Cambodian rice wine is as old as the hills. Ellie Dyer meets some traditional brewers of the potent tipple, along with two foreigners adding a unique twist to the ever-popular drink. Photography by Conor Wall.

A yeasty perfume permeates the small backyard of the Sannoum family home in Pouk district, Siem Reap province. In the centre of the space lies a large wooden pallet piled with steamed rice sprinkled with a fermenting agent.

Soon the grains will be placed in large earthenware jars in order to brew Cambodia’s rice wine, or sraa in Khmer – a fiery variant of rice spirit, related to Japan’s sake and Korea’s cheongju, that is used both to fuel community celebrations and in traditional medicines.

Around four days later,
the watery mixture will be boiled over a fire, and the steam condensed and then cooled through a series of pipes to produce the 50-percent-proof liquid. In a corner of the compact brewery, a batch of the potent alcohol already drips slowly into a white bucket, ready to be sold on to market vendors.

Traditional small-scale businesses like the Sannoums’ are often family affairs, with techniques passed on from generation to generation. “I learned to make rice wine from my mother when I was younger,” explains Ou Polla, a 50-year-old former wine producer. “I remember when I got married in Battambang 30 years ago, I made up a big batch of rice wine for the wedding guests. We didn’t have beer or whisky in those days.”

But the market vendor, who stopped brewing in 1990 after a decade in the industry, has observed a shift. Modern practises are being introduced, making the production process both quicker and cheaper thanks to the use of chemicals. According to a 2011 report from The Cambodia Daily, an increasing demand for low-priced tipples with higher alcohol content has pushed many old-fashioned brewers out of business.

“Real pure rice wine is hard to find these days and costs 10,000 riel [a litre]. This is safer to drink and tastes much nicer,” says Ou Polla, hinting at the cases of rice wine poisoning that can result from tainted production processes or the incorrect use of chemicals such as methanol.

But though some lament the changes in the industry, the market is opening up and a wave of experimentation is under way. Rice wine is now being produced at factories in major hubs, and new entrants are helping to bring the classic drink to a fresh audience.

Just thirty minutes drive away from the Sannoums’ traditional operation lies the headquarters of Sombai, an innovative foreign-owned company that is infusing rice wine with local fruits and spices such as ginger, tamarind, banana and lemongrass.

“In Mauritius we have a tradition of using the local rum,” explains Joëlle Jean Louis, who runs the operation with former banker and rum enthusiast, Frenchman Lionel Maitrepierre. “We put fruits and spices that we have in our own yard inside [the alcohol]. We let it sit for two to three months – this is the main difference between rum and rice wine – and usually drink it for parties and when friends come over.”

“We put our two cultures and passions together, and here is what came up,” the bubbly Mauritian adds, explaining how the business began around a year and half ago after the pair moved closer to family in Siem Reap.

The company now operates a tasting lounge near its compact workshop –  a small white house set in a green field. Inside the facility stand huge glass jars of rice wine packed full with strips of candied coconut and chunks of pineapple. Over six to eight weeks, the flavours slowly seep into the spirit, which the owners explain is factory-made rice wine in order to ensure the liquid’s long-term stability.

The pair started by experimenting with the traditional rum flavour pairings of banana and vanilla, and lime and pineapple, but have since refined and expanded the range. Flavours now range from the zingy lemon and lemongrass, a mango variety with a pleasing green chilli kick, and a smooth anise and coffee variant. Research is ongoing, with a durian version possibly in the pipeline.

Sombai is linking up with hotels and businesses to introduce the wine, which varies from 29 to 31 percent proof, to the tourist market. It is now stocked in more than 40 locations countrywide, including the Park Hyatt
Siem Reap, which serves it
in the Living Room lounge. The global hotel brand also ran a tour of a traditional
wine maker’s home and the Sombai facility, topped off with a sumptuous eight-course food and rice wine pairing feast, as part of its regular Masters of Food and Wine event last month.

For more information on the Masters of Food and Wine event and Sombai’s infused rice wine, visit park.hyatt.com or sombai.com.