It’s pure firewater, and by most standards, it’s cheap and has enough whiskey power to start a car engine. It’s the traditional tipple of choice at celebrations, weddings and even funerals.
Markus Son, CEO and director of productions of Son Tinh Premium Liquor, has elevated this country moonshine to an international level with his award winning blended liqueurs. He shares his knowledge and gives us an insider’s look at the whole process:
There are six steps to making liquor out of corn, barley and rye, are these steps exactly the same as those used for making rice liquor?
Markus: The steps are the same for all cereal/starch based liquors. However, a very traditional way in Vietnam is to use a fungi mix to simultaneously do saccarisation (turn starch into sugar) and fermentation. That is the so-called country moonshine (ruou de, ruou quoc lui). Japanese also do that for their sake. Although this yields fragrant and complex liquor the fermentation is not clear, for example the liquor has a lot of impurities due to the actions of wild yeasts/bacteria.
Your liquors come in a range of tastes and flavours. Where does the flavouring element enter the process?
Once I have the clear base liquor I use it to mix it with the fruit extracts or infuse herbs.
The process of extracting the juice and flavour from fruits is the traditional Swiss process of making fruit syrup. Fruits are soaked in sugar to initiate a pectolytic process, for example the juice oozes out of the fruits. It also entails a partial fermentation that increases the fragrance and complexity of the juice (as opposed to pressing or using enzymes as in industrially produced fruit juice). The extract is then blended with the clear base liquor. We never use any artificial flavouring. As for our herbal blends, we simply infuse the herbal mix in strong base liquor, stir and wait three years.
What's the difference between the likes of ruou de, ruou chuoi, nep moi and Hanoi vodka? How about sake and soju?
Ruou de is country moonshine, ruou chuoi is naturally flavoured country moonshine, vodka Hanoi is industrial ethanol, and nep moi is artificially flavoured industrial ethanol. In Korea and Japan there exists the same distinction.
On a side note, do you know that ruou de/quoc lui is illegal in Vietnam? It’s because they contain too many impurities and it’s impossible to certify with Vietnam's super-strict hygene laws (no joke).
From Grain to Glass
Getting the rough rice grain from paddy to bartender begins with the milling of the grain. The grain is ground into a coarse meal, breaking down the protective husk and bran layers covering the kernels, therefore freeing the starch and resulting in grain starch.
Once the grain starch has been released, it is mashed and converted to grain sugar. In order to achieve this, the grain meal is mixed with ‘pure’ water, which has been distilled numerously to remove impurities. The resulting mixture is cooked until a mash is produced, at which point barley malt, a barley that has been allowed to sprout, is added to complete this stage in the process and grain sugar is produced.
With the raw materials out of the way, the fermenting step requires the grain sugar to be converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the addition of yeast. With the addition of yeast to the grain sugar, the yeast multiplies producing carbon dioxide which bubbles away and a mixture of alcohol, grain particles and congener (flavour). This pivotal process results in grain alcohol, a crude liquid ready for distilling.
Now the alcohol, grain particles, water and congeners are heated, and as alcohol boils before water, the alcohol will vaporise first, leaving the water, grain particles and some of the congeners in the boiling vessel. The vaporised alcohol is then cooled and condensed forming clear drops of alcohol (distilled spirit). This will become an immature liquid vaguely distinguishable as beverage material, but still in need of tweaking and ageing before it gets anywhere near your glass.
When it comes to liquor and children, bringing them up right makes all the difference. In the case of rice wine, sealing the distilled spirits in charred oak barrels encourages them to gradually develop a distinctive taste, aroma and colour over the years. This aging period is happily a much quicker process than with humans and can last from two to as many as twelve years.
Finally we come to the last stage in getting the grain from paddy to bottle, and by far the most subtle phase in the process. To achieve the required taste and quality, spirits of different ages and those that are made from different grains are combined and balanced to produce rice liquor, a sometimes viscous spirit guaranteed to light up your taste buds with an accompanying kick that will certainly remind you you’re alive.