Sông Cái Distillery makes a proudly Southeast Asian dry gin.

By Dan Q. Dao
April 01, 2021
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The Vietnamese were distilling traditional rice spirits as early as the 14th century. Through hundreds of years of war and colonialism—during which the French monopolized production—social drinking remained integral to Vietnamese culture. Today, Vietnam's two largest cities, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, have flourished into bona fide global cocktail destinations, giving rise to a new generation of homegrown distillers who are producing craft rice liquor as well as locally accented whiskey and gin.

Pomelo, turmeric, ginger, peppercorns
Pomelo, turmeric, ginger, peppercorns, and a medley of other botanicals commingle in every pour of Vietnam’s Sông Cái Dry Gin.
| Credit: Photo by Caitlin Bensel / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Enter Sông Cái, a first-of-its-kind, Hanoi-based distillery producing gin that spotlights the natural bounty of mountainous northern Vietnam. Its flagship bottling, the award-winning Sông Cái Vietnam Dry Gin, is a gateway to the region's unmatched biodiversity, incorporating more than 14 different botanicals like green turmeric, jungle pepper, black cardamom, heirloom pomelo, and white licorice root. To source these ingredients, Vietnamese-American founder and master distiller Daniel Nguyen worked with more than 70 families from ethnic minority tribes like the Red Dao and Hmong who have farmed the highland forests for centuries. Distillation takes place in a hand-hammered 600-liter direct-fired copper alembic pot still.

Gin maker Daniel Nguyen and the hand-hammered copper still
Gin maker Daniel Nguyen and the hand-hammered copper still.
| Credit: Courtesy of Sông Cái Distillery

Born and raised in California, Nguyen got the botanical bug after moving to Vietnam to work with Oxfam and Vietnam's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to create sustainable agricultural supply chains. Living among the tribes of the northwest highlands, Nguyen realized that the region's biodiversity—and local livelihoods—were in danger of being outfarmed by cash crops. Through Sông Cái, Nguyen is able to employ foragers, fund local seed banks, and cultivate heirloom crops that have not been seen in Vietnam for centuries. Sông Cái translates to "mother river," a nod to the ancestral birthplace of Vietnamese civilization in the Red River Valley.

gimlet
A gimlet highlights Sông Cái’s herbaceousness.
| Credit: Courtesy of Sông Cái Distillery

For those tempted to compare the taste of Vietnamese gin broadly to that of other gins from the region, like Suntory's citrus-forward Roku, Nguyen explains that Sông Cái's ethos adheres more closely to the Vietnamese culinary philosophy, which emphasizes a balance of ingredients deemed to have hot or cold energy. The end result is a gin that makes itself known through robust but refreshing spice, proudly showing off its mild mountain peppers and a back palate of subtle amber honey.

"What people tend to think of as 'Eastern' gin is what the British romanticized as Eastern or from the Orient—like curry leaves and cardamom," Nguyen explains. "Our gin is simply more indicative of the unique Vietnamese palate: The juniper berry is not as pronounced, we're lighter on the profiles of angelica root, and our citrus is a variety of pomelo that is endemic to Vietnam. We use what's important to the Vietnamese."

Find Sông Cái Vietnam Dry Gin at songcaidistillery.com.

Four Other Must-Try Terrior-Driven Gins from Around the World

Roku Gin (Japan)

Cherry blossoms, yuzu, and sansho pepper make a bottling perfect for both stirred cocktails and sipping neat.

Suntory Roku Gin, $30 at wine.com

Jin Jiji Indian Dry Gin (India)

A beautiful blend of juniper foraged from the Himalayas alongside chamomile, black tea, and tulsi.

Jin Jiji Indian Dry Gin, $25 at astorwines.com

Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin (Australia)

This red-hued gin is steeped with Shiraz grapes from the Yarra Valley.

Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin, $45 at wine.com

Spirit of Hven Organic Gin (Sweden)

A smooth, elegant, spice forward wheat gin featuring anise, lemon, vanilla, and Szechuan peppercorns.

Spirit of Hven Organic Navy Strength Gin, $65 at wine.com

Read More: 13 Best Gins for Your Home Bar

April 2021