From cheap spirits and saccharine syrups, to imported rums and local ingredients, the ever-evolving cocktail scene in Cambodia has gone from Bacardi rum buckets at the beach and landed with a Kampot pepper martini on a rooftop lounge. Words by Jessica Tana; photography by Lucas Veuve.

“Cambodia has largely gone from cheap beers and colourful, generic cocktails to craft beers, and well-balanced cocktails made with fresh ingredients, in a span of just five years,” says La Familia founder Andre Chalson.

A local distributor of premium niche spirits, Chalson says the cocktail scene in Cambodia is rapidly growing due to an increasingly diverse range of imported spirits and demand from local punters. “With the growing craft scene, consumers are now more educated and better versed with spirits,” he says. “They are opting for quality over price, and are more adventurous. Distributors in Cambodia are picking up on this, and have started to satisfy this demand, especially over the last two years.”

Arriving in the country some 17 years ago, Anne Guerineau, general manager at cocktail lounge Le Moon, agrees. “The market has dramatically evolved in the past five years,” she says.

“Before you could only find very cheap stuff. In most places in Phnom Penh, you had the same old thing – cheap rum, cheap whisky; you didn’t have much choice. That has really changed with different suppliers and distributors.”

Although taxes for importing alcohol have increased during the past few years, there are now more imported spirits than ever before. “People are looking for quality,” says Vishnu Das, beverage innovator at Celliers d’Asie Cambodia, a distributor of wine and spirits. “Taxes have gone up to import alcohol, but there is more demand.”

With the inclusion of quality spirits in the country, there has also been a push towards craft bartending. “Internationally trained bartenders are being drawn to the Kingdom by the sheer potential of what Cambodia can become,” says Chalson.

“These bartenders have come here to lead or run bar programmes, from small cocktail bars to larger hotel projects, each bringing their own unique experiences to share with local bartenders, who, meanwhile, are proving to be incredibly quick understudies.”

As part of the move towards quality bar service, Le Moon, runs a monthly cocktail competition, in which the staff must plan, create and name their own unique mix. The winning drink is then sold at the bar for one month, inspiring pride and experimentation among their bartenders.

“A bartender can make the cocktail the customer wants, but a mixologist has the knowledge to experiment with ingredients,” says Jean-Marc Chenier, head of operation at Amanjaya Pancam Hotel, home of Le Moon. “The amount of improvement we have seen in our staff [since starting the competition] is huge. From understanding glassware, to the garnish and the name. It’s a huge achievement.”

“Mixology is about connecting everything, whilst knowing the basics,” adds Das. “One morning when I was having breakfast in the street, I discovered this local herb in my food. It had a unique taste. I thought ‘wow what is that?’ and I asked the waiter. I ended up using the herb in a cocktail and it tastes amazing. So, it’s all about this type of connection.”

Discovering and celebrating Cambodia’s local ingredients and incorporating them in cocktails is another way in which the scene has changed in the country. Moving on from simple lime and sugar concoctions, cocktail bars now run with an array of local produce.

“We are blessed with some distinctive ingredients in Cambodia,” Chalson says. “Kampot pepper is arguably the best pepper in the world. Our natural cane sugar is rich and flavourful, green Pursat oranges and small pineapples produce wonderfully acidic juices, we have a variety of rhizomes to play with, including ginger, galangal, turmeric and krachai, and literally hundreds of recipes for palm sugar wines and distillates.”

Although the quality of spirits, training and ingredients have excelled, Cambodia’s reputation as a cocktail hub remains overshadowed by the lure of its reputed cheap party culture.

“Cambodia is still seen as a destination for cheap beers and cocktails by tourists,” Chalson says. “Bartenders here have to work hard to balance the desire to implement premium spirits and ingredients into recipes, with the necessity of keeping drinks affordable to the market.”

While this may mean bars must work with higher cost margins, Chalson believes it’s a sacrifice the bar community must make. “If we want to take that next step towards becoming a cocktail destination,” he adds.

With the cocktail market expanding at the current rate, Cambodia as a cocktail destination is on the radar. “Something exciting is coming up,” says Guerineau. “I see a world of possibilities. Five years ago, nobody knew what a signature cocktail was. Now, well it’s just the beginning of something very interesting.”