It's 8:30 AM and the Hanoi motorbike traffic is already thick. Our black sedan is surrounded by motorbikes as we as we leave the city center for Gia Lâm, a district technically still part of Vietnam's capital city. We're on our way to a village where the country's first internationally awarded rice liquor, Sơn Tinh, is being distilled.
I'm happy not to be more hungover when we finally get to Lệ Chi village. I'm pretty sure I see a skinned dog on table in front of a shophouse.
The night before, I had my first taste of Sơn Tinh at Highway 4. The Hanoi restaurant serves traditional Vietnamese food, but also serves as a Sơn Tinh tasting room. I met with the cofounder of the restaurant, Dan Dockery, along with Sơn Tinh's marketing and PR guy Nicolas Legroux and his wife Miipa to get the full rundown on rượu, or rice liquor.
But first, there was food. We started the meal with draught beer and some chewy catfish jerky, then moved on to dish after dish of foods like minced pork grilled in phrynium leaves with ants and salt dip, frog legs, and crickets roasted with lemon leaves. It was all incredible.
Dockery told me he immigrated to Vietnam in 1997. On his second day in Hanoi, the English expat met Markus Madeja, the future cofounder and master distiller of Sơn Tinh.
"[Madeja] was already making liquor at home and his wife, Thoa, who is also our business partner," Dockery said over our first glass of Sơn Tinh. It was Nếp Cẩm, an expression made from red sticky rice fermented with local yeast. "[Thoa's] family is from one of the most famous traditional liquor-producing villages in Vietnam, so everything linked together."
The two expats bonded quickly over their fascination of food and drink in Vietnam. They opened Highway 4 together in 1999, serving Madeja's ever-improving rượu. He had been studying the rice spirit intensely, experimenting with ingredients gathered on motorcycle trips throughout the country, tweaking distilling techniques. Their restaurant and alcohol grew in popularity, although there were challenges.
"We've always believed that Vietnamese [food and beverage] can, should, and will span as reputable as any other cuisine," Dockery said. "We have to fight a lot of people, including our own staff, our own marketing team, that it is and will be. Many people don't believe Vietnamese brands can be high standards."
Dockery explained that Heineken had been the number-one bottled beer in Vietnam for years. People valued imports over locally made products. He said ordering Johnnie Walker was a status symbol. It didn't help that regional beverage awards weren't highly regarded, either.
"Anyone can enter, and you can get whichever medal you want," Dockery said. "If you want the gold medal you pay 10 million dong [about $450 US] to enter. If you want silver you pay 5 million to enter, etc., etc. That's why we actually moved to enter international competitions because there's nothing reputable about Vietnamese competitions. Everybody knows they're a load of rubbish."
In 2011, Sơn Tinh won two silver medals at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC). It would continue to win awards in competitions around the world. Legroux is in charge of entering Sơn Tinh into spirits competitions and representing the brand at trade shows. Sơn Tinh is more often than not the only Vietnamese product people have ever seen.
Throughout the night, Dockery took me through Sơn Tinh Táo Mèo (rose apple), Mơ Vàng (apricot), Nếp Phú Lộc (fragrant sticky rice), and Nhất Dạ. I left the restaurant with a full stomach, a strong buzz, and a new appreciation for Vietnamese food culture, which is apparently what the Highway 4 team is going for.
"Food and drink go hand in hand in Vietnam. Alcohol, as with any culture, is the fulcrum of any social event—especially so in Vietnam," Dockery said. "[Highway 4] provides a space to try the liquor and see the connection of the herbs and spices used in Vietnamese cuisine and the alcohols."
Our car pulls up to the Sơn Tinh distillery where we meet Nguyễn Văn Hồng, the foreman and distillery manager, as well as a family friend of Madeja and Thoa. As there will be drinking today, Hồng serves us iced tea before we tour the property. I'm with Legroux and a few Highway 4 staff members who haven't visited the distillery before. Locusts and birds chirp loudly as we all sweat in the rising morning heat.
Hồng begins the tour by showing us how rice alcohol was traditionally made by families at home. The small, dark room with only a single still provides a contrast to Sơn Tinh's large production facility in the next building over. The brand has come a long way from Madeja's early days of distilling at home, then later from at spaces.
The rose apple scent, still fresh in my mind from drinking Táo Mèo the night before, hits me as soon as we walk through the factory door. The facility is quiet and empty, there's no distilling going on today. Hồng takes us through the entire production process, stopping occasionally to pour us some unfinished products to get a sense of each step of the process.
We weave through the steel tanks, blue barrels of ingredients, past the copper still Madeja imported from Germany. Sơn Tinh prides itself on meeting international craft standards while propelling a Vietnamese tradition.
"My hypothesis still is that a tradition actually needs to change to persist," Madeja said over email. "In a changing world, preferences and tastes change as well and it is therefore necessary for a tradition to change as well—or the inheritors will just not continue."
From that hypothesis, he created the slogan for Sơn Tinh, "The Future of Tradition," emphasising that modernity is a process. Madeja sees the future of the traditional Vietnamese spirit not only excelling on a global stage, but redefining its perception at home. He wants to revive the prestige of rượu.
"As in many other developing countries, Vietnamese still have a strong preference for anything coming from outside, reflecting curiosity but also a rejection of old-fashioned traditions," Madeja said. "Unfortunately, very often than not, by the time a new generation wants to return and revive 'old' traditions, the keepers are dead and the chain of tradition (which is normally oral) is broken. I therefore see myself as a keeper of a long tradition but also as a pioneer of a modernisation of the craft."
At a bar in Hoi An, I order a cocktail with Sơn Tinh's Mỹ Tửu. It's a cocktail that works on a hot day in Vietnam, but it could work anywhere. As Sơn Tinh continues to garner international acclaim, time will tell if the brand can find space on bar shelves in international bars like the founders hope.