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Some of the gins are infused with cinnamon
Some of the gins are infused with cinnamon Charlotte Pert

Inside the gin palace, a laboratory of liquor

Creating gins infused with rosemary, cinnamon, chilli and more is, much like the growth of the entrepreneurial Norbert-Munns brothers’ ever-expanding bar empire, a process of evolution

Last month, New Zealand brothers William and George Norbert-Munns opened the Cicada Gin and Wine Bar, an intimate micro-bar specialising in herb-infused gins. It’s their fifth new Phnom Penh venue in less than two years. By the end of the year they should have eight, making them arguably the most prolific expat entrepreneurs in town.

“We’re not trying to be anything better than anyone else – we’re just trying to open a new place and if people come, then great,” explained William during an interview at Cicada earlier this week.

The name Cicada was chosen, according to the owners, because ‘bars are meant to hum’
The name Cicada was chosen, according to the owners, because ‘bars are meant to hum’ Charlotte Pert

The tiny bar – painted in pale shades with a bug eye-like light feature looming from the ceiling – is located in the previously unnamed alley off Street 308 that the brothers have dubbed Bassac Lane. The pair already has two bars open in the lane and another three are in the works.

“There wasn’t a dedicated gin bar in Phnom Penh,” added George. “There are wine bars, but we kind of thought it would be nice to do wine as well.” Because not everyone likes gin? “Yeah.”

They have a small but expanding collection of the juniper berry-based spirit – including Bombay Sapphire, Gordon’s, Mayfair and Hendricks – and offer a selection of six “interesting” wines from around the world by the bottle that will change every month.

For those after a gin and tonic with a twist, they are also making their own infused gins, flavoured with an assortment of herbs and spices.

The creative process isn’t particularly scientific, according to William: take a bottle of gin, stick something aromatic in it, wait a week or two and then taste it to see how it has turned out. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

“[We take the approach of] why not just do it and see what happens?” he said.

George (left) and William Norbert-Munns
George (left) and William Norbert-Munns Charlotte Pert

Four variations were on offer last week – cinnamon, pepper, chilli and rosemary – but William promised more were to come. He plans to try out star anise, vanilla and even lavender.

“As you can see,” he said, pointing to a mostly empty bottle with a few sprigs inside and a handwritten label, “the rosemary has proven quite popular.”

The thirtysomething entrepreneurs apply a similar “just do it” approach to their business ventures; giving ideas a go and tweaking them until they are satisfied. William does the design, construction and comes up with the drinks while George handles the books and taste testing. “The only numbers I do are measurements,” quipped William.

The pair opened their first Phnom Penh bar, Bar.Sito, in October 2012 in an alley off Street 240, then followed up with gastropub Public House a few months later. Their first venue in Bassac Lane, the micro-bar Seibur, opened late last year, and their second, the upmarket bar and grill Meat and Drink, in February of this year.

Rosemary gin is one of the popular variations
Rosemary gin is one of the popular variations Charlotte Pert

“[We] take a look and see what’s around and try to do something... same same but different,” said William.

“We won’t be opening up a cafe in BKK,” added George.

They have a small workshop and nine of their staff of more than 50 workers are employed full time to renovate and fit out their various projects.

Like the infused gins, everything in the bars is custom designed and made or at least modified: from the wooden stools, to the marble-topped bars, to the bathroom mirrors.

“If we could do it, we’d make the glasses too,” said William.

The interior of the bar
The interior of the bar Charlotte Pert

At the moment they are renovating the house next door to Cicada for a new bar expected to open this month and have just gone in with sledgehammers and crowbars to two more buildings across the way to prepare for two more bars that will open later in the year.

Meanwhile, they’re also doubling the size of Meat and Drink by taking over the place next to it.

“Everything’s evolving,” William said. “We might paint this place [Cicada] another colour next week.

“At the end of the day, it’s a gut feeling. Maybe it doesn’t have enough lights, or maybe the drinks are not strong enough...”

“Or maybe they’re too strong,” George chipped in.

“Maybe the stools, maybe the floor...” William continued.

“But when we arrive at a recipe [that works], we stick to it,” said George.

Cicada Gin and Wine Bar in Bassac Lane is open Tuesday to Sunday from 5pm until 11pm.

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