Bold botanicals and backstage tours: Inside Cambodia’s first gin distillery

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When my partner Marco and I first arrived in Cambodia more than 10 years ago to work in hospitality, we quickly realized there was no real cocktail culture – and very few regionally-made premium spirits. At the time, there was this huge boutique gin movement sweeping across Europe and the States, but somehow it hadn’t quite reached Southeast Asia.

By 2018, we’d launched a couple of private restaurants in Cambodia to test the market with our own curated gin collections. But we were ready to go bigger. 

That’s when the idea for Cambodia’s first gin distillery and our brand Seekers Spirits began. The name is inspired by the country’s can-do attitude and you’ll get to visit us for a tour and tasting on Flash Pack’s Cambodia trip.

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We recognized the huge range of Mekong flavours

When you visit, you’ll notice that there’s this incredible energy in Phnom Penh, and the country more generally. A new generation of entrepreneurs are seeking out opportunities at every turn in a very positive, dynamic way. You can’t help but be inspired. 

I’m half-British, half-Croatian and Marco is Spanish, so you could say gin is in our blood. We both come from places with a strong tradition of gin bars and indy distilleries. The longer we lived in Phnom Penh, the more we recognized this huge range of bright Mekong flavours – native botanicals like lemongrass, pandan and basil – that could pack a real punch in a homegrown blend. 

From the outset, we were determined to create a highly credible product; we wanted to exceed expectations with a showcase of the Mekong’s bold, aromatic ingredients. Our vision was both local and international in scope. We aimed for a unique gin brand that Cambodians could be proud of, but that could also compete on a global stage.

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We use ingredients like spring water from the Kampot mountains

Early on in the research process, we met a distiller called Alfie Amayo from the City of London Distillery. We invited him to stay with us in Cambodia for a few weeks and explore some recipe ideas. Luckily for us, he loved our concept and quickly came onboard as head distiller to oversee the production process and train our local team. 

Alfie and I were literally distilling on tabletops to begin with and we spent a lot of time meeting local farmers. We also refined our recipe by taking it to mixology chefs and trade experts around the world. The result was our inaugural Mekong Dry Gin, handcrafted with 11 native botanicals foraged from the banks of the Mekong River. 

What I love about this gin is that it’s not shy; it’s bursting with full-bodied accents. We use the richness of Cambodian ingredients – including spring water from the Kampot mountains, Battambang green oranges and Asian lime leaves – to transport drinkers to the tropical, humid buzz of Phnom Penh and the Mekong.

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Our distillery is housed in a former textiles factory in Phnom Penh

By the end of 2019, it became Cambodia’s top-selling premium gin, outstripping the international brands, such as Hendricks and Roku. It’s so exciting because it shows how keen people are to support local makers. 

The success also enabled us to launch a whole portfolio of spirits celebrating the flavours of Southeast Asia, including more varieties of gin, plus our own-brand vodka and coffee and orange liqueurs. 

Alongside serving tourists, hotels and retailers, we’ve attracted a strong domestic audience of gin enthusiasts – part of the reason why we moved to our current Phnom Penh distillery, housed in a huge warehouse and former textiles factory in the city.

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We run events from supper clubs to all-night raves

During the week, we’re a working distillery and then on Thursday and Friday nights, and across the weekend, we’re open to the public. 

We run all sorts of events here, from supper clubs with botanical taste pairings to monthly markets and all-night rave parties with international DJs. It’s very much a community space; we have a huge garden with a kids’ play area and tastings and distillery tours, such as the one on Flash Pack’s trip

Cocktails, like our Phnom Penh Sling, Seekers Espresso Martini or the Basil Smash, speak to the kind of vibrant, zesty profiles that define the character of our drinks.

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Guests can embark on the full tasting adventure

We also run bespoke cocktail menus, such as the Mekong Journey, based on the six countries through which the river flows, including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand

Guests can embark on the full tasting adventure, or they might stop off at a particular “harbour” for a signature drink, such as Thailand’s Mango Sticky Rice made with coconut balls, fresh lime and deliciously ripe mangoes. 

We also have a huge botanical garden filled with 16 fruit trees and different varieties of herbs, spices and flowers. We need larger volumes to produce our actual gin, but guests can gather ingredients or garnishes during our cocktail-making sessions, so it’s a great way to show people how we use these local ingredients.

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Cambodia’s cocktail scene is blossoming

We might pick some rose apples, gooseberries, starfruit or longan fruit. Or we’ll forage for some butterfly pea flowers. They’re fun, because they actually change colour from blue to pink when they interact with citrus or quinine, for the ultimate G&T effect. 

Nowadays, Cambodia’s cocktail scene is blossoming: we’re starting to see more small, independent bars emerging, along with some excellent new ideas. We now run an annual Seekers Bartender Competition to celebrate Cambodian mixology and draw inspiration from different areas of the country. 

Our focus is still very much local – our team is nearly all Cambodian – and we’re also working on developing sustainable practices to safeguard the country, too.

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We’re pushing the boundaries of Southeast Asian spirits

As you’ll see if you join us behind the scenes with Flash Pack, we now have state-of-the-art equipment that makes the distillation process far more efficient. We minimise water consumption and reuse botanical waste, like lime skins or orange peel, in other areas.

The vibe here is very much that we all want to learn from one another and push the boundaries of what lies ahead in Southeast Asian spirits. We’re here to put the amazing ingredients of the region front and centre in a rapidly changing scene. 

Tania Unsworth is co-founder of Seekers Spirits, Cambodia’s first gin distillery, which features on Flash Pack’s adventure to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Courtesy of Seekers Spirits

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