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The secret to Samai’s premium rum

Source:FoodPacific Manufacturing Journal

Date Published:12/3/2019 06:12:15 PM

Samai is the first rum distillery in Cambodia, and proudly the only one producing premium and industrial rums in the Kingdom, writes JEAN ALINGOD-GUITTAP.  

FROM Venezuela, Antonio Lopez and Daniel Pacheco founded Samai Distillery, which is currently the only producer of premium and industrial rums in Cambodia. Winning awards for many of their products, the duo has put Cambodia in the World’s Rum Map. 

Antonio Lopez and Daniel Pacheco, co-founders of Samai Distillery in Cambodia

Antonio Lopez and Daniel Pacheco, co-founders, Samai Distillery in Cambodia

Why produce rum, and what’s it like rolling out Cambodia’s first Premium Rum in 2014?

Antonio Lopez (AL): Being Venezuelans, we grew up with a strong rum culture. What we love about it is its versatility and the premiumisation that it is experiencing. Normally, rum is considered a strong, inexpensive spirit for mixing cocktails such as mojitos and Cuba libres. But the premium quality that can be found in rums, such as the ones we produce, lets you enjoy it neat or on the rocks as people do with fine whiskies and cognacs.

Daniel Pacheco (DP): Samai Distillery officially opened in 2014. The idea came while we were drinking imported premium rum. We realised that Cambodia, with such an abundance of top-quality sugarcane and molasses, was not producing its own rum. We then decided to create the country’s first rum distillery and brand from scratch.

The bar in the distillery opened the same year and the first batch of Gold Rum was released in February 2015.

How is the quality of rum distinguished?

AL: What makes rum so special is partly the molasses. It surprised us to learn that the quality of Cambodian molasses are even better than those in rum-producing countries.

DP: A number of things are needed to create premium quality rums. Having access to the best raw materials in the world is an advantage.  Being able to control the whole production process in-house from fermentation to distillation, aging, blending, and bottling, is likewise key, which is what we’re able to do at Samai Distillery. The rums mature in oak barrels for an average of two years. All these aspects are essential to the premium product we are creating.

What makes Cambodia a good base for rum distillery?

DP: The climate is perfect to produce rum. Access to quality raw ingredients opens the possibility of designing our products more easily than in Europe for example. The handcrafted aspect of our rums is much more accessible in this part of the world:  we can number and sign by hand every bottle, we can create leather stamp with our logo, etc. All of which add value to our products and make them very unique.

Made from locally sourced raw ingredients, Samai rum has won many awards in the past three years.

Made from locally sourced raw ingredients, some distinct to Cambodia, the taste of Samai rum has won the palate of many competition judges in the past three years.

AL: The environment is perfect for aging, where the best relationship between liquid and wood can happen. We are just above the equator in the same latitude as Central America, The Caribbean and Venezuela, which is where the best rums in the world come from. 

What hurdles did you have to overcome?

AL: People don’t know what rum is and are not used to it. In Cambodia, we need to explain how it is made, with what and how to drink it and how to mix it in cocktails. It’s still a very young population that’s used to drinking beer and whisky, and not really strong alcohol.

DP: Another main challenge is that it is a very capital-intensive project. It requires a large investment in facilities and equipment just to get started. Cash flow is another thing. There’s at least two years between production and sales because we are aging our rums for that long at the minimum.  So managing the cash flow, especially as we grow, is quite a challenge. For example, if you invested in this business this year, it will take two years to sell it. A lot of distilleries that want to make aged rums will first launch a white (unaged rum, or even a gin or vodka) while they wait for the premium rum to age. But we were really set in our mission to launch Cambodia’s first premium rum and not another product, so we took the challenge of doing this first, despite the cash flow challenge.

Please describe the market acceptance for rum then and now.

DP: Four years ago, you could only find about four brands of mass-produced international rum brands, normally the ones used for house pours. In 2015, rum was the least popular spirit in terms of consumption in the country, just after tequila as the worst-performing spirit. But for us that was not an issue because as mentioned, we’re set on creating the country’s first rum distillery from scratch. For us it was more about the mission of putting Cambodia in the World’s Rum Map, with a premium product of international standards. 

