Saigoneer

BackEat & Drink » Food Culture » Ănthology » A Tale of Two Rượus

A Tale of Two Rượus

The first time I bought rượu, it was from Lang Giang, my tour guide in Sa Pa. We were staying in a Red Dao village known for its rice liquor production, and that night I received three water bottles, stripped of their original labels, each filled with a mysterious liquid.

One was in the fluorescent yellow of Gatorade. I gave them to the guests of my pop-up restaurant as part of a shot I called Rượu Awakening, and no one went blind, so I kept sourcing local spirits from all over Vietnam. I bought mulberry wine in Đà Lạt and plain ‘ol rượu đế in a District 4 hẻm — all handed over in plastic bottles that once housed sports drinks or purified water.

The story I’m about to tell you is not about rượu sold in plastic bottles. In fact, it’s the antithesis of that. This is the story of two Vietnamese men in the west and a foreigner in Vietnam determined to show the world what a Vietnamese rượu can be.

A History of Vietnamese Rượu

To understand where rượu is going, we need to understand where it came from.

Since the practice of distillation spread from China in the late 14th century, alcohol made from rice has been a staple of Vietnamese life, from everyday consumption as part of a healthy lifestyle to ceremonies commemorating Tết, death anniversaries, and weddings.

The process of producing rượu was interconnected with pig farming. Farmers needed to cook the rice anyway to feed their pigs, so why not ferment it first and make alcohol before giving the leftover grains to the pigs? Because of this practice, rượu was mainly produced for an individual family’s consumption.

By the 19th century, as the Vietnamese economy grew, specialization emerged between cooperating villages such that one might work to provide rice, another pottery to hold the drink, and a third took care of the fermentation. Cù Lâm Village in Bình Định Province is known for its rượu Bàu Đá. It gets its name from the ancient water source used by the village to make the alcohol. The Vân Village in Bắc Giang sends a family representative on the fourth day of Tết every year to the Rộc Temple to swear by a blood oath to keep the secret of their rượu technique within the village. Phú Lộc village — now known as Cẩm Vũ — in the Red River Delta was famously so good at producing rice liquor that the Nguyễn Dynasty exempted it from its strict alcohol regulations.

But things changed under French colonization. During the mid- to late-19th century, French colonies were under pressure to be profitable, so they drove small, native distillers out of the market through a licensing system and regulations that required more resources than most locals had. By the end of the century, the colonial government had essentially established a complete monopoly on alcohol. From there they produced industrial, aggressive, nearly pure ethanol in huge factories and sold it as “rượu” for four times the old price.

The only legal liquor was from the state-owned company, commonly known as rượu ty, short for rượu công ty (company liquor). The colonial regime cracked down on illegal distilling operations through unconscionable fines and years of prison time.

However, the Vietnamese people could not be stopped.

In the north, women would transport alcohol from rural areas by strapping wineskins under their bodices. A thirsty resident of Cochinchina would approach these deceptively large women with a cup and some cash; she would then dispense the rice alcohol through a hose, after which the customer would then immediately pull his body back. This pulling back action earned the spirit the name rượu lùi.

In the south, the intrepid would distill in tall grasses called cỏ đế, which grew so thick that it deterred French enforcers from entering, thus the name rượu đế. Cỏ đế grew all over the countryside and is notoriously difficult to destroy, a metaphor for the Vietnamese spirit.

In the south, the intrepid would distill in tall grasses called cỏ đế, which grew so thick that it deterred French enforcers from entering, thus the name rượu đế.

As France started losing control of Cochinchina, it also lost its hold on the spirits market, until its stranglehold was completely dismantled by 1945. Unfortunately, the factories established by the French were absorbed by the state-owned Saigon Beverage Corporation (Sabeco) and Hanoi Beverage Corporation (Habeco), which continued the French’s industrial production methods, pumping out massive batches at the lowest possible prices, thus accelerating rượu’s reputation as a low-quality spirit and harbinger of hangovers.

For a deeper dive on the history of rượu, read our two-part series on rice wine.

