Friday, 2 August 2013

Booze Tourism: Vietnam, man!

It has been quite some time since I had a booze tourism adventure to tell you about – I suppose the Distilgrimage would have classed as one, but I didn’t make that connection until just now… Nevertheless, this time I’ve got quite an adventure for you – such an adventure in fact, that it will have to be told in two parts. In April, the missus and I embarked on a trip to the South East Asian country of Vietnam in what we were calling Honeymoon Part 2. You can read about Honeymoon Part 1 here.

I always look forward to going away on holiday – for all the obvious reasons – but also because it means I can try lots of new different kinds of alcoholic beverage, hit the Duty Free, make some new acquisitions and all that good stuff. Deciding what to buy and thinking about buying it and then buying it are all fun things for the alcothusiast – probably exceeded only by the actual opening of it - and holidays are a time when I try to forget about cash flow realities, and just think, I am going to buy some interesting booze, and there is nothing you can do to stop me. Try it. Go on. Told you.

Beyond the Duty Free, I hadn’t really expected Vietnam to provide all that much in terms of booze excitement – Malaysia didn’t – but I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact the Duty Free turned out to be the least interesting part, so we may as well start there. There’s lots to tell you about, so let’s get gannin’.

It was hot and noisy and I was definitely sitting in my pants

I began thinking about possible targets a good couple of weeks before departure, so that I might be best prepared when the time came to make the most of the limited purchases a traveller can make. You’re pretty much allowed a litre of spirits, but in my case it’s two litres because I had Mrs Cake’s allowance to supplement my own.

Research began with a quick look in the Rough Guide to Vietnam, where I read about ruou can, which is rice distilled liquor and thought that might be an interesting option. Then I read about Mekong Whisky on the internet, but some reviews suggested it might make you ill. On top of that, it seemed that it was made in Thailand, was more like rum than whisky, and wasn’t even available any more in any case. I’ll put you out of your misery; none of this proved useful since I didn’t see either of those products anywhere.

Since my early forays into research proved so unsuccessful, I started thinking laterally. I figured Vietnam is near Japan, isn’t it? Yes, kind of, so wouldn’t it make sense that Duty Free in Vietnam would be a good place to pick up some Japanese single malts? Stands to reason.

With that in mind, I started some over-geeky, exhaustive research.

Japanese whisky is renowned for its quality. According to Jim Murray’s 2013 Whisky Bible, the atmospheric conditions in Japan are preferable to those in Scotland, to the degree that 42 summers in Japan are equivalent to 70 in Scotland in terms of whisky maturation. I’m not really sure how useful that is; how often do you hear of scotch being aged 70 years? I keep reading that whisky can be over-aged, so if anything is going to be over-aged, surely it’s going to be the 70 year old stuff… why not just say 7 years in Japan is equivalent to 12 in Scotland? Why, Jim?

I had tried Japanese whisky just once previously myself – Suntory Hibiki 17 – and I was duly impressed. I figured this was as good a chance as any to get my hands on a bottle of my own.

I found a few websites that were dedicated to Japanese whisky (linked on the right of this page…), and left them each comments, letting them know I was finding their information useful, and one of them actually replied… to tell me that they had been to Vietnam, and from what they could remember, there wasn’t any Japanese whisky in the Duty Free, but wished me luck anyway. Undeterred, I figured there would surely be something at Dubai airport – where we had to catch connecting flights in both directions, so I wasn’t worried. Just to bring some of the excitement of purchasing booze forward a little, I also decided I’d pick something up from the Duty Free at Manchester Airport for consumption during the holiday… something I suspect I’ll be doing more frequently from now on.

I figured a 35cl bottle would do, since I didn’t want to be discouraged from picking up and opening extra things along the way.

