The last 12 months have seen a craft beer boom in Thailand, not only in the form of topnotch imported bottles, but also in the growth of a genuine small-scale craft brewing scene
. But while Bangkok’s underground ales are still technically illegal, the law isn’t so hostile towards local spirit-makers. Unlike beer, the country has a long history of homemade white spirits production, especially in rural areas, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the Thailand Liquor Act gave small producers and households the right to legally produce “fermented or distilled alcohol.” However, this only applies to white spirits (dark rum is still illegal) and labels aren’t allowed to specifically say vodka or rum (only “white spirits”). Nevertheless, Thailand’s small-batch spirits movement is starting to diversify and, more importantly, impress.
Maa Jai Dum
The story: You might know the name if you’ve spent any time in Chiang Mai. Founded in 2007 by former aromatic candle producer Vishnu Bhokietikul, Maa Jai Dum leads the new wave of white spirit producers in Thailand. The original Maa Jai Dum,
also known as “flower spirit,” is made from distilled sugar extracted from coconut flowers. The second line is called Maa Jai Dum Lamka and is produced from potatoes just like vodka. They’ve also just expanded with Maa Jai Dum Bananas, made from distilled bananas. May-Rai Dok Mai, meanwhile, is similar to the original Maa Jai Dum, using sugar extracted from coconut flower and longan flower, but is fermented and not distilled.
Where to find it in Bangkok:
The products are not available in Bangkok but you can order online via www.maajaidumonsales.com
with a B100 shipping fee.
Ma na Manee Piti Choojai
The Story: Aside from Ma Jai Dum, Chiang Mai has welcomed another rice wine brand, Mana Manee Piti Choojai, by governmental-officer-turned-alcohol-maker Teerawut Kaewfong. Choojai is a rice wine, while spin-offs Manee and Piti are made with the addition of jasmine and roselle for the former, and tea and tea leaves, for the latter.
Where to find it in Bangkok: Bar Choojai by Goldies Bar, Phahon Yothin Rd., 02-615- 7445, 084-670-1088
Chalong Bay Rum
The story: French distiller Thibault Spithakis first came up with the idea of making locally-branded rum using traditional French rum distillation methods back in January 2011. Made from 100-percent sugarcane produced by 10 farmers in Phuket, Chalong Bay Rum finally launched in October 2012. The rum’s eye-catching design and refined taste has won it several awards, including a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirit Competition 2015 in April.
Where to find it in Bangkok:
Priced from B650-750, the bottle are available at Tops Supermarket (CentralWorld and Central Chidlom branches), Eat Thai at Central Embassy
or through www.vivinmaison.com
. You can also find cocktails made from Chalong Bay Rum at Rocket x Siwilai (4/F, Central Embassy, 1031 Phloen Chit Rd., 02-160-5836. BTS Phloen Chit).
Koh Samui Rum
The story: This brand’s history is similar to Chalong Bay’s in that it was founded over a decade ago by a French couple before getting new ownership, a new name and a new distillery in 2013. Formerly known as Magic Alambic Rum, Koh Samui Rum is made from pure sugarcane grown in Thailand, which is distilled then refined for a minimum of one year in a stainless steel tank for a better taste. Aside from the original spirit, there are four other flavors: lime, orange, pineapple and coconut. You can also pair it with a specially-made syrup containing lime, sugarcane, vanilla and cinnamon.
Where to find it in Bangkok:
The bottles are currently not available in Bangkok, but you can have them delivered through www.rum-distillery.com
. Prices are B380 for 330ml and B680 for 700ml, minimum oder of six bottles.
Lamai Thai Rum
The story: Founded in 2012 by Taiwanese-American Alex Chou and his Thai partners Kaustav Bagchi and Chris Sabdasen, Lamai is a rum brand based in Lampun province in the North of Thailand. You can expect extra attention to detail: not only do they use 100-percent sugarcane, but all of it is sourced from a farm in the province, while the rum comes in a classy ceramic bottle made in Lampang’s famous ceramic village. Lamai premium rum is made using a double-distilled method, which makes for a smoother drink.
Where to find it in Bangkok: Lamai retails for B550 available at Villa Market and King Power. You can open a bottle (330ml only) at Junker & Bar (454 Suan Phlu Soi 1, 085-100-3608) for B900. The bar also uses the brand’s Lamoon rum in cocktails, but this variation is not commercially available.
Iron Balls from A.R. Sutton Gin Distillery
The story: You may have noticed the huge copper machine inside Ashley Sutton’s latest bar. No, it’s not just a design quirk in line with The Iron Fairies or Maggie Choo’s. Since April, it’s been used to produce craft gin from local ingredients. Sutton’s experiments so far have made use of juniper berries, as well as lemongrass, passion fruit and sweet coconut oil for a somewhat tropical touch.
The story: Fully Thai-owned, Bar Angel is the brainchild of Poompat Chinpongpanich, who spent 13 years working as a bartender in the US. In accordance with Thai law, the brand’s production centers on vodka made from corn, and rum made from sugarcane. About his vodka, Poompat says: “After distillation, we use a special machine to re-arrange the molecules of our product, which gives the same results as if the vodka had been fermented for another six months.”
