In the jungle-swathed south of Koh Samui, under the shade of coconut trees, six attentive Thai farmers feed long, lean poles of sugarcane through an industrial-sized extractor, transforming the tropical grass into a fleshy, juicy pulp. The sun is at its fiercest, but they work industriously, moving coils of the crushed husks over to a recycling pile that they’ll later use to fertilise their nearby farms.
At Magic Alambic, the air is thick with the saccharine scent of molasses and the whistle and crunch of machinery. The rum distillery is just one of a growing number of local small-batch producers tapping into Asia’s growing demand for artisanal brews and liquors – from craft beer to spice-infused sahto (rice wine) and even probiotic drinks.
I’m with Magic Alambic’s laid-back distiller and owner Ludovic Trantoul, who is observing the production line closely. Hovering over the pure juice, he signals with a nod of approval that it’s time for the next stage. Well-built, with piercing blue eyes, he exudes a likeable French laissez faire or “live and let live” approach to life. Ludovic is relatively new to the distilling business, but with a former career in printing and a lifelong love of the spirit, he says learning the process wasn’t that difficult.
Next, the liquid will be funnelled into tubs and infused with yeast to kick-start fermentation, bubbling away for several days until its sugar has been converted to alcohol. It’s then transferred into the distillery’s two French-made copper alambics, or stills, which boil the mixture. This process brings its alcohol content up to 68 per cent and imbues it with subtle spicy notes and fruity flavours. Thereafter, it’s allowed to rest for at least eight months. During this period, the alcohol’s strength is brought down to 40 per cent thanks to filtration and the addition of distilled water. Ludovic shows me a batch that’s about to hit the bottle: it’s as clear as a polished diamond.
“This is what small batch means,” the slightly reticent Frenchman tells me. “We have no desire to get too big. We love our quiet island life. We produce about 8,000 bottles a year and don’t export, so you’re only going to find our rum on Koh Samui.”
Tucked away in hilly Bang Kao, Magic Alambic was originally founded in 2003, with a 200m2 production area set alongside ponds and coconut tree-laced gardens. Ludovic and his girlfriend Alexandra Lavaud stumbled across the business on a holiday in 2013. A year later, they took over and set out to add their own mark on it – importing new copper alambics and establishing an adjoining rum bar and restaurant.
After our tour of the distillery, we sit down to a heaving charcuterie board, and a sample of the rum. I expect it to be potent, yet it’s surprisingly subtle and fragrant. When stirred through with a delightful homemade syrup of palm sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and lime, it produces a delightfully smooth finish.
When Ludovic and Alexandra arrived on Samui, there were just two craft distillers in Thailand. While most associate Thai rum with the popular, cheap SangSom, the couple’s version soon caught the attention of hospitality insiders, who began stocking it in resorts and hotels.
“We wanted to bring the rum-making tradition back to its Asian origins. Most people assume sugarcane is native to the Caribbean, but it was actually introduced by traders from the Philippines,” Ludovic says.
On the Frenchman’s recommendation, I head north to the heady hubbub of the island’s most developed pocket, Chaweng. It’s a chaotic mix of tuk-tuks, 7-Elevens, swish resorts, shopping malls and thatched roof beach bungalows. Here, I find Bees Knees, the island’s first craft brewery, which opened in 2012. Its founder is Jim Smith, a Brit by way of Singapore whose aim is to convert local drinkers to his smooth, chocolatey porters and fruity wheat beers.
In the last decade, a thirst for more nuanced independent craft beers has intensified in Thailand, despite strict brewing laws that are designed to protect big brands Chang and Singha. Still, the draconian legislation and red tape didn’t deter the erudite Jim, who’s full of ironic quips and seems to revel in the country’s wonderful idiosyncrasies. “Malaysia was out, and Singapore was too expensive. My wife and I had visited Samui 15 times and fell in love with its beauty, its beaches, the quality of life.”
Those idyllic surroundings also offered a vital ingredient for Jim’s brewing. “When we found this location, we drilled a well and took the water back for analysis in Singapore,” he tells me as I gulp down a pilsner-style Summer Bee lager. “We found it was totally clean, free of pollution and bacteria and excellent for making beer.”
Jim says his beers are well-received by locals, and even the craft beer crowd from Bangkok. “Our beers are more traditional. There are no American IPA styles here; on Samui, you want a thirst quencher. We also want to get locals used to the flavours slowly.”
Across the island, on its eastern coast, the laughably lovely Four Seasons Koh Samui is a sprawling resort with 70 sublime pool villas that cascade down jungle slopes overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. When I arrive to visit its Coco Rum Bar – a rum and craft cocktail beach bar – I’m plied with Thai basil-scented towels and lemongrass teas. Coco Rum has drawn praise around the region for its 100-strong collection of fine rums, which is among Asia’s biggest.
When I sit down with achingly cool head bartender Samart “Mhee” Khethong for a tasting flight of four delicately flavoured Caribbean rums paired with South American bites, he tells me that the resort will soon be adding 170 more rums to its collection and building a bespoke “rum vault” into the rocks behind the bar.
The resort is embracing local flavours and native ingredients
Most excitingly, the resort is beginning to place more emphasis on embracing local flavours and native ingredients. Later, I watch Mhee hand out samples of a negroni he’s aging in an oak barrel behind the bar, infused with locally grown thyme and small Thai mandarins. Lemongrass stalks grown on site are used as straws. The next day, sous chef Sumalee Khunpet leads me through her fragrant herb garden, where she points out peanut sprouts and fern leaves that will later go into a salad with light soy sauce and garlic.
Back in Chaweng, in a quiet soi off the pulsating, neon-soaked main tourist drag, the last thing I expect to find is a secret bar whose drinks could rival some of Asia’s best. Blue Note Bar is an off-the-beaten-path gem, its walls lined with mason jars and test tubes of homemade botanicals, elixirs, bitters, tonics and sprays. There are also dehydrators, sous-vide vacuum seals, spray bottles of absinthe and smoking guns. Like many great cocktail joints, there is no menu – simply tell “Thairish” bartender Shawn Hill (his dad is from Dublin; his mum from Samui) the flavours you enjoy and he’ll whip something up.
I receive a smoked margarita, made with mezcal instead of tequila. Shawn smokes the drink with apple wood before lining the rim of the glass with chilli salt – a nod to the Thai way of snacking on fruit. It’s one of the best drinks I’ve had, and it costs just THB180.
Shawn cut his teeth working at Bangkok’s legendary (but now defunct) Q Bar, but “it was all about showmanship bartending – flaring and stuff”. He also had a stint working as a chef. “To understand cocktails, you need to understand food,” he shares.
“The Bangkok bar scene was thriving, so I thought, why can’t we have something of our own on Samui? Back when I first returned, I couldn’t even get orange bitters here. Yet we have all these fresh herbs and produce. So I decided to make my own bitters, and it just grew from there.”
Shawn has even started producing his own booze – a potent yet altogether “safer” version of lao khao, the knock-your-socks-off Thai rice whiskey made from distilled sahtoh. It’s packed with cinnamon and cloves and “any other weird Thai herb” he can find, before being left to marinate for three months. He’s also tinkering with his own tonic, made with lemongrass, a touch of gin, lavender, berries and fruit peel.
“When I moved to Bangkok, I loved the city life. But every time I returned to Samui, it became harder to go back to the urban jungle,” he says. “I always dreamt of opening my own place, and I thought, with all of the island’s wonderful ingredients and the salty sea air, why not give it a go?”
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This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine