Feb 13, 2020
By Veronica Inveen
True, it’s the thought that counts, but save your money if you’re bringing us back elephant pants from Thailand, a conical hat from Vietnam, or any sort of Buddha figure (just…no). And, yeah, snacks are always a welcome gift—especially when they are Taiwanese pineapple cakes—but will probably get squished in your luggage or, in the case of one personal tragedy, melt into your clothing and make your whole week’s wardrobe smell like creamy-rice candies. So where do we go from here? The logical place for the stressed out: the bar.
Local spirits are the perfect souvenir. Their terroir can reveal–and flood you with warm memories later of–the nuances of their location, they feel expensive (and often are), and when it comes to small-batch craft labels, you probably won’t be able to find them outside of their home cities. So, we’ve turned to the pros. Here, five bartenders around the region tell us which local bottle best sums up their hometowns.
Recommended by Attapon De-Silva, Head Bartender of Q&A Bar
Phraya Rum may be a product of Sangsom Distillery, one of Thailand’s oldest and largest, but it has all the characteristics and attitude of a small-batch craft spirit. “They’ve developed their techniques to specifically suit the tropical climate of Thailand, maturing the rum in oak casks.” says Attapon De-Silva, Bangkok local and head bartender at Q&A Bar. “Not to mention the packaging is opulent and very gift-worthy.” The rum takes on a smooth, vanilla-y flavor with underlying fruitiness of fresh pineapple and citrus. “It tastes like Thai spirit,” says De-Silva, who suggests drinking Phraya on its own with a big cube of ice, or in a rum Old Fashioned with dark chocolate.
Perfume Trees Gin
Recommended by Jay Khan, Founder of COA
There are many different versions of Hong Kong depending on who you are and why you’re in the city. A visitor might define it by its sweeping neon towers and nocturnal nightlife, but born and bred locals, like Jay Khan of COA, find that seasonal scents and scenes of ordinary local life better capture their hometown. Playing on this sentiment, the founders of Perfume Trees Gin combined 13 nostalgia-evoking botanicals to tell a story of Hong Kong. “The scent of white champaca flower, which is one of Perfume Gin’s more dominant botanicals, lingers in the streets of Hong Kong during the summertime. That taste in the gin immediately brings me back to my childhood running around the city,” says Khan, who suggests using the spirit in a Gimlet. Even Perfume Tree’s bottle was designed by a local calligrapher, who fashioned a tree with all of the gin’s botanicals using Traditional Chinese character as leaves.
Sông Cái Gin
Recommended by Duc Tien, Founder of Ryu
If you’ve never been to the verdant, cloud-swallowed mountains of Vietnam’s north, you definitely should. But in the meantime, sip Sông Cái, Vietnam’s first legal gin and the liquid version of the region’s plentiful highlands. Duc Tien, owner and manager at Ryu in Saigon says, “Sông Cái is a game-changing product for the Asian gin market because most of its ingredients can only be found in Vietnam.” At Ryu, Tien mixes Song Cai with ginger, tea, white pepper, and yuzu. “But the spirit makes a pretty awesome addition to a Martini, as well.”
Cazulo Premium Feni
Recommended by Pankaj Balachandran, Co-Founder of Barback Collective and Hoots’ in Delhi
Beyond its kaleidoscopic cultures and traditions, ancient architecture, and storied history, one impressionable aspect of Southern India is its balmy climes and abundance of native tropical foods. Feni, a 400-year-old spirit from Goa that is triple-distilled from the fermented juice of cashew apples or coconut palm toddy, channels the essence of the southern Indian region. “Feni is a seriously underrated spirit,” says Pankaj Balachandran, co-founder of Barback Collective and Hoots’ bar in Delhi. “It can be funky like mezcal or refreshing and bright. My personal favorite is from Cazulo, a family-run distillery in Cuncolim, South Goa.” Drink it the traditional way by pairing the feni with lemonade or soda.
Rojak Gin, Compendium
Recommended by Vijay Mudaliar, Founder of Native
Singapore has been a driving force in Southeast Asia’s burgeoning cocktail scene thanks in large part to its young, ambitious population that seems to be obsessed with all things edible (we say that admiringly, of course). Compendium, one of the city’s craft distilleries, offers a great example of this penchant for food and drink with their Rojak Gin. Vijay Mudaliar, owner of Native and an expert on Singaporean flavors and ingredients, says “The gin is different from most because it’s made from a honey base. Mead is distilled in the primary distillation before being made into a gin with botanicals like ginger flowers, lemon and juniper, which recreates the taste and aroma of a plate of rojak.” At Native, Mudaliar serves Rojak Gin with wild starfruits, kefir whey and tamarind leaves. “The gin resonates with most of our local customers because the taste feels like a recollection of local hawker culture.”