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The History Behind One of Vietnam's Favorite Drinks

The backstory of the drink in your hand may be far richer than you imagine.

Thanks in part to the country’s economic success, Vietnam’s rising middle class is enjoying a variety of new lifestyle opportunities. As spending power increases and globalization results in more foreign goods reaching the country’s urban centers, selections like Scotch whisky have become popular.

This interest in new experiences, products, foods and beverages means people are eager to explore the unique histories of some of these new commodities. 

For centuries Vietnamese mainly consumed rice wine, before colonialism introduced beer and foreign wines but now the focus has changed. Like local Vietnamese spirits, there is a great deal to learn about the background and production techniques of the increasingly visible imported variety. 

Consumers are typically amazed to learn of the many people, processes, ingredients and countries that are needed to produce Scotch whisky. It can begin with acorns carefully selected and planted in the eastern United States, Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri, in addition to northern Spain and the forests of Galicia and Cantabria. The impact of meticulous cultivation will only become apparent decades later. Thanks to slightly different grain consistencies, the two varieties of oak absorb and impart liquids in contrasting ways that are essential for the steps that follow. 

Once mature, the wood is sent to northern Spain, where it enters a sawmill. The lumber is then given to coopers who specialize in making barrels by hand. The ancient trade, which stretches back centuries, may not be common in Vietnam, but it is a crucial part of the craft. Making a barrel includes a great number of steps, such as curving long pieces of oak called staves and using heat to bend them into an exact shape. Incredibly, the barrels are completely waterproof despite not using any nails, glue, or other adhesives. 

For sherry seasoned oak casks, the completed barrels are then filled with Oloroso sherry. Sherry, whose name is an anglicization of Jerez, Spain,where it was invented, is a type of fortified grape wine, which means brandy is added to the beverage after fermentation. The drink is categorized as rather dry and somewhat spicy.Left to age for two to five years in a controlled climate, the sherry seeps into the core of the wood. 

Once they’ve taken on enough of the sherry’s flavors, the barrels are emptied and again sent thousands of kilometers across the ocean, this time to Scotland, where they are filled with whisky and left to age, typically 12 – 18 years, or even more. During this time, some of the sherry and oak flavors in the wood seep into the whisky, while the barrels remove other elements and encourage oxidation. 

One distilling expert explained that: “Oak influence is the single greatest contributor to the quality, natural color and distinctive aromas and flavors” of a whisky. The effect of different types of oak is obvious, with the American version imparting sweet caramel and vanilla notes, while the European species introduces spicier pepper flavors. Complex in their own right, when the two are blended together, the resultant beverage arrives in layers, waves and pronouncements of fruits and spices.

The amount of time spent in a barrel has a dramatic effect on the final product’s color, aroma and flavor. For example, a whisky left to age for 12 years is the color of the harvest sun, emits butterscotch and vanilla aromas, and tastes like honeyed wood, citrus, raisins and caramel. After 15 years, the drink becomes a golden butterscotch color, smells like dried fruit, toffee and vanilla and arrives on the tongue with notes of sweet raisins, vanilla, and sultana. Finally, if matured for 18 years, the Scotch will appear a rich amber hue, and its aroma will offer ginger and hints of clove that people will enjoy on each sip. 

The long and nuanced list of what enthusiasts can detect in a single snifter reveals how discerning modern Vietnamese consumers are becoming. Not satisfied with simple, singular flavors, they relish the complexity. Whisky, like coffee, chocolate, steak, pastries and craft beer, are all becoming more popular here thanks in part to the depth of the experience. The careful craftsmanship and intermingling of global resources that produce them are an important part of the enjoyment as well. 

Learning the history of Scotch not only helps one understand why it is such a prestigious and beloved drink around the world, but it showcases how global people’s lives are here in Vietnam. One can sit at a trendy rooftop bar in Saigon and, in a single sip, enjoy the efforts of tree-planters in America and France, Spanish winemakers, Scottish distillers, and Vietnamese bartenders.