Javin Chia, Michael Rosen and Quan Nguyen, co-founders of Vê Đê Đi Distillery in Hanoi, Vietnam
In the garden of the Vê Đê Đi Distillery on the outskirts of Hanoi grow pomelos. Akin to grapefruits, they are found in salads, cocktails and decorations across Vietnam and symbolise abundance, prosperity and perfection – three qualities the makers of Vietnam’s first single malt no doubt want to have associated with them when they launch their whisky.
“If you’re in this business and come into it as an independent you have to be a bit crazy, a bit ignorant and optimistic at the same time,” says co-founder Michael Rosen. The charmingly enigmatic American is joined by a merry crew of men, all of whom bring their own character and complementary skills to the venture: fellow co-founder Quan Nguyen, head distiller Javin Chia and brand ambassador Mikey Brenker.
Vietnam’s love of whisky is growing apace – according to CAGR, whisky sales in 2022 already amount to US$44.84 million and the market is set to grow annually by 5.52 per cent – but making whisky in Vietnam is another story. “There have been a few places trying to do whisky over the years, but their efforts stop at buying whisky from Scotland, bottling here and ageing here on a small scale,” explains Nguyen of the country’s efforts to date. “We would be the first people to do it [at] big scale in the proper manner and not cut any corners.”
Vietnam has a rich distilling history – most prolifically of ru đ, a distilled rice liquor – and local gin and rum brands are increasingly found on backbars and in homes, but whisky consumption tends to be of Scotch and bourbon. Vietnam is also surrounded by other Asian whisky-making superstars, Kavalan in Taiwan being perhaps the distillery Vê Đê Đi can be most closely related to. However, while local interest and pride in a homegrown whisky is something Rosen and co are keen to nurture, they have their sights on conquering more traditional whisky-making markets and putting their brand in the hands of consumers intrigued by single malts from further-flung places.
The tale of how a professor (Rosen), a poet (Nguyen), an engineer (Brenker) and a distiller (Chia) got together to make whisky isn’t clear cut, but spending a day with some of the team at the distillery off Hanoi’s Highway 4, I am lucky enough to learn first-hand about how they plan to make and launch Vietnam’s first single malt.
Co-founders Rosen and Nguyen both have experience in building brands, the former for a food trading company and the latter for a chocolate company and a run of restaurants and bars. Brenker has been working in engineering for more than 15 years, but with a natural proclivity towards people in the food and beverage industry, he started a whisky club and spent some time bartending in Ho Chi Minh. Then there’s Singaporean Chia, who will be behind the stills once they’re switched on.
“I did my diploma in culinary management as I wanted to be a chef, but I realised being a chef sucks so switched to beverage,” Chia explains of his journey into the distilling business. While doing his diploma he was also teaching people how to brew at home, and after becoming the youngest certified beer judge in Asia, decided to further his studies at Heriot-Watt University. After a stint at Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience in The Vaults, a spell at Brass Lion Distillery in Singapore and time working in a brewery, he moved to Hanoi to start work with Vê Đê Đi.
The team has taken over the Son Tinh distillery, which was founded in 1997 by Markus Madeja and where production of its award-winning rượu will still take place alongside the whisky. Surrounded by beautiful flora down a secluded street, it is a stately and welcome retreat from the bustle of Hanoi’s streets.
Rosen looked to Japan in preparation for the practicalities of setting up operations. “I visited Chichibu Distillery, almost like a pilgrimage, and looked at the size of their equipment and their commitment to quality and obsession with flavours and casks.” He also visited Shizuoka Distillery and sought advice from Balcones Distillery founder Chip Tate, who in turn introduced him to White Peak Distillery’s co-founder Max Vaughan, who has been a recurring sounding board for the team.
They have inherited equipment but have also invested in two gleaming stills from Chinese manufacturer Daeyoo and casks ranging from ex-bourbon to Armagnac barrels and sherry butts. They also toyed with getting a wooden washback, but with Vietnam’s hot and humid climate, the associated danger of it moulding quickly meant they opted for stainless steel instead.
They’ve also, intriguingly, invested in a mash filter press – and they don’t come cheap. “Javin wanted the mash filter press,” Rosen says pointedly. Indeed, Chia pushed hard for the piece of equipment – which acts a bit like a lauter tun – for numerous reasons, many of which he discovered as part of the beer-making process. “After working at the brewery for about a year, I had time to look at the bottlenecks [in production]. Mash filter presses have already been toyed around with… and the benefits are great: they have close to 100 per cent efficiency and have a very quick turnover… We’re also talking about doing whisky with other grains such as corn, which has no proper husk. It wouldn’t be able to lauter so [we] would have to add barley – with the mash filter press, I can do 100 per cent corn whisky.”
While on my visit to Vê Đê Đi the stills hadn’t yet been fired up. Chia has a good idea of the style of whisky he wants to make. “We want to do a characterful whisky, we don’t want to do a light whisky. We want to emphasise the spirit character and with the climate we want to give it plenty of time for other reactions to happen in the barrel.” He’ll be running a double distillation, while also doing a three-stage fermentation process and a sour mash cycle.
While importation will be the only option for using barley (it can’t be grown in Vietnam), the fact that the country is home to more than 600 species of indigenous corn is a focal point for the team. “We love the idea of being of a ‘terroir’ and being able to use indigenous corns and yeasts and make a unique product,” explains Rosen. There is also the possibility of looking at other grains like rice and buckwheat, the latter of which is found across the country.
Making whisky in Vietnam will of course come with challenges, but Chia is working on solutions. “Climate is definitely one of the things that will affect fermentation and maturation,” he explains. “The reasoning behind the three-stage fermentation is to use a base of English ale yeast, then distiller’s yeast will clean it up and remove unfermentable sugar and wild yeast will be harvested from around the distillery. When my lab is set up, we’ll be swabbing plants and that is how we get the wild yeast and isolate yeast strains that can’t be replicated anywhere else.”
Alongside making liquid, the team will also be getting the distillery ready for tours and on-trade events. Brenker will no doubt be using his vast bartender network to bring some local excitement to Highway 4 and to put it on the map for tourists. “We want people to recognise us as a great product of Vietnam… For every visit to Hanoi, we want [people] to visit our distillery.”
He’s keen to launch the whisky (and a gin) in a more relaxed and accessible style than the category traditionally offers. “It could be an off-the-wall kind of fun and energy, rather than slow and sedate – so much of whisky is just sitting and drinking whisky and I don’t think that’s where we are.”
Nguyen wants to reflect this in the Vê Đê Đi branding (a name for the whisky is yet to be confirmed) while also giving local people a different view of local produce. “We believe our brand has very special characteristics that reflect the urban side of Vietnam, which no other brands have done so far… It isn’t an easy process but this market is a growing market and a lot of people are becoming whisky drinkers… [We need to think] how to rise above our own prejudice around local products.”
The team were looking at laying barrels by October 2022, and at the earliest, we can expect to see the first bottles of whisky in three years’ time. If the whisky has as much character as the people behind it, we’re in for a treat.