Is Phnom Penh the next cocktail capital of the world? Don’t scoff at the idea; it’s not a far-fetched goal, if the menus at Rosewood Phnom Penh’s Sora and Whisky Library are anything to go by.
Right now, the capital city of Cambodia is typically not on spirited visitors’ itinerary when looking for outstanding tipples. While Singapore and Bangkok are usually where you’d find top bars in Southeast Asia (just see Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023), Phnom Penh is nowhere to be found.
Yes, there are hip bars and restaurants in the vibrant Bassac Quarter where tourists, expats and locals can grab a drink, beer or a bite to eat. But a world-class drinking experience requires more than just a good cocktail.
The winds of change are blowing – to the rooftop of Rosewood Phnom Penh, a luxury hotel nestled within the 39-storey skyscraper. Here, guests will find Sora, the highest sky bar in the city. The lofty location is stunning, especially at sunset where the dynamic city lights up and you get a unique bird’s eye view overlooking a growing Southeast Asian country that is only beginning to live up to its full potential.
Equally impressive are the drinks at Sora – meaning “sky” in Japanese. The bar has introduced a vividly illustrative and progressive menu, comprising 12 cocktails that honour Cambodian native ingredients, and influenced by Japanese mythology and stories.
Created in partnership with Proof Creative (the bar and beverage consultancy arm of Singapore-based Proof & Company), the menu titled “The Book of Yokai” celebrates the tales, myths and folklore of celestial and supernatural beings found amongst Japanese legend.
What is a yokai? The Japanese word relates to all things supernatural, although Sora describes it as “the embodiment of a moment, a feeling of bewilderment, awe and wonder over an extraordinary event; a strange sound or peculiar scent that demands an explanation; an ineffable phenomenon explained only by a supernatural entity.”
The vividly illustrated Book is divided into four chapters featuring one character. Each chapter offers three drinks and one non-alcoholic option, and showcase the complexities of a quintessentially Cambodian ingredient.
The story begins with a tribute to Cambodia’s high-quality rice. Influenced by the ferocity and strength of the Japanese dragon Tatsu, the God of the Seas blends brown rice-infused London Dry Gin with dry vermouth and rice vinegar, and is finished with a sea smoke spray.
The Bow ‘n The Arrow features sake, rice and almond milk, and straight wheat vodka. The ingredients are inspired by the legend of Tawara Toda who was given an inexhaustible bag of grain and milk by the Dragon King for saving his family.
The next character is the fabled Tanuki, a shape-shifting raccoon-like spirit known for its love of sweets. The rich and smooth Shapeshifter has distinct caramel notes which come from Cambodian palm sugar and a fat-washing technique called “florage” which infuses Diplomático rum with cashew nut butter. The drink is then stirred with miso for umami and whisky, and presented with a side serving of cashew nuts.
The third character, Kitsune the fox, inspires Sora 75, a twist on the classic champagne cocktail, French 75. Kampot pepper, renowned as the world’s most aromatic pepper, takes center stage as it lends floral and spicy fragrances to this clean and refreshing drink. The concoction combines passion fruit with red Kampot pepper aromatics, topped with sparkling sake and Kampot pepper sugar dust as garnish.
The last character is the long-nosed mountain spirit Tengu. The cocktail The Crow Collins references the legend of the first-ever banana flower brought to Japan and presented to an old Samurai warrior trained by the Karasu Tengu (usually portrayed to have large black wings and beaks, similar to that of a crow).
The refreshing Highball infuses Plantation rum with banana flower to create a delicate, naturally pink concoction but ends with a slightly bitter finish and notes of citrus from makrut lime.
Read the Book
On the same level is the hotel’s stylish and intimate Whisky Library where guests can find the widest selection of single malt whiskies in the country and an extensive cigar collection. Like Sora, the new menu is inspired by Japan but instead of fox spirits and dragons, the drinks pay homage to Japan’s rich cultural heritage and precision of its craftsmanship.
Each of the six whisky cocktails is a work of art inspired by the Tenka Goken (a group of five great Japanese swords) and The Book of Hagakurae (also referred to as the Book of the Samurai).
Among them is The Imperial, a light and earthy tipple featuring dry figs infused in Scotch whisky, Campari, Japanese umeshu, and a splash of ponzu. It is named after the Imperial Museum which houses Onimaru, known as the “Demon Sword”.
The Rosary recalls the Buddhist tale of the sword Juzumaru Tsunetsugu – a blade used not for war, but for peace – with a symbolic rosary wrapped around its hilt. This take on the Japanese classic Highball features Westward Whiskey for a refreshingly dry finish to the drink. Pair it with a cigar (the lounge boasts 24 varieties) and ponder upon the world of Japanese Samurai warriors.
It might be a while for Phnom Penh to appear on a Best Of list, but consider visiting Sora and Whisky Library on your next trip to the city, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
Discover the distilleries
Made-in-Cambodia spirits are a small but growing market in Cambodia. These three companies use locally grown ingredients in the making of their premium spirits for unique flavours and a distinct Southeast Asian twist.
Samai, meaning “modern” in Khmer, is Cambodia’s first premium rum distillery, founded by Antonio Lopez de Haro and Daniel Pacheco in 2014. Together with master blender Darachampich Moang, they combine Latin traditions with Cambodia’s natural resources, including top-quality sugarcane which produces thick caramel molasses that forms the base of all Samai rums.
The distillery produces four types: Samai White Rum is aged in ex-bourbon barrels for a mature and flavourful fruity rum; multi-award-winning Samai Gold Rum is more complex, and displays the intensity of Cambodia’s molasses; first-of-its-kind Samai Kampot Pepper Rum is specially crafted from a blend of aromatic red Kampot pepper and combined with carefully hand-picked aged rum; and Samai Px Rum Liqueur is an elegant blend aged in specific Pedro Ximenez barrels from Spain.
Founded by husband-and-wife team Marco Julia Eggert and Tania Unsworth in 2018, Seekers Spirits has become Cambodia’s top-selling premium gin and gin of choice for luxury hotels, restaurants and bars like Sora. Using sustainably sourced native botanicals, they ”distill the flavours of the Mekong into each bottle.”
The Seekers Mekong Dry Gin is a smooth and vibrant gin, handcrafted with 11 native botanicals foraged from the banks of the Mekong River and spring water from the Kampot mountains for a full bodied, sippable gin.
The signature Mekong Dry Gin is matured with wood for a silk-smooth texture and the finest spice notes of cinnamon, coconut and vanilla. The distillery also produces Seekers Mekong Vodka, a selection of liqueurs such as coffee and orange, and ready-to-drink cocktails.
Japanese-owned Mawsim is a hidden bar and distillery located in a nondescript building in the heart of the city. The name is Arabic meaning “season”, and is a word from which “monsoon” originated – the wind that carried Dutch gin to Japan during the era of the country’s isolation.
It produces two award-winning gins. Spices & Herbs feature selected local ingredients such as raw peppercorns and wild Cambodian cardamom for a warm, fine aroma and pungent aftertaste, while Tropical Citrus balances four types of tropical citrus and passion fruit for a crisp and smooth finish.
Rosewood Phnom Penh is at Vattanac Capital Tower, 66 Monivong Boulevard, Sangkat Wat Phnom, Khan Daun Penh, 120211, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
All photos courtesy of Rosewood Phnom Penh unless indicated.