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Samai Distillery firmly placing Kingdom’s rum on world map

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Samai Distillery production officer Panha Yom. The Cambodian rum-makers say they are in the process of increasing capacity tenfold. Post staff

Samai Distillery firmly placing Kingdom’s rum on world map

Somewhat surprisingly, despite having the perfect tropical climate for the sweet spirit, Cambodia never developed a rum culture – until now, that is.

Samai Distillery, which was founded in Phnom Penh by two Venezuelan rum aficionados, has not only introduced rum to Cambodia, but also placed the Kingdom’s rum firmly on the international scene.

Synonymous with pirates and “jack tars”, rum has had a chequered history. Known as “rumbullion” or “kill-divil” in the 17th century, rum has been reinvented as a premium and fashionable spirit, giving Scotch and brandy a run for their money.

And in 2014 Daniel Pacheco and Antonio Lopez de Haro launched the Samai Distillery in Phnom Penh to introduce rum to the Cambodian taste experience.

“With such an abundance of high-quality raw materials in Cambodia, we were surprised that there was not a rum industry in Cambodia. So we embarked on creating the Kingdom’s first premium rum distillery from scratch,” Pacheco told The Post.

Pacheco says production is currently 70-30 for the domestic market and for export, but this will eventually be ramped up to a 50-50 split.

“With growing demand from countries around the world, our expansion will focus on bringing Cambodia’s premium rum to the best bars across the globe,” he said.

As Samai transforms the Kingdom’s drinks scene, connoisseurs of the tropical spirit will be raising a toast to their plans to increase production to some 60,000 bottles a year.

“Although we are currently running 24/7 at full capacity, which produces around 6,000 bottles a year, demand is outstripping supply. We are in the process of expanding to increase our capacity around 10 times,” Pacheco said. “Our success so far is only the beginning.”

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Samai uses two 500-litre, 100 per cent copper pot stills handmade in Portugal. Post staff

Age-old traditions

Making the best of Cambodia’s environmental factors – its terroir – which produces the ideal ingredients for rum, Samai has won more than 12 internationally recognised awards, putting the Kingdom firmly on the world rum map.

“Our first major success was when a friend living here who had worked for [alcoholic drinks multinational] Diageo knew they had a distillery incubation programme and he applied for us.

“We got an email a few months later saying: ‘Congratulations, you have been selected among the top 10 startup distilleries in the world. We want you to be part of this programme and come to London to pitch to our investment committee. We love your product.’

“This is when we realised we were on to something big,” Pacheco said.

Samai has since won numerous international awards, including prizes at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the London International Spirits Challenge, the Singapore World Spirits Competition and the Miami International Rum Conference.

“In some of these competitions we even gained Double Gold Medals, meaning we have been considered the best rum in the world for its category, both for our Samai Gold Rum and our Samai Kampot Pepper Rum,” Pacheco said.

Samai is proud of using age-old rum-making traditions, using two 500-litre, 100 per cent copper pot stills handmade in Portugal, which are of the same “alembic” design as from the 19th century.

“Different rums have different ageing times and processes. But we normally age our rums for at least two years in a variety of barrels. Some of our rums have been ageing for almost four years,” Pacheco said.

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Samai Distillery co-founder and chief operating officer Daniel Pacheco. Post staff

‘Cocktail revolution’

This insistence on excellence has seen Samai exporting to Singapore and France for the past three years, and recently entering the Spanish market, with the UK and Thailand next in their sights.

“France and Singapore are currently the hottest markets outside Cambodia for our rum. In Singapore, as the capital of the ‘Asian cocktail revolution’, our craft and premium rum has been very well accepted and included in many of the top cocktail bars in Asia,” Samai’s sales and marketing manager Julie Hedon said.

To showcase its rums and Cambodia’s own “cocktail revolution”, Samai had until the Covid-19 outbreak opened to the public on Thursday nights to give people the opportunity to visit the distillery, learn about the production process and savour their wide range of cocktails.

However, until this resumes – Pacheco hopes sometime in the near future subject to official approval – Phnom Penh’s rum lovers can still enjoy Samai’s products from their shop opposite the distillery.

That Samai is a Cambodian success story is reflected in the tale of one of their key staff members.

“With no other rum distilleries in the Kingdom, we were convinced we would have to look abroad for a master distiller. But luckily we had one application from a Cambodian – from Moang Darachampich.

“She has a Master’s in Chemical Engineering, specialising in food manufacturing, and had written a thesis on fermentation, so we knew she had the skills we needed. And now she runs the show,” Pacheco recalls.

For a taster of Darachampich and Samai’s award-winning work, a virtual tour of the facility can be taken at www.whisky.sg/samai-distillery-tour/ until they can again guide you through the fascinating distillation process in person – all while enjoying Cambodia’s acclaimed additions to the rum scene.

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