Think cocktails and your mind turns to the usual suspects in the region: Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok – destinations that are home to some of Asia’s best bars. But just a couple hours away on a Singapore Airlines flight, a tight-knit community are quietly shaking things up in the rapidly rising capital of Phnom Penh. From serving up cocktails catered to the local palate to flying in the world’s top mixologists and crafting small batches of spirits, there is an exciting movement underfoot that the post-pandemic traveller can explore.
It’s a muggy late afternoon in October and I am eager to stave off the heat with a tall, cold glass of something. My tuktuk (motorised rickshaw) turns a corner and I arrive at Hub Street Cocktails, just off the main tourist thoroughfare of Bassac Street. Warmly lit and with the joyous sound of live music spilling forth onto the street, the bar exudes an unpretentious welcome that I immediately take to.
Owner and bartender Dara Sok affably shakes my hand and shows me around his two-storey space. It hadn’t always been this way – Hub Street Cocktails’ first iteration was a portable bar that Sok operated out of a tuktuk.
Back in 2017, the enterprising proprietor would drive to Wat Botum Park with his movable beast as night fell. With the help of foldout bar counters, portable stools and warm hanging lights, his makeshift cocktail bar would give the locals a taste of cocktail culture alongside laidback conviviality. “Locals usually prefer to drink beer, but when they see something interesting about the cocktails – whether it’s the glassware or the colour – they get curious to try it,” Sok says.
Sok’s shop is more elaborate these days. Having saved up to build the current iteration of Hub Street Cocktails – dreaming and designing the space himself as he went along – the one-storey space turned into two. Then the bar owner gradually added a patio, a pool table and, most recently, a family-style karaoke room.
I settle at the bar, and Sok shakes up one of his signatures: a tequila-based drink mixed with peach liquor, fresh passion and lime juice, topped off with angostura bitters in a portly glass. He’s named the drink What’s Good, a wry nod to a query that he undoubtedly often gets as a bartender. It’s on the sweet side, but well-balanced, and certainly a tasty way to quench the heat of the afternoon. We continue our chat as the sultry tunes of Khmer love songs play in the background. As day turns into night, a singer takes the stage downstairs, and locals and tourists alike begin filing in.
A sky bar that puts Phnom Penh on the world map
I then head over to Sora Sky Bar on the 37th floor of Rosewood Phnom Penh. The bar reigns over the city from its perch, and since May 2022, it has become something of a hotspot for the Khmer capital’s cocktail enthusiasts, thanks to its monthly Rosewood Bar Series where some of the best talents in the globe get invited for guest shifts.
It counts among its guests Barcelona’s Paradiso (World’s 50 Best Bars 2022 #1), Rome’s Drink Kong (World’s 50 Best Bars 2023 #16) and Hong Kong’s Darkside (Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023 #9).
This programme is the brainchild of Bob Louison, the hotel’s director of bars, who sees it not just as a way of putting Sora on the world map, but also to provide important exposure and training to local mixologists. Invited guest bartenders hold masterclasses, which Sora welcomes the local bar community to join.
“We’ve started to see more and more faces joining, and our team has also grown so much from learning international mixology techniques.” Louison says. “It takes time and dedication to grow a market. Over the past year and a half of running this program, we can definitely see its positive impact.”
In line with the bar’s goal of reaching international standards of mixology, Sora’s current cocktail menu, The Book of Yokai, was formulated in collaboration with globally renowned spirits consultation company Proof & Co. It spotlights native local ingredients such as rice, banana, sugar palm and Kampot pepper.
Local flavours from native ingredients
As with any industry that is just establishing itself, the question is: What captures the essence of its identity? Many are gravitating towards endemic ingredients, such as spices, when it comes to defining the Khmer cocktail. Kampot pepper, rice and flavouring leaves such as pandan – easily sourced in the Mekong region – have become popular mainstays in bars that are looking to craft a menu that represents the region, as well as local craft distilleries.
Samai Distillery, an award-winning rum distillery founded by Antonio Lopez de Haro, Daniel Pacheco and Diego Wilkins in 2014, uses thick caramel molasses from local sugarcane as the base for its flavourful rums. Their Samai Kampot Pepper Rum uses the expensive cultivar of pepper (known also as the “champagne of pepper” grown in Cambodia).
Another recent entrant to Phnom Penh’s craft spirits scene is gin makers Seekers Spirits. Founded by expatriate couple Tania Unsworth and Marco Julià Eggert, Seekers uses Khmer basil, Battambang green oranges, Asian lime leaf and butterfly pea.
The Spirit House, the name of its distillery located 20 minutes away by car from Phnom Penh’s city centre, is a high-ceilinged open space where guests can see equipment used for making their gin, as well as hang out by the bar counter to taste either a cocktail from its latest cocktail menu, called The Mekong Journey, inspired by the region’s most iconic offerings, such as Thai mango sticky rice and Vietnamese egg coffee. These are available individually or as a six-drinks tasting flight.
Building sustainability as well as cocktail culture
Seekers is also committed to being a sustainable business with its myriad initiatives. It not only leads by example in its efforts to reduce packaging waste, it also enables its community to do the same as a spirits refill hub and recycling centre.
Seekers’ founders take the long view of running their spirits business, and are placing their bets on energy-efficient production processes, responsible regional sourcing and waste reduction. For instance, they’ve developed a closed-circuit water management system to reduce up to 95% of the water consumed in their distillation process. Unsworth and Eggert hope that their efforts will, in turn, encourage the local community to work in ways that prove viable for the climate in the long-term.
“I think that people are very open and willing to try something new here. There’s an innate creativity and initiative that Cambodians have, a can-do spirit,” Unsworth says. Seekers is also committed to growing the local nightlife industry by hosting an annual cocktail competition every October called Mapping the Mekong.
A Khmer spirit that goes beyond local ingredients and flavours
While it is tempting and easy to define Phnom Penh’s cocktail culture based on ingredients alone, the true essence of the Khmer spirit goes beyond that. The key players in the city’s nightlife scene all embody a willingness to give things a shot and go where no one in the region has gone before. This convivial curiosity is not only breaking new ground for the region, but also brings the community together in their mutual enthusiasm to learn and grow.
“There’s an innate creativity and initiative that Cambodians have, a can-do spirit”
Phnom Penh’s bars and distilleries are already gaining global recognition and putting out exciting programmes that an international audience has taken an interest in. It’s only a matter of time before Phnom Penh becomes a real contender on the regional scene.
Where to drink in Phnom Penh
For a dash of local entertainment alongside your drinks, visit Hub Street Cocktails off the nightlife hotspot of Bassac Street.
Award-winning gins in a cosy, wood-furnished interior hidden in the heart of Phnom Penh.
A speakeasy hidden behind an unassuming liquor storefront that serves familiar favourites with a twist.
Every Thursday evening, Samai Distillery opens its doors as a bar, and becomes the place to see and be seen at.
20 minutes’ drive from Phnom Penh’s city centre, this beautiful bar and distillery features a cocktail tasting flight inspired by the Mekong River. Don’t sleep on its espresso martini and mango sticky rice.
A glittering bar on the 37th floor of the Rosewood Phnom Penh with staggering views of the city.