It was some 20 years ago when a Frenchman from Corsica, Jean Pierre Franchi, first landed in Cambodia. Amazed at what he saw of the people’s resilience and a nation emerging from the Khmer Rouge genocide, he decided to stay on.
“When I arrived here in 1998, I just fell in love with Cambodians, their culture and the peace and quiet that seemed to reign after the Khmer Rouge regime had killed and starved millions to death,” Franchi says.
“It was an exciting time to be in the country. It was and still is a land full of promise. In fact, I was taken aback that the Kingdom was very different from the bad reputation it had earned because of the genocide.”
Franchi, 54, soon found work in the commercial section of local television station TV9 and stayed there for six years. But, keen to set out on his own, he partnered a friend in the restaurant business and helped run it for the next three years.
And as a whisky connoisseur, he has been collecting rare bottles of the “water of life” since he was in his late 30s. “It’s a serious hobby of mine, and at one time I had some 100 bottles of different whiskies at home in Phnom Penh,” he says.
“But my wife got upset at my growing collection of whiskies at home, and in 2010 when I started Mao’s Bar, I moved my stock of spirits there.”
A lounge and sports bar, it is equipped with three pool tables and three electronic darts boards. A deejay plays every night, with live bands soon to join the musical entertainment.
Franchi gets regular supplies of whiskies from Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan and Taiwan. He also travels trice annually to Scotland to order stocks directly from distilleries. “I also deal with specialist suppliers who bring me very rare bottles of the finest whiskies one can get,” he says.
Before long, Mao’s Bar earned a reputation for not only having some of the finest whiskies in all of Cambodia and Indochina, but also for having one of the largest stocks of the spirit – 385 brands of single malts from all over the world to be exact.
Franchi says the bar is the only one in the region to have such a large collection. Among the rarest whiskies he has are 25-year-aged Scotches – Glenfarclas, a single malt costing $295 a bottle, Laphroaig ($545), Bowmore ($500) and Highland Park ($598) – and Japan’s Yamazaki aged 18 years ($1,200).
“I also have a very special bottle of [Taiwanese whisky] Kavalan Solist that costs $240,” Franchi says. “But it’s not for sale as its master distiller, Yan Chang, put his signature on the bottle for me as a personal gift,” he says.
Some of his most ardent patrons are from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. They are among the main connoisseurs of his rare whiskies.
Delectable Asian dishes
Franchi jokingly says he pioneered “whisky tourism” as his regulars call him to ensure he has stocks of their favourite spirit before landing in Cambodia.
And his love for whiskies has extended to the next generation too. His sons, Jean Charles and Victor, who joined him in his business over the past few years, have also been infected with the whisky bug and are collecting their own personal stocks as well.
As a family, the Franchis want to grow their collection and offerings to at least 500 bottles of rare and hard-to-find whiskies over the next few years. They also want to expand the business to Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
But whiskies are not the only thing Mao’s Bar is known for – its restaurant on the ground floor serves up some of the most delectable Asian dishes.
Chef Ray Chan, who has 13 years of culinary experience, says his main signature dish is Kam xiang fried clams. Cooked with chilli paste as its base, it includes dried shrimp, stir-fried with a taste of fire from the wok, or what is known in Chinese as wok hei.
His other signature dishes include pan-fried tiger prawns with soy sauce, and braised pork belly with salted fish and bean-curd skin.
“In all, I have 58 dishes on the menu to choose from, and each can be paired with some of the finest whiskies in our range,” Chan says.
Mao’s Bar is located on the corner of Sisowath Quay and Street 106. The sports club is open from 5pm to 1am, while the restaurant downstairs serves food from 11am to 11pm.