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cocktails are a relatively new addition to Cambodia, Khmer cuisine is undergoing a renaissance, and the Khmer people have a renewed sense of excitement and pride in the quality of their agricultural products and culinary traditions. Even Samai’s name comes from that forward-thinking ethos: In Khmer, the language spoken in Cambodia, samai means “modern.” It’s not the first distillery in Cambodia—like much of Southeast Asia, Cambodia has a long tradition of distilling rice spirits—but it’s the first commercial distillery that aligns itself explicitly with the craft movement. Inspired by the rich rum traditions of their homeland, Antonio and Daniel decided to build their business on pot still rum from Cambodian molasses. They commissioned a custom handmade still from a team of Portuguese artisans, based on a traditional alembic design from the 1800s. “Using a pot still lets us keep most of the aromas and tastes from the raw materials,” explains Antonio, “which gives the rums more personality and more interesting characteristics.” Antonio and Daniel didn’t have a background in distillation, so they were careful to hire a solid team with technical experience, including their production manager and master distiller Darachampich Moang. They were also committed to making products that capture the unique qualities of Cambodia’s culinary and agricultural traditions. “We are a Cambodian brand, and we want the Khmer people to feel proud of this Cambodian rum,” says Antonio. “So we source the best quality raw materials that we can.” One hundred percent of the materials used to make Samai’s spirits are sourced from within Cambodia, including the molasses, which comes from a sugar plantation in southern Cambodia. A less efficient refining process means much of Cambodia’s molasses is very high in fermentable sugars, resulting in a strong yield. A dedicated, climate-controlled room allows Samai to have a longer, cooler fermentation time than most other rum producers. Mashes typically reach 10 percent ABV. Samai’s still is located in the partially-outdoor courtyard at the back of their building. The copper pot still is direct-fired and equipped with a rectifying lentil, a sort of primitive reflux condenser, which enables them to distill to a higher proof than a typical pot still. Despite that relatively high distillation proof, high concentrations of non-fermentable solids in the molasses produce a distillate with robust character. After distillation, the spirit is proofed down to 65 percent ABV before barreling. “For us, 65 percent seems to be the optimum level for a harmonic relationship between the alcohol and the oak,” says Antonio. “If the percentage is too high, we take more of the bitterness from the wood. If it is too low, we aren’t able to get all the desired aromas and flavors.” All of Samai’s rums are barrel aged using a combination of French and American oak casks for initial maturation, followed by a finishing rest in Spanish sherry casks. And, thanks to South Asia’s uniformly warm climate, their rums—much like the whiskies produced at Kavalan in Taiwan and Amrut in India—develop remarkable maturity after relatively short barrel aging times. WWW.ARTISANSPIRITMAG.COM
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