A Taste of Vietnam: A Bartender in Saigon Infuses Culture into his Drinks

Duc photos cocktail

Duc Tien purchasing ingredients for his cocktail menu. Photo courtesy of Duc Tien.

Making strides in Vietnam’s burgeoning cocktail scene is 25 year old bartender Duc Tien, who infuses his drinks with his keen appreciation for cultures all around the world. He recently competed in The Bartenders Society cocktail competition in France.

Having always been a fan of nightlife, Duc knew he wanted to work in the hospitality industry in some shape or form. Four years ago he got his start in Saigon as a waiter in a pub and after keenly observing the bartenders in his workplace, his passion for the profession was ignited.

“I went to bartending school, I bought books, and really just fell in love with learning more about making drinks,” said Duc. “It’s not just a job, it’s the act and the whole process that goes into it.”

Duc photos. cocktail

Photo courtesy of Duc Tien.

At the beginning of his bartending journey Duc’s primary inspiration for his drinks came from outside of Vietnam. However, after befriending numerous bartenders in London who were amongst the top of their field, he felt inspired to look at his own culture and discovered a fresh new perspective that he had previously overlooked. He began using traditional ingredients and flavours that were sold on the street and introduced them in his cocktails to mimic the spirit of the local, community-based trade that characterises Vietnam.

At the end of May this year Duc had the opportunity to showcase his Vietnamese-inspired concoctions to the rest of the world in The Bartenders Society competition, organised by Saint James Rum. The regional rounds were held in Vietnam, where contestants were given 45 minutes to scour Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market to prepare for their drinks.

Saigon-based bartenders at Ben Thanh market. Photo courtesy of Duc Tien.

Saigon-based bartenders at Ben Thanh market. Photo courtesy of Duc Tien.

After stumbling upon a variety of ingredients, Duc was reminded of his mother’s bakery, a place he spent a large portion of his childhood and where banana cake was a best-seller. Wanting the cocktail to replicate the taste of the cake, he paired Saint James rum with a savoury mix of coconut and almonds with a jackfruit liqueur fused with bananas to achieve the desired flavours.

The patisserie-inspired drink, aptly named Bon Gâteau, ranked him second in of the first round, and after coming first in the second round against 5 other bartenders he flew to Paris for the final bout of the competition. Here, the overarching theme, “Green Street Art”, encouraged contestants to use elements drawn from nature and the environment. In a bid to display a more traditional side of his country, Duc used ingredients such as the Nipa (a specific type of coconut found in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta) and also incorporated elements of Vietnamese everyday life into the cocktail making process.

As opposed to a cocktail shaker, Duc opted for a traditional clay pot, a staple in Vietnamese cuisine and a creation of the highland people. In the same fashion as one would cook a meal, the assortment of spirits and spices were left in the clay pot for several hours to blend harmoniously together.

Duc tien cocktail saigon

Photo courtesy of Duc Tien.

Duc presented his second drink named “S.S.S.” (Street, strong and sweet) in a lotus leaf, Vietnam’s national flower, commonly used to preserve food. All the ingredients for this cocktail are items sold by meandering Vietnamese street vendors, a common practice all over the country. The drink is a homage to the resilience of the women supporting their families by carrying heavy bamboo shoulder poles to transport the food they sell.

Perhaps one of the most impressive symbols of cultural identity that Duc employed however, was a model of a wooden water wheel, customarily found in the highlands of Vietnam as a means to transfer water into the village. Rather than using fire or ice to transform his ingredients, Duc poured liquid onto the turning spokes of the wheel, a technique that shaped the final flavours or the cocktail.

Although Duc didn’t pass the final stage of the competition he was proud to be able to share his love for his country to others across the world through his passion. By blending not only his own memories and experiences but those of a collective consciousness, Duc succeeded in distilling his country’s tradition, history and culture into every component of his drinks, an impressive feat for any bartender.

Duc tells me that before drawing inspiration from Vietnam, it was in fact Japanese culture that had always interested him, even before he was mixing drinks. This appreciation only grew stronger since working with numerous Japanese restaurant chains, and has ultimately played a big part in shaping his career as a bartender.

After years of learning and growing into his own style, Duc has big plans for the future, and is in the process of opening his own bar in Saigon within the next few months.

“I want it to be small and cosy and give my own twist on the industry. It will be for cocktail lovers and hopefully an opportunity to also improve the general cocktail culture in Vietnam”.

No doubt Duc will continue to share his infectious devotion for drinks and his culture in his upcoming projects.

Duc photos

Duc Tien. Photo courtesy of Duc Tien.

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