Lunar New Year), it is customary to gift people of stature a high-value item and more often than not, that’s whisky.

Where Cognac once reigned supreme as the dark spirit of choice – no doubt a result of Vietnam’s French connections in the 19th century – whisky has taken the mantle, with single malts now starting to dominate drinkers’ interests. It’s good news for Bacardi: “We only brought in our single malts two years ago and it has skyrocketed.”

Hoang Nguyen, owner of In the Mood whisky bar in Ho Chi Minh City and member of the Brothers Single Malt Club in Hanoi, has also seen a change over the last couple of years thanks to brands making their products more widely available. “I think whisky drinking, buying and collecting have been drastically changed for two years in Vietnam… [People] have more access to a lot of whiskies, thanks to many brands being active in the market… I think the whisky culture in Vietnam now is like Singapore or Taiwan three to five years ago – and it’s still blooming.”

A big part of that blooming process is the rise in cocktail bars in the two main cities – Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Hanoi – such as Firkin, Dram Bar and Stir Saigon (more on those later). When Mikey Brenker first arrived in Vietnam in 2016, the bar culture was centred around beer clubs. “Not to say any of these have disappeared, but now the trend has moved into speakeasys and cocktails,” he explains – three Vietnam bars (Hybrid in Nha Trang, Ne Cocktail Bar in Hanoi, and Summer Experiment in Ho Chi Minh City) made it onto the inaugural 51-100 list in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021.

In the five years since Brenker arrived in Vietnam – specifically Ho Chi Minh City – he’s co-founded the Saigon Whisky Society (SWS), an invite-only member group set up in January 2020 and made up of around 20 whisky enthusiasts ranging from artists to business people and chefs from all over the world. The SWS is one of a handful of similar, relatively underground groups in Vietnam. Made up of ex-pats, the group meets every other month on a Wednesday at the bar in Brenker’s house, affectionately named Beep Beep after the infamous city traffic below. Members arrive to a bottle of house whisky (this could be a Singleton 12 Years Old, an Oban, or something of that ilk) before tasting anything from Scottish, Irish, Japanese, bourbon or Indian whisky up to a value of $800. Members can invite guests, who have to come with a bottle of whisky and present their choice to the group. As the year goes on, Brenker fills a chest with the unfinished bottles until January when they are brought to the SWS Burns Night supper. This year, the celebration hosted 60 people, each table set up with a bottle of Aultmore and Royal Brackla before the chest was opened for guests to enjoy.
Vu Ngoc at Doozy Bar in in Hanoi

The SWS is modelled on a club founded in Hanoi more than 20 years ago called the Indo China Uisgebeatha Club (ICUC). “We have a total of 105/106 members at the moment,” ICUC officer and director of sales and marketing at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel, Anthony Slewka, tells me. “Once you’re a member you’re a lifetime member, so at the moment we have 15 active participants… The club is opaque, it isn’t well known – people who are interested in whisky hear about this club by going to some bars… It took me a couple of years to figure it out but eventually… if you’re lucky you get invited.”

Like the SWS, ICUC is made up of eclectic figures from embassy officials to world bank, finance and hotel professionals. At the time of writing, both the SWS and ICUC are made up of men only.

When members come together six to eight times a year, they enjoy their whiskies over a five- or six-course dinner where each dish is paired with a whisky, partake in a quiz and finish with a blind taste test which, Slewka laughs, “we usually do very badly at”. It is perhaps a more formalised process than its Ho Chi Minh counterpart: “We have a rule book… we take notes and minutes at meetings which are published and read – it’s a very formalised and ritualistic process.” The big night, of course, is Burns Night which usually pulls in more than 200 people and raises money for the club’s meetings as well as selected charities.
Whisky trade dinners in Hanoi and Saigon

Outside of clubs, the traditions of drinking whisky in Vietnam and the preferred styles are changing too, albeit slowly. “It’s always been a bottle-driven culture,” explains Kristian Harmston, group managing partner and founder of Alchemy Asia which represents whiskies including Dewar’s, Wild Turkey, Bushmills, Highland Park and The Macallan. “People share bottles of whisky together – someone buys a bottle and everyone at the table enjoys it. I think that’s why the bigger brands remain strong here because in that environment they are a safe choice.”
Sean Halse, Bar Manager at Capella