Where to find it in Bangkok: Bottles are not yet available at stores but you can find it used at bars in Bangkok like Ocean Urban Lounge (7 Sukhumvit Soi 33. 02-261-2800) and Junker & Bar (454 Suan Phlu Soi 1. 085-100-3608).
The story: Niikki Spirit is the new venture from Nikolaus Prachensky, the man behind Thailand-based distillery 1772, which specializes in producing tropical fruit spirits exclusively for export. Prachensky found that his business brought him into contact with local producers with great potential but little outlet for expansion. The brand’s mission is to promote high-quality, locally-made spirits; the first bottle available is rice vodka, from Chiang Mai, while rum and gin will be launched soon.
Where to find it in Bangkok:
Bottles are not currently available in retail stores but you can find the rice vodka at Quince
(Sukhumvit Soi 45, 02-662-4478. BTS Phrom Phong) and Soulfood Mahanakorn
(56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55, 085-904-2691. BTS Thonglor).
Craft Beer Update
The story: With its name meaning “ghost whisper” in Thai, this new craft beer brand continues its creepy concept with oldschool Thai horror cartoons for labels. Production started in late 2014, before the brand properly launched earlier this year with Haunting Charming pale ale, followed by Serious Ghost and Wife IPA, Sweet Horror Night wheat beer and, the latest, Suicide Sweet Heart Imperial IPA.
Where to find it in Bangkok: They are distributed only at Junker & Bar (454 Suan Phlu Soi 1, 085-100-3608).
Jo+ Beer Home Brew
Tonkla “Jo” Niyomtrusa moved from Bangkok to Chiang Khan over five years ago to open the Soi Song bar and restaurant. During the tourist low season, he contented himself with experimenting with homebrew beer for personal consumption. After studying the art at Chit Beer in Pak Kret, Nonthaburi, and a little trial and error, Jo has left Soi Song behind to open Jo+ Beer Home Brew a few blocks away. Here, he serves his own brews including wheat beer, IPA, porter and amber beer—there are two taps available so the four keep rotating from month to month. The wheat and IPA are also available in bottle form under the names Wheat 90’s Hitz (containing Northern herb called ma-kwean) and Smell Like IPA.
Where to find it in Bangkok: Get it at Sky Bar (130 Praditmanutham Rd., 089-518-6996). The owner tells us he’s just started sending some to Cinema Wine House (61 Samsen Rd., 096-465.6526), too.
Alex Chou, co-founder of Lamai Thai Rum
Why did you start making rum?
Actually, it started with my two cousins, Kaustav Bagchi and Chris Sabdasen, making rum at home illegally. I’ve been working as an executive at one of Thailand's top rice processors and exporters, trying to promote local artisanal food and beverage production. I saw the potential of pushing locally-produced Thai spirits. So we started ramping up investment and applied for a license, finally becoming legal in 2014 in time to launch properly.
What’s the legal situation like in Thailand?
Our products are legal under a "village distillery license" for Lampun, under which our products must be labelled “white spirits,” not rum, vodka or gin. We all want the law changed, so we can have better products and possibly cheaper beers and spirits made by local producers. And I’d love to make local whiskies—I’m trained and certified by the UK International Brewing and Distilling Institute.
What’s next for you?
Chris and I, along with some other industry friends, recently started Bespoke Distiller, another craft distillery that will specialize in made-to-order spirits. On one hand, we plan to make handcrafted niche products for premium bars and restaurants; on the other, we hope to set up production to satisfy the huge brown spirits market within ASEAN+3.
Ashley Sutton, owner and gin maker at A.R. Sutton Gin Distillery
Why are you making gin?
Because I wanted to get back on my fucking boat. I wanted to do a business that didn’t rely on the unstable economy of the nightlife business in Bangkok. I wanted to go back to manufacturing. And I wanted to make use of the good local ingredients here.
How did you get started?
I like machines. I saw a niche area. You can go a lot of directions with gin; you can use local spices. I did a lot of research on the best distillery. I used a company in Germany that makes the best equipment in the world. It showed up in parts and I set it up. The German guys said, “You set it up, we don’t need to come over. You know all you need to know.”
What kind of flavors are you doing?
I’m only doing a juniper, ginger and lemongrass one. It’s called Iron Balls. I’m still tweaking it a bit. A bit more ginger, a bit more lemongrass, but to be legally a gin, the juniper needs to dominate. It’s totally organic. You can taste that. We only do 200 bottles a week. You’re getting quality. I make it myself from start to finish. No shortcuts or chemicals to boost alcohol quicker or that sort of stuff. I cut the pineapples and bash the lemongrass myself.
What’s the legal situation in Thailand?
It’s a nightmare. They said one thing to start then changed their mind. They’ve rejected me on the bottle, and they’ve rejected me on the percentage of alcohol. That’s cost me two million baht. It’s going to be legal one day but it takes three to four months to get an answer to anything. It’s the biggest nightmare of my whole fucking life. It’s the biggest investment I’ve ever done. So right now it’s just for export, but you can come by and taste it if you want.