FEBRUARY 12 2015 07:28h

Refined ambitions for Vietnamese rice wine

Refined ambitions for Vietnamese rice wine

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Locally made rice wine is a staple at mealtimes in Vietnam, but is shunned when people want to buy expensive gifts to impress others.

At a restaurant in central Hanoi a group of red-faced men raise shot glasses and give an uproarious cheer. They are drinking ruou nep, a liquor made from glutinous rice that is a ubiquitous element of social gatherings.

But unlike imported alcoholic drinks, Vietnamese rice wine is generally not revered for its quality.

“This is Vietnamese ruou. We just drink it for fun,” one of the men, 32-year-old engineer Nguyen Minh Tuan, says before downing another shot.

The difference between Vietnamese-made liquor and foreign brands is rendered all the more stark in the run up to Tet, the Lunar New Year when expensive bottles of whisky and brandy are bought as gifts.

“Vietnamese products are perceived as ‘boring, nothing new,’ and consumers are not assured of the quality,” says Le Thanh Truc who, along with her husband, set up Phu Le Corporation, named after a village known for traditional rice wine production in the Mekong Delta.

The couple are on a mission to change perceptions of Vietnamese rice wine. They have been trying to encourage their customers to appreciate the taste, and not just drink the liquor - generally about 40 per cent alcohol by volume - to get drunk. One of their most popular products is banana-infused rice wine.

“We encourage them to have just two shots,” Truc says.

So far their market is local, mostly in Ben Tre province where their factory is based. For Tet they are offering a special 2-litre bottle of ruou nep worth 500,000 dong (25 dollars). Regular bottles of 250 millilitres are sold at supermarkets for just over 3 dollars.

Vietnamese people want to buy local products as gifts but the problem is how these are presented, Truc says.

“Traditional handicrafts in Vietnam don’t have the investment to produce high-end packaging, especially at Tet. There is also a lack of distribution - the cost of selling at supermarkets is too high.”

Rice wine production has had a turbulent history in Vietnam. The French imposed a monopoly on alcohol between 1897 and 1946. The Communists applied a ban on private production of rice wine in the North after 1956 to save rice for food. Following reunification this was extended to the South. It was later lifted as part of economic reforms.

Residents of Phu Le village remember this well.

“I made rice alcohol from when I was 12 years old,” says 59-year-old Nguyen Thi Hong. “At that time we made it just to sell to neighbours, but after 1975 the government said we couldn’t do that, we could only grow rice for food.”

In the 1990s following economic reforms ruou production gained ground across the country, but people started mixing it with methanol with lethal results. The government responded by applying strict distillation standards.

Official certification requirements are now so strict that they effectively force producers to make vodka or produce illegally, says Markus Madeja, founder of Son Tinh, an award-winning brand of Vietnamese rice wine based in Hanoi.

“If you’re a village distiller, you make it illegally for yourself or you don’t do it,” says Madeja, who is from Switzerland but settled in Vietnam some 20 years ago. “So you can’t develop a liquor industry at the moment. It took me a long time to keep the flavour in and keep to those standards.”

Madeja has been trying to promote discussion of flavours and smells.

“I’ve already done this with the glasses I’ve produced, more bell-shaped so your nose must go into the glass,” he says. “I’ve also been trying to create a language, you know about wine - with a hint of smoke, pineapple - which are associated with these things.”

Madeja has hit obstacles getting his innovations recognition on the international stage however.

As a distilled liquor, ruou stands apart from better-known Japanese rice wine, or sake. Madeja also rejects attempts to brand it along Russian lines as "vodka" in tasting competitions.

"So I branded it as 'ruou', not vodka. Last year the first competition accepted us as 'ruou'," he said proudly.

Back home, appreciation of domestically produced ruou remains limited, he says.

“You go to Germany and the German house will invite you to have a German beer. You go to France, you will get a French wine. Here you give your guest a shot of Johnny Walker or a Chivas 12 years.”

“Vietnamese people don’t like buying Vietnamese wine as a special gift because it’s cheap,” says Bui Thi Dong Thanh, known as Te, the owner of Quan Ray restaurant in the capital famous for its varieties of rice wine.

Foreigners are however a different story. Te makes her own rice wine varieties using traditional yellow and purple sticky rice, fruits and herbs, and her own inventions; pink lemon and hibiscus. She sells plain ceramic bottles of the wine on request, mostly to foreigners who want to take a gift back to their home countries.

“If the ingredients are good, then people like it,” she says.

 

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