I’d like to note at this point that there were three or four Japanese single malts available in Manchester Airport’s Duty Free – Suntory Hibiki, Yamazaki and the like. I’d already decided though, that I wanted to spend less than £15 and get a single malt scotch. They had various expressions of Glenfiddich in 20cl form, as well as the blend Johnnie Walker Blue in 35cl format, but none fitted my idea of what I wanted to get for my money. I opted for a 35cl bottle of Glenfarclas 10 year old. I’d never had this one before. It’s a Speyside single malt, and is a pretty standard 40%. Next stop; Dubai.
Glenfarclas 10 
Dubai Airport is like the hub of the whole world. It’s like the cantina in Star Wars; people from all over the universe passing through on their way elsewhere… It’s great seeing such a diverse range of people peacefully coexisting and going about their business. Our schedule didn’t afford us much time to hang out there this time, but there was ample opportunity to scout out possible purchases for the return leg. As you might expect, there was a lot of scotch, but once again, there were no Japanese malts, so I would have to pin my hopes on Duty Free at Ho Chi Minh City, which would be our departure point on the return leg.

On arriving at our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, a good 15 hours or more (without sleep) after our 8pm departure from Manchester, I considered postponing the opening of the Glenfarclas, to build up a bit of anticipation, but then I thought… phuckit, I may as well try it now, on our balcony, in the searing evening heat, in me pants.

Here’s a picture of it out on the balcony. Unfortunately you can’t feel the heat, hear the noise, or see me sitting in my pants, but take it from me, it was hot and noisy and I was definitely sitting in my pants – photo evidence of that exists, though if you saw it, you might think there were no pants…

I was a bit disappointed to find that the bottle had a screwcap. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a single malt without a cork – even on a 35cl bottle. Mind you, this was only the first 35cl bottle I’d ever bought, and I think I’ve only ever owned one other, so it might be more common than I think. You can let me know in the comments if you like.

If there was ever any doubt over my geek credentials, let me just dispel the rumours by saying, yes, I did consider taking a Glencairn glass with me, so that I might be able to give my purchase a proper nosing and tasting. Common sense prevailed though, and I settled on using whatever type of glass was provided in each hotel room. As a result perhaps, my tasting notes are somewhat lacking. I’ve got nothing under ‘nose’, and under ‘palate’ all I have is ‘soft, light and pleasingly oily – a little bit of sherry in there, I think’.

That impression was gleaned progressively throughout tastings in HCMC, Hanoi, Halong Bay and finally, Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, where I polished it off while watching week old Premier League action on the TV. My moment of maximum appreciation (which is now going to be a ‘thing’ that will henceforth be abbreviated to MOMA – every bottle has one) came one night previously in our honeymoon suite in Hanoi. Sweet and delicate. Nice. I think I’ll buy this again some time. I wonder whether it benefited to some extent from the hot and humid climate.
at Halong Bay

So how did I get on with procuring some Japanese single malt? Well, I’ll tell you: I didn’t. On the whole trip – which took in several destinations and airports – I only saw one bottle of Japanese single malt whisky. It was in a fancy looking liquor store in Hanoi, and it didn’t have a price on it. I didn’t bother asking as there seemed to be a family in there having their evening meal. As I was flying back to HCMC the next day, and still had some Glenfarclas, I didn’t want two glass bottles in my bag, pushing the weight allowance and potentially causing breakage.

By this point I had decided that, should Duty Free in HCMC be disappointing, I’d save my allowance (like I’m a teenager in a film from the 80s) until returning to Dubai, at which point I’d get a very reasonably priced bottle of Wild Turkey 101 (50.5% ABV), like the first time I went to Canada. I didn’t realise back then that whiskies were produced in different expressions, so when Mrs Cake bought me a bottle of Wild Turkey a couple of years later, I couldn’t figure out why it was only 40%, and wondered whether I had imagined the stronger version.

Ultimately HCMC Airport did turn out to be disappointing, the only highlight being a free sample of Camus Ile de Re Cliffside Cellar Cognac, which I’d never heard of before, but saw throughout the airports of Vietnam. They gave me a little dribble, and I wished I’d just poured my own without asking. A full bottle was something like $110, but I could have had away with a full plastic cup, and just wandered the airport sipping it if I’d been a bit more daring. I don’t know if I could say a bottle would be worth as much as that, but I did enjoy that little dribble.

Unfortunately I didn’t even get chance to pop back in to Duty Free in Dubai, as our plane was boarding by the time we got to the gate. Nevermind. I’d spent a bit more money than expected, and figured I’d just save my budget and buy a bottle of Japanese single malt when I got home – I’d got over £40 in Amazon vouchers to use, and that seems like a good way to spend them. Once again, watch this space.

