Song Cai Dry Gin Review
A gin with Vietnamese flair (and no snakes in the bottle).
Review: Song Cai Dry Gin
Made in: Hanoi Vietnam by Song Cai Distillery
Method: Copper Still
42% alcohol/84 proof
Botanicals (14): juniper, Mắc Mật berries, Mắc Mật leaves, Mắc Khén jungle peppers, peppercorn, pomelo zest, liquorice, Đia Siêu wood, ginger, turmeric, coriander, cassia - leaf and bark
Style: Modern Gin
Now nobody will be surprised to know that I love traveling in Vietnam. The people, the culture, and especially the flavors found both in their local foods and in the homemade spirits which are so popular that you find them in almost every house in Vietnam. So when I ran across Song Cai Gin I was rather excited. I’d heard plenty of good things about it and was delighted to come across a bottle locally.
The story of Song Cai gin is tied closely to the hill tribes (notably the H’mong and Dao Do) in the mountainous north of Vietnam - where there is a natural abundance of herbs, spices and botanicals, that were being replaced more and more by non-native crops which create a bigger return for local farmers. Enter Daniel Nguyen, a biochemist from California, who went to Vietnam originally to help develop sustainable agricultural practices in the Mekong Delta.
Once that project was complete he moved to the mountains of the northwest portion of the country, only to find that local flora was being farmed out, as the spices and botanicals there were just not profitable enough to be good cash crops. He decided to do something about that and to encourage farmers to stay and grow local crops by creating a product that required plenty of local botanicals - so he turned to gin.
Daniel, like many good distillers, was a scientist first, and he spent years doing research, tasting and experimenting with the local farmers, to find a recipe which highlighted local botanicals and would create a sustainable industry for the local people. After four years and 40 odd recipes blending the local ingredients with Macedonean juniper he came up with a recipe which was to be the flagship gin of the Song Cai Distillery.
Song Cai means Mother River, and literally refers to the Red River in Vietnam, the gin is a tribute to the farmers and communities who thrive along the river. But can you put the flavors of Vietnam into a bottle? Based upon the medals and awards that have been heaped on Song Cai Gin it seems some people think so.
Let’s find out.
Now the first thing I have to note about this Vietnamese gin, is that unlike the homemade spirits I tried in Vietnam, there were neither roots, leaves, or snakes (Yes, snakes!) inside the bottle. But that’s not something I’ll hold against the gin.
The initial sip of this hits with a touch of heat, but one that certainly reminds me of the best homemade spirits I tasted in Vietnam. It’s quite nice to sip on the rocks - good balance, interesting flavor and a nice body.
The nose is big on juniper with strong hints of angelica, cinnamon and faint notes of ginger and pink peppercorn. .
There is a strong juniper character here along with strong notes of sharp spice heavy on the pepper and ginger which dominate the forward flavors of the gin. It segues into cinnamon and a layer of nice not overly tart grapefruit notes which slowly fade into hints of anise and a pleasant sweet finish with traces of something woodsy, honey, and a trace of longan
Mouthfeel has a fairly average viscosity and a dryness that makes you think very much of a high quality sake, with a nice long lingering flavor profile and a bit of heat.
The aim for this gin was to be a fairly traditional dry gin, but with a Vietnamese twist, which veers it away enough from a traditional London dry flavor profile that trying to figure out just how it would mix was a bit of a challenge. In the end, it did fairly well.
Now the martini is to my mind the single most important gin cocktail by which you can judge gin. With the exception of neat, or on the rocks there is no other cocktail where the gin shines through and allows you to taste the botanicals infused into the gin. I tend to lean towards dry martinis in about an 6:1 (or 8:1) ratio with vermouth so I can get the most out of the flavors of the gin - and that is how I decided to taste this one.
Shaken with Astobiza vermouth I found Song Cai is an excellent gin for a martini with a bit of spice and rather distinctive flavors. It’s not traditional, but it is excellent - and maybe just traditional enough that those who love the London dry flavor profile will still get a kick out of it.
Next on my list is of course the other classic - the gin and tonic, which I think is a far more accessible gin cocktail for most people.
I tried this with a couple of different tonics (Fever Tree Indian, Q, and Betty Buzz) hoping to find a perfect mix. Here was, in my opinion, Song Cai’s weakness. It just didn’t shine in a gin and tonic. Not that it wasn’t decent, it just didn’t stand up overly well with any of those readily available tonics and made the notes of the gin seem quite discordant. After looking at their website and their suggested gin and tonic pour, I think I understand why.
The distillers suggest you make it with a citrus forward tonic and add a pinch of salt. The salt helped, as did a squeeze of lime, but I can’t say I’d consider this a good choice for a gin and tonic unless you have access to some tonics not readily available in the United States.
In a more mixed cocktail Song Cai found some big hits, and some limitations. I loved it in a gin-gin mule, it worked beautifully in a collins and gimlet, but somehow I feel it would be flat in cocktails like a bee’s knees, bijou, or aviation. I think stronger flavors - a negroni, or a corpse reviver wouldn’t find much benefit from choosing this gin either.
This is a nice gin, but perhaps one for someone with a slightly more adventurous palate. It is excellent neat or on the rocks, makes for a very good martini, but those are its strongest suits. With a good yuzu forward tonic, or maybe even the lemon Fever Tree (which I don’t use as I don’t much care for it), it should be better in a gin and tonic, but with most standard off the shelf tonics in the US I’d give it a miss at this point for that use.
I think this would be a wow kind of gin for the right bartender to be creative with. The flavors are much more southeast Asia than any other gin I’ve tried to this point. With a touch of ice it certainly evokes the flavors of Vietnam and I have to admit I really enjoyed it - and will continue to do so in martinis. That said, it is only a slight cut above as a mixing gin.
spice: 4 of 5
Herbal: 0 of 5
Juniper: 4 of 5
Floral: 0 of 5
Citrus; 3 of 5
Heat: 3 of 5
Rating (Sipping): 89 - An excellent sipping gin with nice balance and good layers of flavor. It retains just enough heat to make it feel like a local gin as opposed to an overly mass produced spirit.
Rating (Mixing): 79 - This gin hits the mark in a number of cocktails but misses the mark in quite a few too. It’s not quite as flexible as the Japanese gins that it will naturally be compared to (as we have so few asia made gins in the US market). If it had stood up better in a gin and tonic I would have rated this higher.
Overall rating: 84: Very good gin with excellent martini credentials, but not a standout anywhere else except neat or on the rocks.
What you need to know about my reviews: All my reviews are my honest opinions based upon my own personal tasting. I am NOT a paid reviewer, and no compensation was given, or expected. I may from time to time choose to do a second review and amend my opinion of a product, should I feel like it and find my review criteria has evolved, or that I’ve found it different at a later date. That said, as I’m unlikely to repurchase anything I thought was less than very good to excellent, it would be by chance or at the request of a distiller who thought I rated them very unfairly - BUT even then, whatever you get will always be my honest opinion