Sean Halse, bar manager at Capella Hanoi hotel, is seeing a change in this traditional practice, though: “I have seen a shift in drinking habits, especially in Hanoi. Hanoians are beginning to choose cocktails over whole bottles, leading to the rising of cocktail culture… The popularity of cocktails is mainly down to the rising standards of the local bartenders, who are able to not only prepare the perfect cocktails but also create a truly engaging customer journey.”
Hotel Capella in Hanoi

One such bartender is Vu Ngoc of Doozy in Hanoi, who this year was named Vietnam’s World Class Bartender of the Year. “When I was a little child, everything I knew about alcohol was local and traditional. Having a bottle of Chivas 12 was such a precious thing at that time. But now, things have changed; people are likely to care about the core values of products such as flavour, taste, story.” He categorises whisky drinkers in Vietnam into four styles of whisky: whisky-based cocktails using American whiskey and Scotch; neat whiskies like single malts or blended whiskies; soda-mixed whiskies; and high-end whiskies.

Another rising bartender is Lâm Đê´c Anh, who opened Stir – Modern Classic Cocktails in 2021. He’s seen a slight shift in flavour and drinking preference – but there is a caveat, as he explains: “It’s quite slow because the cocktail culture isn’t from here or South-East Asia, it is a Western culture... Back in the day, people didn’t want peated whisky and mostly they drank by the brand rather than the character of the whisky. People still want to experience Highland and unpeated ones, but there is a small group starting to prefer peated ones, like Talisker and Bowmore.”

While there is an interest in bourbon, rye and Japanese whiskies, Dat Luu, Bacardi whisky ambassador in Vietnam, has seen a move back to Scotch by bartenders, and points out that Islay and smoky whiskies are a focus.

Doozy and Stir may not solely focus on whisky, but two bars that do are Firkin and Dram Bar. Co-founder Gregory Jacob (who cut his teeth at Ginger Boy in Melbourne), while training staff in westernised methods of cocktail making, is also mindful of the existing whisky-drinking culture in Vietnam. “We live in South-East Asia – it’s a hot and humid climate. They like to drink their beer with ice and they like to drink their whisky with ice as well… If you sell a bottle of whisky to locals, they like the glasses to come out, have ice on the side, and pour the whisky themselves,” he explains.

When it was founded in 2017, Firkin was Ho Chi Minh City’s first whisky bar. It focuses on whiskies from around the world – America, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, Scotland, Ireland and the UK – and cocktails are bespoke, with the team making different versions of Old Fashioneds, Whisky Sours and Martinis. They also serve their 300-odd bottles by the dram, in traditional Glencairn glasses with eye drops for water.
The Diva’s Lounge at Capella

Over at Diva’s Lounge in Capella, cocktails are the focal point for Halse. While the classics are popular, more contemporary serves like the Greta’s Gift (a whisky blend with kummel, ginger, pomelo and soda) are regular favourites, and Halse is also looking to introduce whisky and oyster evenings. 

Indeed, the wider future of whisky appreciation in Vietnam is bright. Come January 2022, Covid pending, the country will be getting its first dedicated festival, Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival. “We set it up after having run GinFest for three years in a row… [the] Vietnamese are experimenting with whisky and we saw a big opening,” explains Natasha Acklam, head of agency at Cartel Events & Communication, of the decision to run a whisky-focused event. There will be 23 brands taking part over the two-day festival and the team are hoping for 400 guests each day. There’ll be a grand tasting hall, samples, masterclasses, a VIP tasting room and plenty more for visitors to explore. Acklam is also keen to point out that it won’t just be a room full of ex-pats: “We’re catering for both Vietnamese and ex-pats. The Vietnamese community is very important to us so all our comms are focused on them.”

Harmston believes that education will be a key part of the growth of whisky. Besides, as he points out: “The middle class by 2030 will be 80 per cent of the population with a huge ramp of 20-50 year olds… If you think about Macallan, for example, this may not be the profitable market but they’ve taken a very long-term view on it, educating those [future] consumers today.”

Brenker is hoping that, within a year, the SWS and ICUC will be able to make their clubs nationwide organisations, reaching more members and, in turn, strengthening Vietnam’s position among international whisky societies.

For Acklam, though, she’s looking a bit further forward: “I’d love to see a Vietnamese whisky. In Thailand, there is a lot of locally produced whisky which is a big contrast. If someone in Vietnam could make it really well, I think that would be really exciting.”
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