Markus Madeja – a Swiss resident of Hoi An – has made it his life’s work to preserve the tradition of what you may know as Vietnamese rice wine, even as the tanks of modernity roll right up to the gates. Between an apparent decline in production, the growing popularity of vodka and the fact that we’ve all been calling it by the wrong name, Madeja’s a busy man.
“First off, before we begin – because this really gets under the skin of my balls, there is no such thing as rice wine,” straight off the bat, Madeja’s passion shines through as he becomes violently animated in the defence of his craft. “Everyone repeats it over and over, but that doesn’t make it true – it’s wrong – it’s distilled, so it’s a spirit, it’s a rice spirit. Wine is fermented, spirits are distilled.”
Madeja is the founder of Son Tinh – the only branded producer of rượu gạo (rice spirit) in Vietnam. What’s more, after 25 years in Vietnam, he’s been around to witness the changing times. “There are hundreds of millions of litres of rice spirits being produced across the country every year, but consumption is definitely not developing and the main reason is that there is no production. Vietnam does not develop its own brands, which is what I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life trying to do.”
So where the hell is this ocean of rice spirit coming from then? I hear you ask. Well dear reader, even the most hermetic of expats here would know that the rice spirits are usually produced in the countryside. Across dusty Podunk towns and rural villages, the production of rice spirits rests with the farmers – most of those residing in Hanoi or Saigon are not originally from these bustling metropolises, but – like me – are hillbillies movin’ out to the big city. Despite being an iconic national drink, rice spirits are not so easy to track down in Hanoi, whereas vodka – is available in most bars, Bia Hois and shops. “The visibility is different – especially in the cities, but Vietnam is big and I believe the rice spirits are far more popular across the countryside, meanwhile vodka is more for special occasions – especially foreign brands.”
The production of vodka in Vietnam is subsidised through tax breaks granted to nationalised industry, as such it enables millions of lower-middle income Vietnamese to experience beverages beyond Bia Hoi, but it’s one that Madeja vehemently disagrees with from a perspective of taste. “I’m appalled by this trend, vodka isn’t even a foodstuff – it’s an industrial chemical – any good spirit has chemical components which our brains process as flavour, whereas vodka is just ethanol and water.”
He went on to explain that nationally produced vodka is taxed as a raw material due to the distinct lack of ingredients that go into it, “The standards here are high, Vietnamese regulations are much stricter than European ones and so it’s harder to develop a spirit with more flavour components because all of your ingredients must adhere to these strict standards, vodka on the other hand – you can make vodka out of wood through distillation.”
Evidently, the affordability of vodka over Son Tinh products lends itself better to Vietnamese markets, where – yes, spending power is on the rise – but it isn’t distributed evenly and we still live in a middle-income country. “There’s a lot of profit in vodka, which is then pumped into advertising and branding, it’s not artisanal, there’s no craft to it – it’s simply a chemical.” This is Madeja’s greatest challenge; crafting a brand of rice spirits that can compete on an international level and as such making it fashionable to drink in Vietnam once more.
“Picking the correct rice together with the yeast and a proper fermentation are the main factors for the flavour, for example, the skin around the rice is what really adds that extra fragrance and will determine the flavour, the skin around the rice is what’s used for distillation, it’s not the same kind that you eat, but the costs are distorting the market – if you make rice spirits via a traditional method, you simply cannot compete with international companies, it cannot be produced that cheaply.” And so preserving those traditions has become the task that Madeja and his team busy themselves with, ensuring that the authenticity and quality of Son Tinh sets itself apart from the Vietnamese vodkas and his efforts have not gone unnoticed. Besides the multitude of Highway 4 restaurants that have sprung up across the country, Son Tinh boasts an impressive collection of medals and accolades from international spirit contests across America, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hong Kong and the UK, but even with all this under his belt, Madeja is not content to rest on his laurels.
“Of course, we’re experimenting with new products, I can’t say too much now, but I want to go back to the roots – working more closely with the farmers, investing in high quality raw materials and looking again at exporting.” It’s worth remembering that Son Tinh is so far, the only brand of Vietnamese rice spirits available internationally, “I mean the exporting was always just to show the Vietnamese people that their products can compete on an international stage, the stigma of locally produced beverages is one that we’re constantly working against.”