Three expats bring the Latin American spirit to the Kingdom
Rum doesn’t have a great reputation in Cambodia. At best, it’s regarded as a handy component in cocktails. At worst, it’s mislabelled “whisky” and sold for $1 a bottle in street-side neighbourhood shops.
It’s a perception that South American expats Daniel Pacheco, Antonio Lopez and Diego Wilkins – the founders of the new Samai Distillery – are keen to change.
By the end of this month, the distillery plans to launch Cambodia’s first premium rum, made from sugarcane grown on local family-owned farms and then fermented, distilled and aged in a beautiful and airy building in a laneway off Sothearos Boulevard.
A few hundred people have already had a chance to taste Samai’s rum at the distillery’s weekly Thursday night events, which have been running since early September.
“We’re trying to create a culture of rum appreciation,” Pacheco said on a short tour of the operation, showing us the fermenting vats, bulbous copper pot stills and wooden ageing barrels that once contained sherry and are used to enhance the rum’s flavour.
“We want to encourage people to learn about it and also try different rums – we will be selling rums from all over the world in our bar – as part of educating and creating a rum culture.”
Sugarcane is thought to have its origins in Southeast Asia, and people have been making beer-like alcohol from it for thousands of years.
However, in Latin America the process of distilling fermented sugarcane juice to make rum has become integral to the culture.
It is this passion that Pacheco and Lopez, who hail from Venezuela, and Wilkins, who is from Uruguay, are bringing to Cambodia.
“There are two things all Latin Americans love: salsa and rum,” Wilkins said.
“Rum can be as good as expensive aged whisky,” he said. “However, often countries won’t export their best rums – they keep them to themselves.”
1. Raw sugarcane is crushed to extract the juice, which is then reduced down to a syrup so that it can be stored for a longer period of time.
2. The syrup is mixed with water and yeast to create “wash”, which is fermented in a vat for about 10 days. The yeast “eats” the sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. After this stage, the wash is about 11 per cent alcohol.
3. In order to further concentrate the alcohol, the wash is put into a still, a copper chamber with a pipe leading off it, which is carefully heated to boil off different elements of the liquid at different temperatures. Methanol, which is deadly poisonous, has a boiling point of about 65 degrees Celsius, so it is siphoned off first. Ethanol, the tasty alcohol, becomes vapour at about 78 degrees. As it reaches the top of the still, it condenses in the pipe leading away and collected. The result is about 80 per cent alcohol.
4. Once the rum is diluted with still water, it is fit for consumption; however, at Samai, they age it in old sherry barrels, which changes the colour and gives the rum a smoother flavour.
Pacheco said that while the basics of distilling are simple – water and alcohol become vapour at different temperatures and so can be separated through controlled evaporation – there’s a lot more to the operation. “There’s a lot of science involved, but it’s also a bit of an art as well.”
Samai’s light and dark rums will initially be sold at the distillery as well local bars, hotels and bottle shops, with international exports starting next year.
Other plans include producing aged and flavoured rums, such as coffee and Kampot pepper, as well as running tours, functions and tastings.
“Right now, we’re setting up a vertical tasting in which you sit down and taste the rum at each stage of production, from sugar cane, to the juice, syrup, beer … the whole process,” Pacheco said.
However, he said the focus of the distillery would always remain production.
“That’s why we’re limiting our open nights to one night a week – we don’t want to be just another bar in Phnom Penh. It’s been fun, but it’s more just to create the culture. It’s definitely not a priority of the business,” he said.
He added that he expected the distillery would soon ramp up beyond the current setup’s capacity.
“Our current equipment is quite small and will probably only be enough for the next year, according to our projections, so we already have a really large industrial-size still coming, hopefully in about March,” he said.
“We do think middle class Cambodians will enjoy it, but it will take a while to make them change between [Johnny Walker] Black Label and rum,” he added.
“But in the long run, that is our target market. We really want to make this a Cambodian product.”
The Samai Distillery is located at #9b Street 830 (off Sothearos Boulevard). To book a private function call 023 224 143.