As a child with a curiosity that went beyond normal limits, I often poked my head into the kitchen at my grandparents’ home in southern Vietnam. The village where I grew up was called Tra Co, where several generations of my family have lived for almost a hundred years. By the time I came along, my grandparents had a long history with the area, and with the history came traditions and knowledge that I didn’t yet know at the time.
It wasn’t until I saw my grandfather making something in a large pot that contained a lot of rice that I began to notice the intricate and laborious process. The rice appeared to be boiling, or very hot, and beside him were large jars that the liquid would eventually funnel into. When I walked in and shyly asked him what he was doing, he gently let me know that it wasn’t for children and told me to go play outside instead. That only made the concoction more appealing to me, so I continued to watch from a distance. Later on, I saw him pouring out the contents at certain events—new baby celebrations, weddings, birthday parties and the like. Sometimes, he’d pour out his samples for no reason other than a simple family gathering.
Turns out, the special liquid that my grandfather was making is called “Vietnamese rice wine” or ruou. In fourteenth-century China, the first batches of these concoctions were made using sorghum. The discovery that these jars of rice wine made people tipsy traveled down to Vietnam where it caught on like fire amongst village farmers. The earliest versions of ruou, like their modern-day counterparts, were strong and bold, similar to vodka.
Several hundred years later, in the nineteenth century, the distilling process became more streamlined as more and more farmers got together to collaborate, and production could yield up to 600 liters per day. Even so, pig farming was still considered to be the farmers’ main source of income, and the wine was simply a way to reuse the surplus rice. Over time, it evolved into a cultural phenomenon that has lasted for centuries.
Rice wine became a staple for Vietnamese villagers, as it often kept their stomachs warm during long work days in the fields. Surprisingly, women played an important role in the production of these wines, as the slow distilling process allowed them to tend to other household tasks while the wine sat and waited.
Over time, the significance of rice wine grew as village families began to incorporate it into their rituals. For example, wedding celebrations typically involved the groom’s family offering a few jugs of rice wine to the bride’s family as dowry, and together, they’d drink it to honor the occasion. Furthermore, the wine also served as a tool to gather community for other celebrations in which people got together to drink, such as deaths and the New Year.
However, the French’s arrival to Vietnam in the second half of the eighteenth century changed the course of rice wine forever, as it started to become somewhat more commercialized. As time went by and Vietnam’s colonial past became more influenced by the French and Chinese, the country saw its production of rice wine increase, especially when a French entrepreneur named A.R. Fontaine set up shop making rice wine in the early twentieth century at a factory in Hanoi.
Despite Fontaine’s success, these early attempts at wide-scale commercialization proved unsuccessful. Thus, making rice wine is still very much a family affair, where recipes are passed down from one generation to another, relegated mainly to rural communities. Any governmental efforts to regulate the rice wine industry have since been unsuccessful.
Depending on the region, Vietnamese rice wine is offered in a few different varieties and goes by different names. The most common are ruou gao (northern-based wine) or ruou de (southern-based wine) and a special type called ruou thuoc, a medicinal wine that contains herbs, plants and a variety of animals (such as snakes, frogs and cobras) that infuse the rice wine inside large glass jars. Vietnamese people believed that these herbs, plants and animals provided cures for certain ailments such as stress, lumbago, rheumatism and male impotence.
The process of making ruou is simple but requires a lot of time and patience. Made with a combination of rice and yeast, it ferments in either clay pots or large earthenware containers for several days. Once the rice is ready, it is distilled through a meticulous cooking process, and the remaining rice is often given to farmers’ pigs as sustenance.
Vietnamese Rice Wine in the United States
About thirty minutes away from the city of Dallas, Texas, lies a small town called Kennedale where the magic of Vietnamese drinking culture lies. With a population of under 9,000 (as of 2019), it is where Suy Dinh and Tien Ngo, two long-time friends who met many years ago when they both immigrated to the United States, brought a piece of their Vietnamese culture. Before they became business partners, they both led different lives and careers—Suy was an electrical engineer while Tien was an architect—but their friendship never wavered.
It wasn’t until several years ago in a fit of nostalgia that they began experimenting with making ruou de when they couldn’t find it anywhere in their home state or in anywhere in the U.S., for that matter. The result is SuTi Craft Distillery, the only Vietnamese-owned distillery in America making this particular style of rice wine.
For now, SuTi offers two versions of their rice wine—the wild, bold Old Man and the smoother, eclectic Lion 45. Their whole process is much more modernized than the way my grandfather made it, with their temperature controls and large steel barrels and strict measurements, but the process is still lengthy and laborious.
Because Texas law does not allow distilled spirits to be shipped to customers around the world, you can only find SuTi rice wine at their Kennedale location, and it’s limited to two bottles per customer. While the average wine contains roughly 12% to 16% alcohol content, SuTi’s ruou de has an ABV of 40%. It’s a wine that’s full of history and nostalgia, made better by the duo’s aging process and quality control.
Vietnamese rice wine is, at its core, a homemade concoction meant to be shared. In New York’s Chinatown, there exist secret enclaves of people who exchange homemade rice wine and sell it amongst each other in nondescript plastic containers. Drinking Vietnamese rice wine comes with certain beliefs about its health benefits. These beliefs vary across Vietnamese and Chinese cultures, but generally, it’s thought to promote youth, prosperity and sexual desire.
Due to its unregulated status, Vietnamese rice wine has not become a mainstream product. One simply cannot go to a winery or the grocery store and grab a bottle off the shelf. It’s an intimate experience shared between family members and friends, as I did with my husband when we visited my brother’s family back in 2009.
Back then, my oldest brother Long lived in the same village where I’d left with my parents at the age of ten. He knew people in the village who made the rice wine, and one evening, he took us to visit some of these wine purveyors. It came as a shock when we were introduced to the varieties of ruou de that contained certain animals inside. What we saw were mainly snakes and lizards, but to our horror, one jar contained a monkey. It was certainly beyond what I could imagine as a child watching my grandfather handle these enormous jars of wine.
Long thankfully only offered us rice wine steeped in banana leaves. Drinking it felt like being hit by a tsunami and being saved at the same time. As we raised our tiny shot glasses, we clinked to the camaraderie, our community and the fact that after being gone for nearly ten years, I was finally there sharing something special with my family, something that had captured my interest so long ago.