Little did I know that when I raided liquor cabinets as a youngster that it would set off a life-long love of gin.
Back in those days, most home “bars” I raided were stocked with either a bottle of Beefeater or Gordon’s – if you were lucky, both.
And it seemed there was always a mini bottle you’d come across hidden behind a curtain on a window sill in Aunty’s bedroom.
Fast forward a few decades and I’ve just dried out from the third annual Gin Festival Saigon held at the Caravelle Saigon on Nov.14.
How fortunate I am to live in this great city awash with so much quality gin at this moment in time.
Reliving those memories, I sipped and sampled my way through the mid-afternoon and into the evening at this year’s fest, except there was much more on offer than just a bottle of Gordon’s or Beefeater (with all due-respect) and cans of mass-produced tonic at booths dispersed across the three showrooms.
In fact, 18 well-known gin brands (up from 14 last year) – including the likes of usual suspects Four Pillars, Bombay Sapphire, Roku, The Botanist and Hendrick’s – helped over 700 soon-to-be-wobbly-legged-punters (50/50 Vietnamese-foreign) get soaked to the eyeballs in gin this year.
Fever Tree tonic was the main sponsor of the event.
With so much gin flowing, there were bound to be many highlights.
“Seeing so many gin brands come out in force and support this growing category of spirit was one highlight,” says organiser Kristian Harmston of Alchemy Asia. “Also seeing our bartending community in action and mixing it up, along with being one of the only countries in the world that can host an event for gin lovers in what has been a strange and difficult year, was another.”
But it wasn’t just the big guns that ensured raging hangovers were cast far and wide across the city the following morning (despite the noticeable responsible drinking of alcohol at the event).
It was lesser-known brands like local newcomer to the scene from Hanoi, Brewstillery, with their quirky coming together of a bearded Danish craft beer brewer, a French forager of botanicals, and a Vietnamese distiller launching their innovative gin, Mashed Up.
Their gin is distilled from upcycled beer, namely craft varieties (although they unveiled a one-off collectors’ batch with Heineken to raptures at their extravagant launch party just days later) and is produced and packaged in a creative and sustainable way with a modern twist.
Its attractive bottle is produced with recycled beer bottle glass and is blown and molded by hand.
But the darling of the event turned out to be the other locally-distilled gin, Lady Trieu, who took out the People’s Choice Award for Best Gin with its Mekong Dry and Dalat Flower Bomb gins.
Like its namesake, this uniquely Vietnamese gin brand is bound to become its own legendary folk hero over time and will demand the attention of any discerning gin aficionado as it sweeps across the country in the months to come.
Meanwhile, Kiddy Kawaii (aka Nguyễn Thị Khánh Vân) representing Rabbit Hole took out the People’s Choice Award for Best Cocktail with her Tea Ku Gami tipple concocted with Roku gin, Fever Tree ginger ale, genmaicha with a yuzu and fig puree.
For Kiddy, who’s been in the bar industry since 2015 and has worked in cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs already, the award is recognition of the quality of her cocktails despite her lack of success in previous competitions.
“I didn’t seem to have a knack for contests, so I gave up on them,” she says. “It’s my first bar award and came unexpectedly. It just encourages me to always develop better skills and improve my knowledge so I can transmit it to my customers and across the bar industry in Vietnam.”
The festival also offered four masterclasses with each 35 slot session booking out within 15 minutes of the doors to the event being flung open.
According to Harmston, there are already plans afoot to hold the event again towards the end of next year with more brands and more gin variations.
Until then, I’ll be doing my best to raid the liquor cabinets of friends who have some of the drops I didn’t get round to trying this year.
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Photos provided by Gin Festival Saigon. Follow Gin Festival Saigon at @ginfestivalsaigon
Video by The Bureau Asia. Follow The Bureau Asia on Instagram at @thebureauasia