When Dead Beer Walks: A Dane in Vietnam Turns Strange Brew Into Craft Gin


Across Vietnam, bars and restaurants burst with energy, especially in Ho Chi Minh City (still known to locals as Saigon), where the food and beverage industry is the heart and soul of the country’s biggest city. But after two stifling COVID-19 lockdowns, a lot of beer was destined for the dumpster.

Right up until Thomas Bilgram, a quirky Dane, called bullshit on that and saved dozens of dying, barley-filled libations, eventually reincarnating them into Mashed Up Craft Gin. Bilgram, his 2-year-old beard more Castaway than a stranded Tom Hanks, plastered his bushy image all over the brand.

Exactly the way it was planned, right? “Absolutely not! You can put any expletive of your choice into the middle of that statement,” he says.

See, spirits were never part of the original plan. It was craft beer. Gin was just a flickering idea, the way some journos muse about writing novels.

Not quite Jesus making wine, but there’s something saintly about a smoother southside mojito …

“I like gin,” Bilgram says. “It’s one of the few alcohols I always have at home.” Then a chance meeting with a French expat led them to try something new: turning no-good beer into yummy goodness for about $35 a pop, each bottle made from recycled glass. And by using what seemed like worthless brews, they allow business owners to make some money on a commodity that has surpassed its six-month shelf life.

Tasting it though, I wasn’t sure what to expect. See, my beverage preference was always more Anchorman than James Bond.

But there’s a certain soul to Bilgram’s crafty concoction that makes me wonder whether I want something shaken or stirred. Perhaps it’s the production process. Instead of starting with a granular base infused with wheat, rye and barley, these double-distillers skip the usual fermentation step by distilling the beer, before jumping right into the juniper berries and Vietnamese kumquats.

The result? A slightly sweeter, citrus-accented drink that prompts Tanqueray haters like myself to think twice about this liquor’s family tree. Or finds gin virgins their favorite drink. A gateway gin, so to speak.

Bilgram’s gateway was his own family, supplying their drinks from an illegal still. Following in their footsteps, however, has been a convoluted journey, one in which education became his first post-college occupation. This son of an artist-painter father and occupational therapist mother initially wanted to be a chef, thanks to his discerning palate. Bilgram, now 55, changed his mind after reading about the stress of the job, how it can cut years from your life.

Eventually, his tasting talent took him far from rural Denmark, where he often felt a bit out of place, having realized he was gay when he was 10. Six time zones and 5,000 miles east of home, and countless countries, towns and cities later, he’s almost half a decade into his Vietnam brewmaster career, the last year of it salvaging beer bottles and hoppy products that are good for the local economy and environment alike. Not quite Jesus making wine, but there’s something saintly about a smoother southside mojito that helps save our oceans.

He’s also part of a craft gin trend taking off all around the world — from South Africa, where one entrepreneur makes it from elephant poop, to Japan, where beer is a key ingredient in the high-proof creation. Bilgram’s Brewstillery team even has ties to the Land of the Rising Sun. Renowned Japanese beverage wizard Kohei Yamamoto has ginned up more than a half-dozen cocktails for them.

Throw Australia and the U.K. into the mix too, because of Melbourne-born and Hastings-raised John Pemberton, owner of Heart of Darkness, one of Vietnam’s premier craft breweries. About 10,000 liters of his old stuff was mashed into some of the newest bundles of Bilgram’s happy water. “I’m really fussy about what we put our brand on, but I have a lot of faith in Thomas and it all came up trumps,” says Pemberton.

Pemberton pictures the craft gin scene in Vietnam slowly mimicking the beer evolution. First, foreigners bring it, and eventually the Vietnamese join the party. It’s a welcome opportunity for locals to rise economically following a COVID punch that knocked GDP growth from 7 percent in 2019 to a projected 2.8 percent this past year, according to the World Bank. In the short term, this could mean a comeback in 2021, boosting Bilgram’s chances of sharing his liquor across the country and continuing to take part in the burgeoning prosperity that lured him here.

His longer-term desire is that, in five years, Brewstillery is on the brain from New York to New Zealand, a goal about which he is cautiously optimistic. He’s been around long enough to know that life is much more eccentric than he is. After all, he met his husband of 30 years on a return trip to one of his homeland’s villages, the kind of place he once longed to escape. So don’t expect him to spout some hackneyed nostrums for success to explain an elixir-producing expedition that would make his Viking ancestors proud. He’s focused on today, on running a growing business and grooming the beard behind the operation. 

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