Song Cai: Taking Vietnamese gin to the world

Daniel Nguyen’s Song Cai distillery might be only a couple of years old but it has already bagged top honours at international awards. Importantly, it not only stands for the essence of Vietnam but is also making a lasting impact on the local community.

Clear spirits have been surging in popularity across the world in recent years. Even as in our own country, dozens of homegrown gin brands have been popping up, the scene is no different in other countries either, especially those that are relative newcomers to the gin industry. For instance, Vietnam. Now, it’s not a name that one would usually associate with gin but a new brand is making waves in the world of spirits – Song Cai.

Daniel nguyen
Daniel Nguyen’s involvement with the local populace is what prompted him to come up with the Song Cai distillery.

Started in 2018 by American-Vietnamese distiller Daniel Nguyen, Song Cai distillery, has already made headlines by bagging honours at the Gin Masters 2020 and the prestigious Spirit International Prestige Awards, quite the achievement for a newcomer. But what’s even more intriguing is the story behind the brand.

Vietnam landscape
The highlands in the northwest of the country is where the seeds of the Song Cai distillery were first sown.

Daniel Nguyen was born and raised in California, USA. He first arrived in Vietnam to work on a sustainable development project for agricultural supply chains in the Mekong River Basin, part of a Oxfam America, Wetlands and Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment initiative. As he lived among the locals, moving to the northwest of the country next, Nguyen became involved in local agriculture. Along with improving the cultivation of endemic crops, he also wanted to empower the local farming community.

Gin botanicals
The wealth of local flora inspires the flavour notes of the Song Cai gins. Most of the botanicals are foraged by local farmers from Vietnam’s highlands.

But the journey was by no means easy. Not only did Nguyen have to convince the cultivators to adopt new farming practices but he also had to instil soft skills such as maintaining proper records of sales and calculating tax too. It took him nearly four years to realise his vision, a rather herculean task, given that his vision included the entire community and required their active collaboration.

Gin testing process
The testing process to arrive at a winning recipe is rigorous and took Nguyen and his team months to complete.

He understood the importance of not just encouraging heirloom crop production in a sustainable way but that the unique favours of the Vietnamese highlands had a lot to offer to the world. And thus was born Song Cai, which means ‘mother river’ in Vietnamese. At the heart of the Song Cai gins lie local botanicals such as jungle pepper, black cardamom, green turmeric, heirloom pomelo, local cinnamon leaf and bark, indigenous woods, white liquorice root and the sun dried pod of an ancient citrus relative, among others. All of these are meticulously tested in varying combinations by Nguyen and his team to finally come up with the winning recipe.

Song cai gins
Both Song Cai’s dry gin and floral gin have already bagged top honours at prestigious international awards.

It was the perfect business to start, with local botanicals used as the core ingredients in the gin, and the local community involved every step of the way, from cultivation to distillation. Even the brand’s visual identity was created by a local artist based on Vietnam’s rich folk art forms. As the company proclaims on its website, “Our botanicals grow in a land of steep mountains and remote valleys. We partner with farming families here, for whom foraging remains and has always been a way of life, their knowledge passed carefully one generation to the next. Our partners have taught us how to find what’s hidden, and how to live in harmony with this land. Together, we have built Sông Cái on the four pillars of environmental ethics, economic transparency, skills development and cultural preservation. The craft of Sông Cái grows from these.”

Song Cai is indeed a truly Vietnamese brand, with the country’s indigenous produce, local communities, folk art, all represented in a holistic and wholesome way. That it has ticked the boxes when it comes to exceptional taste as well, is a testament to its team’s expertise, as vindicated by the various prestigious awards it has already received.

All images courtesy of Song Cai distillery

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