A Tale of Three Men

It was in this environment that our three men grew up: Suy Dinh and Tien Ngo, the founders of SuTi Craft Distillery, in Vietnam; and Markus Madeja, the founder of Sơn Tinh, in Switzerland. Tien was born and raised in the outskirts of Saigon. During our phone interview, he recalls wandering through the surrounding farmlands and a device-free childhood playing with marbles and cricket fighting: “Somehow I was into architecture way back then. I like to make a little house for my crickets. You can make them a floor plan and look down and see them going room to room. That’s probably more me: [I’d rather] raise crickets than let them fight.”

In 1980, at the young age of 15, Tien decided to make the risky journey from Vietnam to America, alone. “I wanted to be an architect and I didn’t see any developments in Vietnam [at the time]. I didn’t see things that I could do. My mom wouldn’t let me, but my dad said okay [because they] can’t stop me, since I had it in mind for so long.”

Similar to other teenage boys who ended up in the Vietnamese refugee camps, Tien loved his time in Malaysia. “The refugee camp, that was my paradise. I had been kinda sheltered. I never left the house. My parents never went on vacation, so I [had] never seen the sea. For me, it was like being a bird out of its cage for the first time, especially since I escaped by myself. I climbed and hiked up mountains when I was supposed to be in school for English,” he chuckles.

By the next year, his brother, who was a former military pilot and had flown out in 1975, sponsored 16-year-old Tien to live with him in Fort Worth, Texas. “Back then, when you’re growing up, you think that you’re old enough. Now I look at all my nieces and nephews — they’re 20...21...24...graduates — I still think they’re too young to go anywhere!” Tien laughs.

It was through his brother that Tien met his future co-founder and distiller Suy, who had grown up in Vũng Tàu and immigrated to Texas six years prior. “My brother [is] married to [Suy’s] sister...so we come to our nephews’, our nieces’ birthday parties. That’s how we ran into each other.” The two went on to attend the University of Texas at Arlington together. Suy studied electrical engineering; and Tien, architecture, of course.

Halfway around the world, Markus Madeja grew up in a small town outside of Zurich to German parents who had fled Soviet forces before the construction of the Berlin Wall. As someone who grew up studying Latin and speaking both High German and Swiss German, it wasn’t a surprise to find out Markus studied linguistics and anthropology while at university.

Photo by N.Vĩnh via baoquocte.vn.

Between 1993 and 1997, Markus spent his time flying back and forth between Vietnam and Switzerland, learning the language and culture while completing his degree. After his first trip back from Vietnam, he and a friend set up a specialized Southeast Asian tourism agency operating out of Switzerland. Markus elaborates, “With my background in anthropology, the Vietnamese language, and tourism, I became an expert in [community-based ethno-]tourism.”

In the early 1990s, when Markus first arrived in Vietnam, beer was much more expensive than rượu and was a treat to be enjoyed about once a year. At that time, rượu was considered more of a staple than a spirit; there was little attention paid to its quality, consistency, aging methods, or branding.

“Alcohol came in plastic bottles from the countryside, you had no idea who produced it. There was no label or anything, no certification.”

“Alcohol came in plastic bottles from the countryside, you had no idea who produced it. There was no label or anything, no certification. It was really rough and tough moonshine. It was a common thing that people were drinking because it was cheap, so there was no status or prestige attached,” Markus tells me over our video call. “It’s not like whisky — people talk about whisky more than they drink it. In the 1990s people had more stuff; slowly, slowly, more money, and so people really started to show off with imported spirits, while Vietnamese rượu was for the poor, for the workers...”

The Future of Rượu

In 1997, three years after trying rượu nếp cẩm, a deep purple liquor made from black sticky rice, for the first time in a student bar and inspired by rượu “taverns” in Hanoi and their range of traditional infusions, Markus became interested in making rượu himself.

He worked with the people in his then-girlfriend’s, now-wife’s, village and paid them extra to discard the “heads” and “tails” of their distillation. These first and last parts often make a liquor cloudy or dangerous because of the high methanol content. He attributes the high quality of his rượu to this cutting practice.

Markus Madeja and his partner. Photo by N.Vĩnh, via baoquocte.vn

“As soon as the stuff came out, everybody liked it and everybody said it was better than the other stuff in those taverns. And that was when the idea was born to set up a small tavern as well to see if we could sell this...if people still like it after they have to pay for it,” laughs Markus as he recounts the beginning of his chain of taverns, Highway 4.