AL: Things have really evolved since as we now supply around 100 bars, shops restaurants and hotels in Cambodia, mainly in Phnom Penh but also a few places in Kampot, Kep, Siem Reap, Battambang and Sihanoukville. We’ve also been exporting to France and Singapore for a year already. These markets make the most sense for us. France has a big history with Cambodia, and there’s a large Cambodian community who holds French passports and live there. They are also one of the top consumers of Kampot Pepper in the world (outside of Cambodia), so they understand our products.

DP: Singapore is leading the Asian Cocktail Revolution and currently the magnet of the world’s best bars and bartenders, and it’s only a couple hours flight from us. You can already find our Samai Rums at Native Bar in Singapore, which won one of the most creative bars in the city-state, and its owner Vijay Mudaliar as one of the best bartenders. We believe Singapore has been leading the Asian Cocktail Revolution, but with close contenders from Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Ho Chi Minh City. We are in a very exciting region and at a very exciting time. In addition, especially for us, the premiumisation of rum around the world has been leading the growth in our category.

What changed in the local market, and how did your company help usher in such change?

DP: We’ve opened a bar in the distillery every Thursday nights to educate guests, let them have a tour, see our workspace, and try some of our Samai rum cocktails. We also share about our production process. Some bartenders around the world have been coming to do guest shifts playing around with our spirits. We have a mixologist in our team creating exquisite cocktail recipes for any partner who wishes to get a special Samai signature cocktail or a training of its team. It’s indeed still hard to find proper bartenders and mixologists in Cambodia. That’s why we offer a lot of support to our partners, inviting their teams to discover the distillery, learn more about the production and tasting notes of our rums, and training them in creating unique cocktail recipes.

With expats as co-founders, in what ways is Samai a Cambodia brand?

AL: We wanted to create a rum that represented our roots and the rum culture that we grew up with in our homeland. So we do a Spanish-style rum like the ones you find in Central America, South America and the Spanish Caribbean. But at the same time respecting and embracing the local culture, which is the reason we use 100% Cambodian raw materials such as the molasses from Koh Kong to ferment and produce the alcohol; honey from Ratanakiri that we use in our Samai Gold Rum blend; pepper from Kampot for the unique Samai Kampot Pepper Rum; and cinammon/vanilla/clove for our soon-to-be-launched Samai Spiced Rum.

The Kampot Pepper, which we use for our Samai Kampot Pepper Rum, is considered one of the most aromatic and delicious peppers in the world, and it’s strictly a Cambodian product. We are a Cambodian brand and we want the Khmer people to feel proud about this Cambodian rum.

DP: One of our missions here at Samai Distillery is to show the world (and Cambodians alike) that Cambodia is full of potential and capable of producing world-class products. Even Cambodians doubt their own capabilities of producing a product that could compete in the world stage. There’s a huge misconception about what the “Made in Cambodia” label really means, and we want to change that and show that “Made in Cambodia” can also mean the best quality products worldwide. This goal was corroborated by the three awards that we received this year from some of the most distinguished rum & spirits industry panels. We received a Double Gold Medal for our Samai Kampot Pepper Rum at Madrid’s International Rum Conference, considering us as one of the best spiced rums in the world. We also got a Bronze Medal for our Samai Kampot Pepper Rum and a Silver Medal for our Samai Gold Rum at London’s International Spirits Challenge. In both competitions we were running against the big international brands and distilleries of more than 100 years old. We are only 4 years old.

But long before that you’ve already been winning awards?

AL: Yes, our Gold Rum and our Kampot Pepper Rum have each received six international medals during the past three years. Our White Rum received a Silver medal at the Singapore World Spirits Competition 2019 even before being released!

What’s the most difficult part of the production process and why?

DP: One of the challenges is to keep consistency between each batch. The reason we are not in more export markets is also because of our limited production capacity. We are always sold out, sometimes even sending to export markets less than what they order, as we cannot produce enough. We are currently in a new investment round and planning to build a new distillery by next year.

Is there anything new you are introducing in 2020?

AL: By 2020 we should be in Spain, and Japan. We will then enter about five new markets per year. We are aiming at becoming a recognized premium quality product representing the SEA region.

DP: As mentioned, we are also working on producing a new product, our Samai Spiced Rum, where we use around 8 different Cambodian spices.  It’s already available for tasting Thursday nights at our distillery bar.


Boardroom Connection: Antonio Lopez and Daniel Pacheco

Company: Samai Distillery

Position: Co-founders


T: +855 (0)23 212 548


A: #9b, Street 830, Tonle Bassac, Phnom Penh, Cambodia


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