The new face of luxury alcohol in Southeast Asia

Words by Alice Dall
Date 2024-01-19

Iwak Arumery is a new drinks brand from Bali which draws inspiration from arak jung, a herbal liqueur recipe that traces its lineage back centuries, diligently preserved by Brahmin priests in Bali. The founder, Ayu Puspa Eny, was born into an illustrious Brahmin family and destined for a life of contemplation and prayer. But she chose a different path, one of adventure and exploration, traversing the globe, collecting influences and techniques along the way.

Upon returning to Bali, she encountered a rich, intricate, yet underappreciated culinary tradition. Driven by her passion, she embarked on a mission, fusing traditional distillation methods — some known only to Brahmin priests — with locally harvested ingredients. The result? A special aged liqueur, a liquid ode to Bali’s heritage and Ayu Puspa Eny’s intrepid spirit.

Welcome to the tantalising mosaic that is Southeast Asia, a region where every nation dances to its own tune. This kaleidoscope of culture is the playgrounds for savvy brands, both local and global, vying to enchant the discerning drinks aficionado. Gone are the days when global appeal was the name of the game. The Southeast Asian spirits scene is undergoing a thrilling metamorphosis, shifting towards celebrating local heritage and traditions. As “locally made” takes centre stage, brands are weaving a tapestry that honours the people, the land, and the age-old customs that define Southeast Asian societies. If you’re the premium alcohol market in Southeast Asia, get ready to safeguard traditions, tantalise local palates and introduce global audiences to a regional revelation.

Luxury Shift

Once upon a time, luxury was all about exclusivity, draped in black and gold, where your status was determined by the weight of your wallet. It was a world you could buy your way into, but it lacked depth.

Thankfully luxury has undergone a radical transformation. It’s no longer about price tags but about values that resonate personally and culturally. This new era of luxury is vibrant, dynamic and incredibly thrilling. It challenges even the most established brands to become bold visionaries. Gucci is diving into e-sports, Hermès has cosied up to Apple, and Prada fine jewellery is embracing young prodigies as ambassadors, bridging the gap with the next generation of luxury aficionados.

In Southeast Asia, local brands are leading the charge, drawing inspiration from the changing face of luxury. They are crafting narratives that embrace culture, craftsmanship, and heritage with open arms. Local spirits brands are creating their unique stories, exporting their own spirits like arrack or transforming Western liquors into Southeast Asian sensations, from Vietnamese gin to Filipino rum. These regional gems ingeniously leverage climate, processes and ingredients to tell a distinctive local tale. As global interest in these homegrown treasures grows, these local revivals are reshaping how the world sees Southeast Asian super-premium alcohol. Locally made is no longer just a label — it’s a symbol of scarcity, authenticity, exclusivity, and substantial business potential.

Three lessons from luxury

1. Masterful creations

A new generation of distilleries is taking indigenous ingredients and processes to forge deeper connections with consumers. Take Singapore’s Tanglin Gin that’s using hyper-local botanicals to craft a one-of-a-kind gin that embodies the nation’s microclimate and flora. It’s a spirit that not only quenches your thirst but transports you to the heart of Singapore. And Chalong Bay? It’s revolutionising the rum scene with 100% natural Thai sugarcane, weaving the story of local craftsmanship. This approach creates a sense that the drink didn’t come from a factory or a corner shop, but rather from skilled artisans who fermented local crops using traditional techniques to craft a spirit with a uniquely local personality.

In a time when people are reconnecting with their roots, brands are striking gold by reviving ancient rituals and infusing them with contemporary flair. Like the non-alcoholic drink Melati that caters to the emerging moderation trend in the region. Loosely based on jamu, this hand-blended elixir is crafted from 26 botanicals native to Indonesia, known locally for their mood-enhancing and detoxifying properties. By reimagining beloved local ingredients to suit modern palates, brands can effortlessly instil familiarity and relatability.

So what? When it comes to ingredients, ditching the mundane for locally sourced treasures creates unique, culturally authentic stories and immersive experiences that feel as rare as a unicorn, resonating with both locals and global adventures alike.

2. Brand myth

Brand stories, often rooted in local folklore, offer a tantalising opportunity to give consumers a genuine taste of a destination’s history, rituals and people. These narratives can cultivate a deep sense of pride in the place of origin.

As with Iwak Arumery, the captivating saga of Don Papa’s premium aged rum emerges from the heart of the Philippines. It narrates the epic journey of a sugarcane farmer who courageously stood against the tide of Spanish rule. By weaving these spellbinding narratives, brands forge enduring connections between consumers and their cultural heritage, offering a taste of a place that exists nowhere else. Spirits giant Diageo recognised the value of this captivating narrative, acquiring it for a hefty sum.

So what? Local spirits enriched with evocative backstories deeply rooted in local provenance have the power to connect consumers to their cultural heritage while offering a unique taste of a place that transcends geographical boundaries.

3. Moments of experience

In the realm of super-premium alcohol, it’s not just about the liquid in the glass; it’s about the entire experience surrounding it. Southeast Asia boasts some of the world’s most exceptional bars, a fact not lost on Ceylon Arrack. Their signature elephant-shaped mugs at Mr Stork in Singapore serve as a delightful ode to wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka, all while providing an entertaining and Instagram-worthy experience. Brands seizing this opportunity are creating shareable moments that build social capital.

Established fashion houses are ahead of the curve when it comes to brand collaborations. These mutually beneficial relationships are becoming increasingly commonplace with established spirits brands like Macallan working with Bentley, or Hennessy and Frank Gehry.

While still in its infancy here, we do see exciting homegrown collaborations — I covet a refurbished Singapore Airlines drinks trolley. The national carrier partnered with homegrown furniture brand Commune to create a limited-edition drinks trolley made from upcycled galley carts, giving drinks o'clock a difference.

Across the Andaman Sea, Indian craft beer, Bira 91, and luxury clothing brand Nicobar, have teamed up for a capsule collection of printed tees. Or Mawsim Cambodian gin, which has been founded and developed alongside a Japanese company, giving the fledgling Cambodian brand access to expertise in exchange for the ability to tell a beautiful story about the botanicals.

While not strictly a Southeast Asian example, Penfolds — an Australian stalwart in the luxury wine category — has gained global acclaim. It has harnessed technology to forge deeper connections with their drinkers. Beyond the physical bottle, it offers digital collectibles and an exclusive virtual vineyard tour, offering a glimpse into the cellar. Penfolds’ embrace of the digital realm reminds us that modern customers want to acquire not just physical goods but also priceless experiences and knowledge.

So what? Luxury has never revolved solely around the product; it’s about the entire ecosystem surrounding these meticulously crafted products. It’s about the stories, the experiences and the emotions they evoke.

The bottom line

The traditional map of luxury is no longer just about the product; it’s about spinning captivating tales and orchestrating unforgettable cultural experiences. And Southeast Asia’s alcohol industry is blazing a trail. It’s unlocking new frontiers and dazzling discerning consumers far and wide.

To avoid being left behind brands need to step up their luxury game — unveil untold stories, master their craft like never before, and create experiences that reconnect people with their heritage.

In this era of localised luxury, it’s not just the product; it’s the whole narrative that matters. Here’s to the bold new world of luxury in Southeast Asia where every sip is a story worth savouring. Cheers!

First published in WARC.