A craft distiller taps pure sugar cane for a southern rum renaissance

Clement Daigre is part of a growing number of small distillers setting up in Saigon to produce some of the finest spirits money can buy. Almost unrivaled access to quality, organic ingredients from local producers is a key attraction, as is a burgeoning market that Clement hopes will soon tire of beer and imported whiskeys.

Craft beer has been very big in Vietnam for a few years now, and so the market is full, and Diageo has done very well marketing Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal here, but it’s usually about who can buy the most expensive bottle. Soon people will move on, and that is why we’re here,” the distiller explains.

Clement launched his brand, Rhum Mia (sgn-liquorists.com), in Saigon last December. Made with pure sugar cane that he sources from the Mekong Delta, it has joined a select group of rums worldwide (just seven percent) that are made this way. As he explained to us on a tour of his micro distillery in Thao Dien, this is true to the process used to make rum in the French West Indies.

People are used to seeing dark rums made with molasses. Most of the famous brands, like Diplomatico from Spain and Captain Morgan’s made by the English in Jamaica are made that way. We don’t want to work with molasses though: it’s more expensive and accelerates the aging—it changes the flavor. So we chose to follow the process used in Martinique,” he says.

Dedication To Perfection

Clement has worked hard to perfect his recipe. He studied spirit making in his hometown of Cognac in France, where some of the world’s best brandy, gin and vodka is made. However, he says the equipment he learned with was quite different to his current machinery.

To make Rhum Mia, Clement uses a 200 liter distilling column imported from China that he affectionately calls ‘Lu Lu’ thanks to her unique temperament. With a rueful laugh, he tells us that it took around three months of “failing” with Lu Lu to get the exact rum that he wanted, but now he’s on his 80th batch.

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The final product has made some concessions to the local market. The most important is a lower alcohol content of 45 percent ABV, where most Caribbean Rhums are 50 to 55 percent. Clement also discards much more of the top “head” product than many distillers, which means that Rhum Mia should give you less of a hangover—in theory at least.

In a bottle of wine you have 1 percent of methanol—this is what gives you the hangover. Of course, with spirits you always have some toxicity, but I take out more. For each batch I am meant to remove 200ml of the head but I remove 600ml. I lose some flavor, but the product’s reputation in the local market is more important,” he explains.

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Clement says he is now producing around 9,000 bottles of Rhum Mia a year, and is scaling up growth slowly in line with the time it takes to mature the rhum (nine months) as well as to receive his bottles, corks and labels. Like the sugar cane, he sources all of the above from Vietnam, with the bottles cast in District 10 and the labels designed in Hanoi.

Made in Vietnam

“’Made in Vietnam’ is becoming more important to people, and it is very important to us. We invite local bartenders to come and see us make the product: we want to show that you don’t have to go to France or Scotland to see good spirits being made. You can do it here. Everything about Rhum Mia is Vietnamese: except me, of course!

Clement is hoping to share this message with the spirit-making world and is already in talks to export to Europe as well as to other parts of Asia, including a specialist agricole rhum stockist in Taiwan.  He also has ambitious expansion plans, the first step being the launch of a new ‘cacao and lime pepper’ Rhum Mia flavor in collaboration with Saigon-based chocolatier Marou, due in late August.

Ultimately, however, Clement is excited to follow his true spirit passion into vodka and gin, which he hopes to be producing by the end of the year. To make the vodka he is using organic palm sugar, which again he has sourced from a local producer.

Asian vodka is most often made with rice, however I didn’t want to do that. In Poland—the birthplace of vodka—they use cereals, while in Russia they use potatoes. Neither grows well here so we will use sugar. This is actually more efficient too as you don’t have to use yeast and fermentation is faster,” he explains.

At the end of our tour we sampled this golden brown sugar in a ‘Vietnamese Ti-Punch’ made with just Rhum Mia, the sugar and wedges of chanh dao. After the ingredients were mixed with just five turns of a stone pestle, we took a hesitant sip. However, rather than a sharp throat burn, we were greeted by a rich, delicious caramel flavor that gently coated our mouths.

If vodka and gin are indeed Clement ‘strue passion, we eagerly look forward to their launch. In the meantime, Rhum Mia in a Ti-Punch will do nicely.

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Images by Vy Lam