Since then, the spirits served at Highway 4 have come to life as their own brand — Sơn Tinh — which has gone on to become Vietnam's first internationally recognized and awarded premium liquor.

Photo via sontinh.com

On the other side of the world, Tien and Suy were catching up over a lake-side bike ride in Texas. Suy told Tien about his rượu đế-making hobby and Tien asked to try some. He recounts his reaction to me over the phone: “Oh this is really interesting. It’s totally different.” Like Markus, Suy also discards the heads and tails of his distillation, keeping only the “heart.”

Photo via sutiusa.com

So impressed by the quality and motivated because there wasn’t anything else like it being sold in the US, Tien convinced Suy that they should start a rượu đế distilling business together and call it SuTi, from the first two letters of each of their names. The process of doing the paperwork, finding the land, building on the land, buying stills from Germany and getting the liquor license, while simultaneously refining their products took them four years, and the pandemic delayed them another four months. So it’s well-deserved that since they opened their doors in November 2020, people all over the world, from Europe to Australia, have been trying to score a few bottles. In just a year, they’ve had visitors to their tasting room come from as far as Hawaii and Alaska.

So how does America’s first rượu do things differently? First off, they are very particular and consistent with their ingredients. During the product development period, they experimented with many types of yeast and rice. “With liquor you have to wait two weeks to get results...Very long process, very detailed. It’s like waiting on [the] grass [to] grow. Suy is very good at keeping records and he’s very patient.”

Part of the process requires learning about different types of yeast and their behavior. As Tien goes into the details, you can hear the boy who raised crickets coming out: “We [are] just kinda raising the yeast. They are just like little creatures. They can get stressed. They need vitamins to be healthy. Certain temperatures they don’t like. If you don’t give them what they want, they get stressed and create bad alcohol. Don’t make them unhappy!”

SuTi Craft distillery. Photo by Cody Neathery via fwweekly.com.

“The yeast, they are just like little creatures. They can get stressed. They need vitamins to be healthy. If you don’t give them what they want, they get stressed and create bad alcohol. Don’t make them unhappy!”

They also experimented with many varieties of rice, from the store (“they enrich the rice with iron or infuse a jasmine smell...the yeast don’t like it”) and from Thailand (“has kinda a burlap smell to it”). Eventually, they found an organic, Louisiana-grown jasmine hybrid that gave them great, consistent results. This became the rice used in their Rượu Đế Ông Già, a spirit named for the older Vietnamese men in the area who gave Suy and Tien feedback on their product. Their second, less-traditional product, Lion 45, uses a long grain rice grown along the Gulf Coast in Beaumont, Texas. “US rice has a specific DNA, and we love it,” Tien exclaims.

When asked what he was most proud of, Tien answered, “When I went to the stores in Vietnam, they don’t call it rượu đế, they call it ‘premium rice vodka.’ It's kinda disappointing that they think to be able to sell, they have to call it vodka. We’re proud to have rượu đế on our label.” To Tien, what is most rewarding is “to see this product [be a] part of family get-togethers, to be người đồng hương. To be able to represent [a] Vietnamese product alongside any fine liquor. Vietnamese [customers are] proud to show the product to [their] non-Vietnamese friends.”

Rượu Đế Ông Già and Rượu Đế SuTi. Photo by David Ochoa via wfaa.com.

Similarly, Markus expressed his desire to give Vietnamese a national domestic product that they can be proud to serve their guests, “I think it’s something that’s definitely growing, this pride and this recognition. It’s not bad just because it’s Vietnamese. Initially, that was always the perception: anything from Vietnam is cheap, low-quality, and some kind of dodgy. But nowadays Vietnamese are proud of their own products. We’ve got cars. We’ve got international products that are not worse than the foreign products.”

Internationally, Markus wants rượu to be recognized with its own designation, like soju or sake, “It’s not vodka; it’s not whisky; it’s not tequila...it’s rượu. So that people associate the name rượu as a really cool product. Shops all over the world don’t call it a sandwich, they call it a bánh mì. I want people to actually order a rượu and not a Vietnamese vodka. This is my crusade, my dream.”

Dô to that.

Partner Content