You can’t get drunk on three whiskies in 8 hours. You just can’t.

I have a bit of a problem when it comes to flying long distances – I’m one of those people who can’t sleep on a plane. I have to be able to lay flat on my side, and that just ain’t happening. There is no lying on your side in an airplane seat. I wonder why they don’t just do rows of bunks on aircraft instead of seats. That would work a treat. Sure, it would make the meals a little tricky, but I it would be totally worth the sacrifice.

No, no matter how tired I get, the most I can manage is a fitful 20 minutes here and there. It does make you feel a little better, but generally exacerbates the feeling that you are waking up in purgatory. In fact, on a flight back from Canada some time ago, someone told me there was a product I could buy in a pharmacy that would just put me out for the duration. Sounds great, right? Fall asleep, wake up at your destination. No. It just made me even more tired than I already was, but still unable to catch any zeds.

The only time I have been able to sleep for anything like a decent amount of time on a plane was on our return from Malaysia, where we were upgraded to Business Class. It was nice having all that room, and chairs that recline almost (but not near enough) to flat, but even this was annoying because they had three types of scotch in business class, of varying ages, that I would have liked to have tried if I’d been awake on the rare occasions they came round.

So, how was I going to deal with two consecutive flights of around 8 hours each, starting at 8 in the evening, this time? Well, the benefit of flying with airlines like Emirates is… that the alcohol is free. So I was just going to drink whisky the whole way – and I was looking forward to that.

It’s surprising though, how challenging this can be. First you have to wait for take off, after which it can take an age for the drinks trolley to reach your seat. Then you have no idea how long it’s going to be until next time. Maybe there will be a meal first, maybe not. You could just keep calling the stewardess over, but you don’t want to be a dick demanding drinks for 8 hours. They’re probably told to monitor alcohol intake. Then you can’t just lose yourself in your book, or in listening to music or watching films because you have to be on a constant state of alertness. If you’re not, they just slink past, assuming you’re not going to want anything. We were also in a kind of stewardess no-man’s land where it appeared they were about to start every run with our row, but then they’d just fuck off and start right at the back or right at the front and get to us last.

On the first flight (Manchester to Dubai), I managed a paltry three drinks. That’s piss poor. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had to get up and ask for one of them. I ask you.

The scotch in question was Johnnie Walker Red, which I always profess to not being very fond of. I have to say though, I thoroughly enjoyed it (at first). It was light and smooth, and I swear I could taste a bit of the Caol Ila that is famously in there, though obviously it didn’t come anywhere near the complexity of the Islay malt. It also lacked the sweetness. By my third though, I had started to feel I was immune to its flavour, and needed something else.

Mrs Cake asked me if I was getting drunk. I said you can’t get drunk on three whiskies in 8 hours. You just can’t.

Luckily on the second leg of the trip (Dubai to HCMC), I learned that they also had Dewar’s White Label, which I hadn’t had before, and was glad to be able to give it a try. It contains an element of the sweetness that the JW Red lacks. I managed about 5 of these, which I thought was fairly good going. At one point the steward actually gave me two at once (just in case). I had started to order ‘whisky and coke’ so that I could knock back the coke for refreshment before sipping the whisky at leisure for prolonged periods.

Except for the demoralising tiredness, tension over when I could next request a drink, and strain of maintaining the degree of alertness that facilitating consistent plane-drinking requires, it was a fairly enjoyable flight. They need to get those drinks out a bit quicker and more frequently, though.

I was hoping to have a nice booze buzz when I we arrived at HCMC, but I was still sober as a judge.

On the way back I was a little less in the mood for drinking, but there’s always some part of me that says, ‘you may as well’, so I decided to see what kind of brandy they had, and it was Hennessey VSOP, another I hadn’t tried previously. It was pretty good, and though I had only the one, I’m fairly sure I enjoyed it more than the Courvoisier VSOP that I had a bottle of some time ago. It’s smoother on the palate, and a bit less bitter on the finish.

That then, concludes part 1 of Vietnamese booze tourism. Join me next week for part two when I’ll be getting a bit more ensconced in things that are actually Vietnamese and talking about beer, vodka and unusual Vietnamese drinks – amongst other things.

1 comment:

  1. well, look what you can get on the Whisky Exchange these days: