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Regional botanicals make unique spirits

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Gin maker Alfie Amayo picking butterfly pea flowers (left) and a gin cocktail.

Regional botanicals make unique spirits

Why would a couple from as far away as London and Barcelona choose to produce high end spirits right here in Phnom Penh? The simple truth is the unique flavours of the local ingredients.

Marco Julia Eggert and Tania Unsworth founded Seekers Spirits at the end of 2018, following a considerable period of planning – and input from talented gin maker, Alfie Amayo.

“We came to Cambodia nearly 10 years ago and fell in love with the rich flavours and warm culture of the Kingdom. We have some of the most amazing botanicals available to us in this region that have not been seen in gins before, so we were confident we could create something unique,” said Unsworth.

Seekers Mekong Dry Gin is made with eleven local ingredients – except juniper berries, which do not grow here – and is the signature spirit of their range, made right here in Phnom Penh. Local ingredients include pandan, Khmer basil, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, galangal, pomelo, Battambang green oranges, palm seed, cassia bark, coriander seed and angelica.

“Cambodia is a friendly country to set a business up in and my family loves living here,” she added.

She said all Seekers products celebrate ingredients from the region, sourced from farmers employing sustainable practices.

Constantly inspired by the array of ingredients from this part of the world, the couple said they were surprised that they couldn’t find a gin that truly celebrated the vibrant flavours of the Mekong.

This is what sparked the idea to create Cambodia’s first premium gin and to start distilling these amazing flavours to create a spirit that they believe represents the bold & incredible flavours of South East Asia.

Unsworth claimed that Seekers Spirits is a premium spirit distillery, using the flavours of the Mekong Region into exceptional spirits.

“Our portfolio is the most awarded in the region. We currently have three kinds of gins, one type of vodka and two types of liqueurs in the Seekers range. We also produce spirits for third parties,” Unsworth told The Post.

Unique local flavour

Rotanak Ros, better known as Chef Nak, an award winning chef who has been featured in The New York Times, is well known for promoting local flavours. She said that choosing Seekers’ products was an easy choice for pairing with her set meals, thanks to the strong regional flavours.

“I use Seekers as I do not use bottled beer or wine. I need something with a direct connection to Cambodia,” she told The Post.

“The prices of their products are many times more expensive than imported products but I support them, because of the local ingredients, which are closely related to Khmer food,” she said.

“Apart from this, their range demonstrates the resources that we have here in Cambodia. Even if the makers themselves are not Khmer, this showcases what is possible here,” she added.

A decade ago, Eggert and Unsworth – a husband and wife team with many years of experience in the hospitality industry – took on new adventure when Eggert was offered the opportunity to manage a hotel in the Kingdom.

Unsworth was excited to return to South East Asia.

“My parents lived in Hong Kong and then Bangkok for many years, so the region was well known to me and has always been a source of inspiration; the richness of the Mekong’s flavours; its cultures, crafts and vibrant energy,” she said.

Along with Eggerts work with the hotel, they privately opened a couple of restaurants in Phnom Penh. Having worked in hospitality for all of their careers, they are always on the hunt for interesting local products.

Unsworth said they were surprised that, at that time in particular, there was very little in the way of premium spirits produced in the region.

“Coming from Barcelona and London, cities renowned for their premium gin, we were always big fans of the spirit. One of our restaurants had one of the largest gin collections in Cambodia at that time – around 2016,” she says.

“We saw an opportunity to create a product that truly celebrated the flavours from this region that could compete in global markets. Our goal is to become the leading spirit house of the region.”

Seekers Mekong Dry has been the longest in the market in Cambodia and has won multiple awards from international competitions, according to Unsworth.

The portfolio expands

Between 2020 & 2022 she said they launched a series of new products, including a wood-finished version of their dry gin and a new gin under the brand Jason Kong, which showcases the fabulous butterfly pea wildflower that grows prolifically in Cambodia.

“This product has been a big hit. It offers a different flavour profile from our dry gin,” said Unsworth.

“It is more floral and has fun colour changing properties as the butterfly pea changes from blue-purple to pink when it interacts with something more acidic like lime/lemon or tonic water. Highly instagram-able!” she added.

Two liqueurs were launched to popular acclaim – a Mekong orange liqueur, with sweet and tart oranges from South China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand and a Mekong coffee liqueur, with beans from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Unsworth said every one of these products has won medals at international competitions over the past 3 years, reinforcing Seekers credentials as a producer of exceptional products.

However, she said that working with fresh ingredients is challenging as they need to be meticulous in ensuring consistency of their raw ingredients.

“We are very involved with the whole supply chain. The processing also takes much longer than if you were using dry ingredients. We think it’s worth it and rewards you with products with amazing flavour,” she added.

She explained that the whole process of making spirits starts with sourcing the best ingredients. Over the years the couple has established strong relationships with farmers to ensure they get the very best as her sources come from literally all over the country – from Mondulkiri to Battambang to Kampot and in points in between.

Once the organic ingredients are prepped, they are steeped for a day in a base alcohol derived from cassava root. After a day of steeping it is time for the main distillation.

The spirit makers add some additional fresh botanicals at this stage – including whole Battambang oranges – from a basket that sits on top of the still. This adds additional complexity and brightness of flavour to the finished product.

After distillation, it is diluted down to bottling strength using spring water from the Kampot Mountains. Due to its mineral levels, the water itself adds further flavour and mouth feel to the finished product, so it is another key ingredient.

“We let the gin rest for a couple of weeks before bottling, to let the flavours rest and mature,” said Unsworth.

Another fan

Hilary Fastier, originally from Australia, has lived in Cambodia for 14 years and works as a freelance graphic designer.

Fastier has seen a lot of changes in Phnom Penh over the past 14 years and she said she loves how businesses like Seekers are creating new opportunities and helping to put Cambodia on the international stage.

“Seekers makes high quality products that taste delicious, are packaged beautifully, and share some of the unique flavours of Cambodia with the world,” she said.

“I am a big fan of gin, so I love a classic gin and tonic with their Mekong Dry,” she added.

A fan of local products, Fastier prefer Seekers gin over an imported gin whenever she’s out in Cambodia. Her husband, she says, is an espresso martini aficionado and his favourite one is made with the Seekers Vodka, Coffee Liquor, and a hint of their Orange Liquor.

“What I appreciate about Seekers is their commitment to excellence from the quality of their spirits to their attention to detail at their distillery – which is one of my favourite places to hang out with friends,” Fastier told The Post.

Though Seekers’ spirits are clear liquids, they are completely different from most local rice wine products. The addition of herbs, fruits and spices gives the spirits far more fragrant and aromatic qualities, said Unsworth.

The base spirits and liqueurs can be mixed to create a whole range of different drinks appealing to different tastes.

Unsworth said that not just expats, but the emerging local middle class, are eager to try good quality cocktails, and drink spirits other than just whiskey.

“For the local market, Seekers introduces them to new spirit categories or Mekong expressions of spirits they may have already discovered,” she added.

In 2020, Eggert and Unsworth opened the doors to their new spirit house, the first garden-to-glass distillery and tasting room in the Phnom Penh.

“We have a bar and restaurant and our botanical garden showcases over 70 native flora from the Mekong region,” Unsworth told The Post.

She said that within Cambodia, Seekers is served at the best bars, hotels and restaurants, and people can also discover Seekers products in a wide selection of outlets.

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