Kevin Ly, the 34-year-old founding partner of Golden Wat cognac, has a good life now, by all accounts. He’s a successful entrepreneur who earned a graduate business degree, then launched a multinational liquor brand in 2020. He’s also a family man, living in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, with his college-sweetheart wife and their two young kids.

But as a child in Portland’s Riverton Park, a low-rent public housing community, Ly grew up hungry. He was the eldest of four siblings living in a three-room apartment with their young, single mother, who had recently immigrated from Cambodia.

“We had a kitchen with absolutely nothing in the cabinets but some ketchup packages,” Ly said. “And we didn’t even have it as bad as some families I know.”

Ly’s Golden Wat business partners – childhood friend Hobi Nguyen, and his cousins, Jamie and Peter Teng – grew up in Riverton Park as well, reliant on subsidized food handouts. “It was rough,” recalled Nguyen, 35, who now lives in Houston to manage Golden Wat’s Texas sales. “In our Portland neighborhood, we had a community center where on Saturdays they’d give out free food. Those were good days.”

“When we saw the white cargo vans coming with food to the community center, it was like Christmas,” Ly said, noting that the majority of his food as a kid came from school and government assistance programs. “People take food for granted. For us, it was like a gift.”

The trauma of childhood food insecurity prompted Ly and his partners to donate the $5,000 profit from Golden Wat’s Maine sales in 2021 – their first full year of business – to Full Plates, Full Potential, a Brunswick-based group that fights child hunger in Maine. The donation comes at a critical time. Child food insecurity has grown significantly in Maine since the start of the pandemic. Full Plates, Full Potential Executive Director Justin Strasburger said one in five Maine children currently faces food insecurity.


Moreover, waivers that expanded access to the federal Summer Meals Food Program are set to expire at the end of the school year, which could potentially leave many Maine kids without adequate food this summer. Full Plates has a grant program to fund summer meals for Maine kids, and Strasburger said Golden Wat’s contribution to this program will “help us bridge the divide.”

Charity was part of the business plan

Golden Wat is sold right now in just four other states: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas and California. Ly said his fledgling company’s decision to donate so fully and so soon has already been second-guessed by outside observers.

“The first three years in business for a company are make-or-break, so we’ve heard people say it doesn’t make sense for us to do this,” Ly said. “But we know first-hand the type of help people really need. And we want to make sure we give back as often and as much as possible.”

“We feel it was right to give back to the community that raised us and made us who we are,” agreed Nguyen.

From the company’s inception two years ago, Ly and his partners had planned to give its first-year Maine profits back to a Maine charity, though they hadn’t yet picked one. They named this initiative Make Maine Golden, which, along with community support from the group’s friends and family, helped Golden Wat Cognac fly off Maine shelves from the first day.


“We got six cases of it in, and within an hour it sold out,” said Michael Meir, sales and whiskey specialist at Portland’s RSVP Discount Beverage, the first store anywhere to sell Golden Wat in mid-2020. “It was in, it was out. We got 10 more cases that day; they sold out the next morning. Another 10 cases sold out a few days later. It was one of the biggest launches we’ve ever seen.”

Golden Wat sold nearly 2,000 bottles of its three-year-aged VS Cognac in Maine last year. The liquor is produced and bottled in the Cognac region of France, which legally allows Golden Wat to market it as Cognac, and not brandy.

Hungry, but driven

“Kevin has always wanted to help the whole world, and if he can’t do that, he’s going to help his community,” said Carol Larkin. She and her husband, Peter Gartland, had mentored Ly since he was 11, along with four other boys from immigrant families in Riverton Park. Larkin said she and Gartland regularly drove the boys back and forth to their rural home in Casco on weekends.

“They were all used to living on top of one another. They’d sleep in Casco with food under their pillows. We just filled the fridge, and they knew they could take whatever they wanted home with them,” Larkin said.

Ly distinguished himself from the other mentees, Larkin said. “He always had the brightest smile and quickest wit. He was smart, and he was driven,” she said, recalling how the group would go out for pizza, and Ly would be the only one doing homework while they ate in the restaurant.


His drive fueled the launch of Golden Wat. But the decision to go into the Cognac business was inspired by Ly’s life experiences within the Southeast Asian community.

“Cognac is the drink of choice for many Asians, particularly Southeast Asians,” Ly said, speculating that its French pedigree might boost its allure, particularly in countries with historical French connections like Cambodia and Vietnam. “There are bottles of Hennessy and Remy Martin at every celebration. Even baby showers. Cognac is everywhere within the community.”

“It’s a young spirit,” Michael Meir of RSVP Discount Beverage said of Golden Wat Cognac. “So I expected it to be rougher when I first tasted it. But it drank very smooth. Easy drinking.” Photo by Hobi Nguyen

A Cognac for the Asian community

Ly said he wanted to make a Cognac that would represent the Asian community and its culture. He and his partners landed on the name Golden Wat, because a wat is a Buddhist temple.

“It goes beyond being just a religious temple, though,” Ly said. “To Asians, a wat is a community center. So now our bottle is something that sparks conversation, a way to spread awareness of our culture.”

The name was the easy part. Ly still needed to produce the Cognac in France, and distribute it for sale in the United States. “I quickly realized what a big endeavor I’d taken on. It was an international business, essentially,” he said.


Ly connected with a family in France’s Cognac region that was steeped in the industry, producing, bottling and distributing the grape-based liquor. He worked with them over the course of several trips to France to develop Golden Wat’s proprietary blend, which uses the Ugni Blanc grape varietal.

Ly said they landed on a blend that was less sweet and smoother than some others. “Our decision was based more on sensation than taste. Based on the sensations you get when you drink it, like how it felt in the mouth, or going down in the chest.”

Kevin Ly poses for a photo in the area where subsidized meal programs would hand out food when he was growing up in Riverton Park. His own experience with hunger as a child drove his company’s donation to a Maine organization that works to end childhood hunger. “Our donation to Full Plates isn’t just a one-year thing for us,” Ly said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Plans to partner with Full Plates

“It’s a young spirit,” Meir said of Golden Wat’s VS, which is aged a year longer in French oak barrels than the minimum two year-requirement for Cognacs graded VS. “So I expected it to be rougher when I first tasted it. But it drank very smooth. Easy drinking.”

Meir said Golden Wat VS also benefits from its $34.99 “reasonable price point,” a few bucks cheaper than VS-grade Cognac from major labels.

A couple of celebrity Cognac launches in the last few years, including the Branson label from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, and d’Usse, backed by music mogul Jay-Z, may have sparked new interest in the category. But the Cognac market has been dominated for years by mammoth producers like Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier. Room for smaller producers to grow has been scarce.

Ly and his partners remain undaunted. Two months from now, Ly said Golden Wat will be ready to release its VSOP-grade Cognac, which has been aged five years. The partners also plan to expand their sales to all 50 states. And if the company sees continued success, Maine will continue to reap rewards.

“Our donation to Full Plates isn’t just a one-year thing for us,” Ly said. “We see ourselves continuing to partner with them for the good they do in Maine. I’d encourage other entrepreneurs to contribute to (Full Plates). You don’t know what a meal can do for a child.”

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