Expert “mixologist” Paul Mathews has an enviable life. He moves from country to country with his wife, who is a diplomat, sampling the world’s diverse alcoholic heritages – from the tequilas of Mexico to the baijius of China – while working with local watering holes to come up with new beverages. He has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry – originally as a side gig while studying and working in conservation biology – and owns the Hide Bar in London. Nearly a year after moving to Cambodia, where he has been consulting for local venues and writing for international trade magazines, Will Jackson asked him what he thought of Phnom Penh’s bar scene.
What were your first impressions of the local bar scene?
First impressions of Phnom Penh were that it’s considerably smaller than Beijing where we were previously – here everyone knows everyone! I was also amazed by the price of wine and spirits here. Taxes are a fraction of those in other countries regionally, and there’s a great selection of things available.
How do you see the local bar scene evolving?
Phnom Penh is an amazing place for those with an entrepreneurial spirit. There are very few barriers to starting a business as a foreigner here, whether legislative or financial, so it’s great to see so many small owner-operator places with influences from around the world. I haven’t been here a year yet, but it seems that places are becoming more professional. It’s a very dynamic market, so venues are having to compete at a higher standard to draw in the customers. I hope there will be more places opening that cater to the wider market too; many of the bars seem to be expat-run and very expat-focused, but I think there’s the potential to appeal to a multinational Khmer and foreign audience in the same way that the coffee shop market has exploded in popularity.
What’s your favourite drink in Phnom Penh?
Fresh sugar cane crushed with limes in a roadside press, a measure or two of decent rum and some chunks of ice is pretty hard to beat – a roadside Daiquiri or Ti Punch!
What’s your favourite bar here?
I like Seibur from a bartender’s perspective – a great tiny space with one bartender. I’d love to do a shift behind the bar there. Other than that, I think that technically the best-made drinks I’ve seen are at Deco – though it’s a restaurant rather than bar. In addition, Chinese House for the fantastic building, Metro Hassakan and Bar Sito for people watching, Doors for its creative drinks and garnishes, the FCC for sundowners and the Elephant Bar for transporting oneself to another time and place! They all offer something different. I would never want to just drink in one place. I like variety!
What’s distinctive about Phnom Penh’s bar scene?
I love Cambodia’s freshness and seasonality. For example the mangos at the moment are amazing, with such huge variety. If you were to put a fresh mango cocktail on a list in London, the taste would be flat, made with fruit that is imported hard and artificially ripened. Here there are dozens of varieties of mango to choose from, so you can almost pair the variety with the style of rum, creating a huge variety of drinks with differing degrees of sweetness, acidity, bitterness or vegetal flavours. I made a drink with a homemade purple dragon fruit and kaffir lime leaf syrup last year, but the week after coming up with it, the dragon fruit was out of season. I love that drink because of its seasonal nature and the fact I can’t make it again until the rainy season.
What area do Phnom Penh’s bartenders need to work on the most?
The people I’ve met in the service industry here tend to be very friendly which is a great starting point. It would be good to see more people who want to take their career in this industry to the next level, though, and learn more about techniques, tastes and engaging customers – the art of service, rather than just doing what’s in the job spec.
Have you got any plans to open your own bar in Phnom Penh?
I’ll be doing some work on the refurbishment and redesign of the drinks for the FCC later this year – that’s really exciting as it’s such an iconic venue in Phnom Penh and offers so much potential. We’re also planning a pop-up cocktail event at The Mansion from March 26 to 29. I’m fascinated by the modern history of drinking in Asia, the grandiose hotels and drinks that travelled the world with wandering bartenders. This will be a chance to revisit some old recipes, along with some new interpretations and twists. The event will be a “legendary cocktail journey” moving through successive periods of cocktail history each night for the four nights of the event. Starting with classic drinks of the 1920s when The Mansion was built, and ending with modern classics on the Saturday night, each evening will offer a changing selection of drinks, music and ambiance. I’ll be making the event cocktails in a bar inside, while The Mansion will also have a regular bar outside – something it’ll be operating every night from the beginning of March, along with films playing outside on Mondays and live music every Wednesday I gather.