Denmark has already bestowed upon this world of ours a string of wonders. Danish pastries, a mathematician turned Princess, Lars Ulrich’s drumming prowess and disturbingly enough, Prince Philip are to name but a few of the gifts we’ve seen from Denmark’s shores, but now Thomas Bilgram will join those ranks as the creator of Vietnam’s first ever gin. There are few words that accurately depict my excitement and it’s poor form for a writer to translate internal squeals of joy into gibberish on a page, but Bilgram’s gin is surely the salvation from summer we’ve all been seeking.
“I moved out here two years ago from Copenhagen and decided to make a craft beer brewery – that was the reason for moving out here with a Vietnamese friend.” You might know Thomas Bilgram from one of Hanoi’s top craft beer haunts, FURBREW, where he’s dedicated the last two years of his life to playing the role of the alcohol alchemist. “We wanted to do lots of different beers, good beers and talking beers – in the sense that there’s something to talk about within the beer – and so far we’ve done more than 60 beers, we want to be the people who make the good, the interesting and the fascinating beers.”
After two years of going from strength to strength, Bilgram’s team has earned a nationwide reputation for quality and Bilgram himself is regarded as one of the pioneers of Vietnam’s burgeoning craft beer scene. “We’ve had good feedback, we’re in the top five microbreweries in Vietnam and certainly we have the most variations of beer in Hanoi, rivalled only by Heart of Darkness in Saigon.”
Bilgram’s affinity for Vietnam’s craft beer brewers shines through as we drink. Whereas in many industries, people work in direct competition with each other and are only too happy to savage one another like wild animals, craft beer brewers – especially in Vietnam – have shown a remarkable level of camaraderie. It’s a friendship borne of a shared passion and a common dream of better beer. “We fear the day that people start making bad beer, because that’s the day that people will stop drinking craft beer, so we may be competitors, but we can still slap each other on the back and say, that’s a good beer you’ve made.”
For the last six months though, Bilgram has been courting notions of branching out beyond beer. Hanoi is a bountiful city and more than most of the finest earthly pleasures can be found on the streets here, but there are those rare things that just don’t make it through. “I needed a better gin for myself,” Bilgram grins, “I’ve been drinking craft alcohol in Europe and I come from a place where people have traditional family recipes for schnapps – I like my gin, I really do!”
So how did a craft beer brewer set about creating what is set to be Vietnam’s first ever gin? “At some point I had some beer that had gone off and I wanted to do something with it.” After some experimentation with distilling the off beer had left Bilgram with a working recipe, he contacted a micro-distiller.
“It’s all made from distilled beer so it has that sweetness of the beer and although there’s a trend within craft gin where people go very botanical on it – I wanted to keep the sweetness of the beer and the bitterness of the hops.” Like a modern day Jesus, but with a better beard and arguably better aims, Bilgram has turned 4500 litres of nigh-on undrinkable beer into 500 litres of remarkable gin.
Bilgram’s gin, affectionately named Geneva, is currently available only at Bilgram’s bars – FURBREW and The 100 Beer Garden, but he’s eager to get the gin flowing through Hanoi’s veins, with a gin based event taking place later next month. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what the bartenders can do with this, I’m interested to see how much Vietnam they can put in here, because with this batch there’s not a lot of Vietnam – the kumquat peel is all – so Vietnam needs to be added as the context in the mixing of a drink.”
“The next batch will be slightly different, even though we’re using the same recipe, the gin will be different because of the styles of beer that are thrown in together – it’s all made from beer we can’t sell, it’s a sustainable thing to do,” and with words that melt my heart, Bilgram laughed “not wasting alcohol is a good thing!”
It’s hard to believe that Bilgram’s gin is made from the dregs and the leftovers, because it glides through you with the grace of a ballet dancer, smooth as Sinatra and yet upon reaching its destination there is a mule’s kick to it that reminds you that you’re drinking 43% gin. “You know that there’s alcohol in there when you get it down, but you don’t feel it in your mouth.” Having cut the strength down from 68% – the natural point of distillation – Bilgram hopes to retain the flavours of his beers, “We cannot sell it at 68%, but I’d be tempted to release a few full-strength bottles later, we’ll see.”
With 1000 bottles ready for battle against the livers and kidneys of Vietnam’s capital city, Bilgram is ready to release Geneva today with plans to expand his production in the coming weeks. “We’ll be making four times as much with our next batch, I thought 1000 bottles would be enough, but there’s been a lot of interest.”
It’s an exciting time for Bilgram who’s having an exciting week. For the first time, his beer will be leaving Vietnam and breaking through to the other side of Bangkok, where he also plans to export Geneva gin once he’s completed his next batch. “The distiller I’m working with has a small, mobile distiller and what I’d really like to do is to visit some festivals with a mobile gin distiller.”
Craft beer lovers need not fret, Bilgram has not abandoned the path that has led him to greatness, “The gin will always be something on the side, but it was the build-up of waste beer that allowed me to do it now, it will always be the beer that has the focus.” That’s not to say that he’s going to rest on his laurels, “I think craft alcohol in Vietnam is in for a boom – we may be the first gin in Vietnam, but we certainly will not be the last.”