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Defining What it Means to be a Whisky Connoisseur

“I make whisky for people, I don’t make it for this demographic or that demographic; we make it for people who love whisky,” explained Stephanie Macleod, Dewar's Master Blender and four-time Master Blender of the Year winner at the International Whisky Competition. 

But who loves whisky? In Vietnam, imported spirits have long held an esteemed position in the country’s drinking culture. Since its introduction during the colonial period, locals have seen foreign alcohol as prestigious beverages for special occasions as attested to by the ubiquity of bottles of scotch and cognac that typically elder males take down from their prominent positions on living room shelves to share during Tết celebrations. As Macleod observed during her recent visit, “Vietnam loves whisky, especially premium whisky. It’s a very knowledgeable market.”

In recent years, the who and how of whisky is evolving as people reconsider what it means to be a connoisseur. Overall whisky consumption in the last decade has risen steadily in Vietnam as more brands arrive in the country and bars increasingly cater to the communities formed around responsible drinking. People from more diverse backgrounds and a wider age range are not only gravitating to the spirit but finding new ways to enjoy it.

Given Macleod’s success in the industry, her trip to Vietnam served as proof that whisky is not a gendered beverage, but, she stressed one shouldn’t think of whisky as made for any particular group at all. “I want people to enjoy it, share it with friends, share it with food, have fun with it ... be playful.” With the help of online tastings, events and passionate bartenders, that open-minded approach encourages people to get past previously-held assumptions that they don’t like whisky. 

With upscale bars offering sought-after releases and extravagant concoctions as well as hip street cocktail spots that capture the country’s creative, youthful energy, Vietnam’s cocktail scene is booming. While drinking whisky straight will never go out of style, mixing it with different flavors is growing increasingly popular, especially among younger drinkers. Khanh Le, Bacardi Brand Ambassador, told Saigoneer that he recommends guests try a High Tea, which takes a traditional whisky highball and adds some fresh tea for a uniquely fresh and mellow flavor that often surprises people who profess to not enjoying whisky. 

Much like the view that the only way to enjoy whisky is neat, diners often only drink it with steak and desserts. However, that belief is also changing. Macleod said that in Hanoi, she experienced pairing whisky with a raw oyster for the first time by sipping it before slurping the shellfish and then pouring the remainder inside the shell to drink. Not only is this a cool recipe to impress friends with, but it is also an example of the potential unlocked when not taking whisky traditions too seriously and being spontaneous. This thinking has led chefs around the world to explore the spirit accompanied by foie gras, fish and fruits, amongst other local favorites. 

Saigoneer witnessed the versatility of whisky first-hand at the Aultmore Secret Spaces Dining event that Macleod hosted at Lavelle Library in District 2 last week. Mini-brioche with foie gras, mackerel with caviar and fried garlic, beef wellington with an onion miso soup served in a full onion and a decadent dessert with candy floss and mint all arrived with four Aultmore single malts ranging from 12 to 25 years old. Before glasses were sipped, Macleod gave guests a glimpse into her world by articulating the dozens of aromas and flavors each dram contained. Her description of subtle elements ranging from soft pear and caramelized bananas to desiccated coconuts and smoked peat supported her belief that a connoisseur is simply a person who is eager to learn more and excited to deepen their knowledge of spirits. Speaking to the diners, head chef Thảo Na made a nod to the event’s inclusivity by explaining that the final course was as “strong and sweet” as Vietnamese women like her. 

While the food and drink that evening were impressive, perhaps more captivating was the environment in which they were served. A thick fog carpeted the grass in the outdoor dining area and unfurled across the peat moss arranged on the white tablecloths. It called to mind the romantic fog that settles on the glens and valleys in Aultmore’s Speyside home in Scotland, adding an element of secrecy in line with the event’s name and matching what Macleod described as “a shy whisky set in a serene landscape.” 

The elegant, plant-filled setting with live music and attention to carefully crafted food and drink is emblematic of the intimate Secret Spaces Dining concept which arrived in Vietnam earlier this year. Aimed at the country’s seasoned connoisseurs as well as new drinkers, it’s part of Aultmore’s attempts to spread word of what they consider “the best kept secret in Speyside.” Similarly, this year four new varieties of Aultmore whisky will arrive in Vietnam along with special Tết gifts to share with friends, family and colleagues. 

Such undertakings foretell whisky’s place in Vietnam’s dynamic drinking culture. While bottles will no doubt be opened up to accompany enthusiastic một, hai, ba’s on special occasions for decades to come, one will increasingly see it in a range of new settings, from added to colorful cocktails enjoyed at networking events attended by young entrepreneurs to served to foodies beside innovative fusion meals to sipped on plastic stools surrounded by traffic noise and laughter.