The way Roddy Battajon explains it, rum distilling seems almost inevitable in Vietnam. After all, the main ingredient, the sugarcane, is grown in abundance and impeccable quality here. Yet before Rhum Belami, the only drink that came from the sugarcanes in Vietnam was the ubiquitous sugarcane juice.
When Roddy came to Vietnam three years ago to work in the hospitality industry (he managed a few successful restaurants like An Cafe, Cocotte, and Bep Me In) the mixologist in him was fascinated by the fruits, the spices, and the flowers available in Vietnam. The potentials for good drinks here was endless he thought. And so, after opening the successful Cocotte in D1, Roddy decided that his 12 year career in hospitality had come to an end and he set about making his first rum.
Born in Rennes, France, Roddy credits his West Indies origin in Martinique, an island in roughly the same latitudes as Southern Vietnam, for introducing him to his craft. “My grandma taught me how to make rum, ” the traditional way, as he elaborates, which means using bona fide sugarcane, instead of molasses as they do in Europe, and burning the coat of the oak barrel to create an emulsion of flavours. Only this technique and the oak barrels are imported from the Caribbean though. The rest is native to Vietnam as Roddy humbly explains. “I’m just a Western guy with Western recipes. The heart and the produces are from Vietnam.”
Just by taking in a whiff of Legacy, the second line of Belami rum, you notice the aromas of passion fruit, lychee and pineapple. In a sip, there are four notes. The bitterness of sugarcane alcohol with wood infusions, spices of familiar kinds like cinnamon, baobab, and star anise, the lasting sweetness of the fruits, and finally the twist of Phu Quoc black and red peppers. No additional sugar or preservatives needed.
“There is a process, and you must respect the process,” insists Roddy, by which he means the meticulous infusing of flavours into the rum. “You cannot extract cinnamon like you do with baobab.” speaking like a true artisan.
As with how whisky has transformed Japan (Japanese salarymen see it as a staple drink, and the two brands Suntory and Nikka produce some of the best in the world), Roddy thinks rum, once foreign, can do the same Vietnam. He even sees Belami on nhau tables as an addition to or even replacement for rice wine. “It is my dream to show to both foreigners and locals what Vietnamese sugarcanes can do,” declares Roddy. Granted it may be an ambitious vision, but the brand has already exported to Taiwan and China and is set to expand its market to France, Germany, and Switzerland.
Rhum Belami only became an official brand last year. Now their barrels appear in handpicked locations that tell stories of their own. For instance, The Lighthouse, an after hours rooftop bar that spurns the flashy and attracts the sophisticated foreigners and locals, has two barrels of Rhum Belami. Another is the Anan restaurant, which offers two dessert recipes that include Rhum Belami.
In the meantime, a few other brands of Vietnamese rum have appeared. Rhum Mia from Saigon Liquorists also uses sugarcanes from Mekong Delta, but ages the rum in Vietnamese ceramic vats instead of oak barrels. L’arrange is another rum contender that packs a punch with it’s hints of tropical fruits. Perhaps, together with Belami, they will herald in an era of Vietnam as a place of premium rum production, a development quite logical for this equatorial beverage.