Is it possible to channel a country into a bottle? Daniel Nguyen, the founder and head distiller at Sông Cái, Vietnam's first artisanal small-batch distillery, thinks so. In the two years since its launch, Sông Cái gin has shaken up the country's premium spirits market landing on top shelves and in martini glasses of leading local drinking establishments. Part of the brand's appeal is its community-focused ethods - a thread that runs through branding, production and distribution.
Created in 2018 with the mission to uphold the cultural values and history of Vietnam, the northern Vietnam-based distillery honors its heritage by staying true to a classic dry gin style while proudly boasting a local flair. The new kid on the block has already earned itself some hype, having nabbed a gold medal at Gin Masters 2020 and, most recently, a double win at the prestigious Spirit International Prestige (SIP) Awards: Best of Class Platinum for Sông Cái Việt Nam Dry Gin and Double Gold for Sông Cái Việt Nam Floral Gin.
Consumers seem to be in agreement with the jury; many choose the newcomer over established international brands — a testament to the founders’ decision to prioritize environmental ethics, economic transparency, skills development and cultural preservation.
A proudly Vietnamese brand with a compelling story to tell, Sông Cái is itching to go global. As the team is gearing up to bring Vietnam’s first gin to international markets, the company’s focus remains on distilling the country’s complex history and culture into a superior product.
The four-year indigenous quest
Born and raised in California, Sông Cái’s founder Daniel Nguyen first moved to Vietnam on the invitation of Oxfam America, Wetland and Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The job was to assist with a sustainable development project in the Mekong River Basin focused on agricultural supply chains. It also spurred the future distiller’s interest in local botanicals.
His work in the Mekong Delta completed, Daniel moved to a mountainous region in the northwest. Here, the variety of flora was astonishing, but with local farmers planting fewer endemic herbs and spices, the gradual loss of that abundance was inevitable. Unless something were to change.
The next four years were spent trying to work out how to improve productivity, increase crop yields and encourage the farmers to invest in growing labor-intensive local species.
It was an uphill battle. The biggest challenge was building trust with the farmers who bristled to be schooled on farming techniques by an outsider and at first shunned Daniel’s attempts to instill management skills like issuing invoices or calculating taxes.
But he persevered. And the longer Daniel stayed, the more he fell in love with the country and its people. His commitment to improving the livelihoods of the local people motivated him to dig deeper and find the root of the problem.
For those living in the highlands, herbs and spices such as star anise, Indian pepper and cardamom — sold domestically or exported — are the main source of income. While the demand was there, the sales margins were extremely low as botanicals are used mainly for seasoning and are not a precious commodity. Daniel’s solution to stagnant profits (and the associated loss of local flora) was to start a business with botanicals at its heart — a craft spirit distillery.
Sông Cái, the name of the distillery he founded, translates to “Mother River”. It refers to the region’s main river, a generous and giving source of water that sustains agricultural production while being the center of local spiritual life. Correspondingly, Sông Cái Distillery was established to represent the beauty and generosity of the communities living along the river.
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The first batch
Nothing packs a flavor punch like botanicals: they give Sông Cái gin a depth of flavor and a uniquely Vietnamese identity. Alongside the core botanicals, Sông Cái is infused with licorice, turmeric, molasses, pepper, xyanthoxylum rhesta and clausena indica — all foraged on the rich and fertile soil of the highlands.
Daniel’s knowledge of biochemistry combined with his interest in the native flora meant that he invested time in research noting local microclimate and what plants thrive in it. This understanding informed his decision to set up the distillery and the entire supply chain in the northwest, to be as close to the farming community as possible.
But before there was a distillery, there were months and months of foraging, testing and consulting Daniel’s international network of friends. Hundreds of local plants and juniper berries from Macedonia were nosed in various combinations by Daniel and his 70-strong team of budding gin-makers from H’mong and Dao Do communities. Among 44 recipes using a direct fired copper still, one was deemed refined enough to become the official Sông Cái Việt Nam Dry Gin.
A touch of Vietnam folk art
As a Vietnamese brand, the core values of Sông Cái Distillery are to preserve and elevate the rich traditional arts, crafts, heritage, and culture of Vietnam and its people — an idea around which the brand’s visual identity is positioned.
On the logo, the tools of the trade and the character-defining botanicals are crossed in an X-formation against the indigo backdrop. Even more visually striking is the back label inspired by Hang Trong — a popular Vietnamese folk painting genre.
Originating on Hang Trong, Hang Non, Hang Hom and Hang Quat streets of Hanoi, Hang Trong is one of the three popular Vietnamese folk painting genres alongside Dong Ho and Kim Hoang.
Hang Trong painting genre has two main types: worship and festive. They are made by first printing black outlines by woodblocks, then drawing the details and coloring the picture by hand.
Representing the dynamism of city life through the use of vibrant colors and rich symbolism, the artwork was created by Mr. Le Dinh Nghien who is considered the last and only artisan of the Hang Trong genre (his son has been apprenticing under him to carry the legacy).
It was Sông Cái’s creative partner S-River agency who suggested reaching out to Mr. Nghien to translate the brand’s core values into a visual medium. Specializing in themes and motifs found in Vietnamese folk art, S-River incorporates digitized versions of the same into logos and other branding elements.
With Hang Trong art in particular, the personality of the artist comes to the fore because each woodblock print is finished by hand, and inevitably, the inner world and even the mood of the artisan affect the end result. So on S-River’s recommendation, the distillery turned to Mr. Nghien whose understanding of Hang Trong technique is second to none.
Following the success of the collaboration, more product lines are being developed in partnership with local artisans to help promote the richness and diversity of Vietnam’s culture.
Passing down the legacy
Bringing together bartenders from across the country, Sông Cái’s first annual competition in June was a much needed reprieve for the industry battered by the pandemic. The contestants went on a field trip to Ha Giang, the northernmost province, organized by Sông Cái with the goal of cultivating a deeper appreciation of indigenous cultures in the young generation.
To further demonstrate how regional idiosyncrasies play into the uniqueness of gin-based cocktails, Sông Cái Distillery has collaborated with guest bartenders on a book that explores the history and culture of different provinces as well as recording some of the most creative recipes.
For this quintessentially Vietnamese brand, such initiatives are not only a way to tell the story of Sông Cái Distillery but also a means to share the message of support for Vietnam’s indigenous cultures, at home and abroad.
Adapted by Angie Tran.