Cambodian rice wine revival

Author: Lara Dunston
Photography: Terence Carter

The Cambodian staple tipple is getting the royal treatment at bars and tasting rooms.

The traditional Cambodian firewater, rice wine, has been given a style makeover. A new infused rice-spirit company, Sombai, opens smart tasting rooms and an infusion workshop in a traditional timber house in Siem Reap this month. And cocktail-making classes using the spirits have begun at atmospheric Asana bar, in the last antique Khmer wooden house in the heart of the Old Town.

Inspired by traditional Cambodian rice wine, which is heady and regarded as medicinal, French expats Lionel Maitrepierre and Joƫlle Jean Louis founded Sombai and began producing premium-quality rice spirits infused with Cambodian spices, herbs, roots and fruits two years ago, drawing further inspiration from the fruit-infused rums of Louis's native Mauritius.

After opening a tasting lounge at Siem Reap in April last year, the couple began selling their aromatic liquors at restaurants, bars, boutique hotels and the monthly artisanal Made in Cambodia Market at Shinta Mani resort. Sombai's pretty bottles - handpainted by local artists and tied with the traditional Khmer checked krama (scarf) - have become popular souvenirs, and sunset tastings at the couple's home draw travellers after a day exploring Angkor Wat.

Now visitors can squeeze in a 90-minute cocktail class at Asana, a laid-back bar furnished with hammocks and sofas made from stuffed rice sacks. Asana's owners Sophari "Pari" Ung and Guilhem Maitrepierre have devised fun classes to introduce traditional Khmer ingredients such as lemongrass, tamarind, turmeric and wild ginger to cocktails such as the Asana Sling, made with gin, Cointreau, triple sec, cherry brandy, bitters, grenadine, lime and pineapple juice and Sombai's galangal-tamarind rice spirit, one of eight blended flavours. A durian-based flavour is in development. 

Sombai, Sombai La off Thmor Meas Rd, Siem Reap. Asana, The Lane, between Street 7 and Pub St, Old Market area, Siem Reap. Classes at 5.30pm daily.

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