We inhabit a cruel arbitrary universe jam packed with interminable queuing, acne, disappointing dates, overpriced dentistry and wasps, so how the miracle of whiskey came to be is beyond me, but it certainly eases the pain of living on this planet. At least when the wolves and those mutants from the bank are clawing at the door you can always turn up the volume, settle in with a nice bottle and keep the world at bay.
Bourbon has long been an iconic symbol of rock and roll passion and fast living in the pursuit of the dream all the way to the cold bitter grave. Perhaps Evan Williams didn’t realise what his product would become way back in 1783 as he set up Kentucky’s first commercial distillery on the Ohio River, but a genius is rarely appreciated in his own time, although it’s safe to say his whiskey was. Evan Williams, the man, is dead, but his bourbon namesake lives on as the second best selling bourbon in not just the US but the world.
Despite these impressive accolades, it’s only in recent years that Vietnam has had access to the sweet but potent potion that Evan Williams has become famous for. I spoke with Daniel Cohen, managing director of Lighthouse – exclusive distributor of Evan Williams and other products from Heaven Hill Brands here in Vietnam.
“We’ve been importing Evan Williams and other Heaven Hill products for going on seven years now, with four main warehouses in Hanoi, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City.”
I wanted to find out why Evan Williams? Why had this particular brand started to take off in Vietnam? “Heaven Hill is the oldest and largest family owned distillery in the US. We appreciate this aspect and their general ways of working. Yes, there are a lot of bourbons out there, but Heaven Hill and Evan Williams are quite unique – it is the original bourbon and as Heaven Hill’s reserves are private, they’re able to put quality and innovation first,” Cohen explained.
Nationwide, the Vietnamese palette is treated to the distilled delights of Evan Williams and it’s becoming increasingly popular with bartenders in various bars, clubs and restaurants across Hanoi. According to Cohen, the consumption is growing and now you can find this historic bourbon in a wide range of bars from Polite Pub, Savage, The Gallery, The Mad Botanist, Chopsticks and more.
Armed with this new information, I sped on down to Chopsticks to find out what’s the appeal of Evan Williams.
Bar Manager, Tran Van Tien spoke to me about the reasons for Chopsticks stocking Evan Williams. He told me: “It’s older – it’s bottled for a minimum of four years, which is two more than the minimum needed to be a straight bourbon, but also it’s the original. Jack Daniels might have nailed the marketing, but Evan Williams focus on quality.” It’s true that the Jack Daniels logo is as iconic as Guevara’s face plastered across student dorms worldwide, but Evan Williams retains a good chunk of the market due to what’s inside the bottle rather than how pretty the bottle is.
Tran smiled, “You wanna do a blind taste test? Jack Daniels versus Evan Williams?” There are days when I truly love my job. Naturally, I obliged. Tran set about discreetly filling the shot glasses behind the bar. I warned him, drinking whiskey is one of my longest standing habits, but as the glasses were served there was no way to tell the two apart – at least not using my eyes. Both shots went down and instantly I recognised the Evan Williams taste. It’s less wimpy, more upfront about its 43% strength – like a suckerpunch to the senses.
Having nailed the taste test, I asked what else he can do with Evan Williams for all those feeble souls who “aren’t into” drinking straight whiskey, Tran reported that Chopsticks’ best selling cocktail was the classic Whiskey Sour. He explained how versatile Evan Williams can be when used for a variety of longer drinks such as an Old Fashioned, a Mint Julep, a Godfather or a Manhattan.
Tran explained that there are other reasons for choosing Evan Williams, “Unfortunately in the Old Quarter there’s a big risk of fake alcohol on the market – especially Jack Daniels, but Evan Williams distribution is reliable, genuine and actually cheaper than the fake stuff on the streets.”
There is often whispers of fake booze flowing through the streets of Hanoi, last year Viet Nam News warned of the dangers in the run-up to Tet.
“In Vietnam, it is not always easy to differentiate between fake and genuine liquor, because fakes of famous brands are immensely profitable, and in widespread use despite the risk of toxic substances being used in place of ethanol.”