Auteur/autrice : Sombai

Un blog écrit par Lara Duston dans Grantourismo.

A Taste of Siem Reap — Sipping Sombai Infused Rice Spirit

Liquor makes an intoxicating, nostalgia-inducing souvenir. Bring a bottle home, mix that favourite cocktail from your holiday, and you’re drinking in your trip all over again, recounting memories with each glass you share with friends.

An expat couple in Siem Reap hope travellers will remember their time in Cambodia after sipping their Sombai infused rice spirit. which has arguably has become the must-buy Siem Reap souvenir. If we didn’t live here, we’d take some ‘home’.

Many years ago when we went to Cuba, it became something of a ritual to sip a mojito or two at the end of each day’s exploration. A terrace bar in a fort with fantastic sea views became a favourite spot. I remember the mojitos were different then to how they’re now served at bars around the world.

The Cubans didn’t use as much ice (I recall always wanting the drinks to be colder) and they were crammed with leafy stalks of fresh mint, not the handful of leaves you see used these days. They were also sweeter and there were always grains of sugar at the bottom of the glass. And they cost all of $1.

When we returned to Sydney, few people knew what a mojito was at the time (it hadn’t yet spread all over the world, as it has done in the intervening years), so we made it a weekly tradition of having friends over to enjoy the late afternoon light on the harbour from our balcony while sipping mojitos, accompanied by bowls of fresh guacamole. (There wasn’t any food when we first visited Cuba, just plain cheese pizzas and bocadillas con queso y jamonada (bread rolls or sandwiches with cheese and fake ham), and we’d also been to Mexico that same trip.)

Those mojitos were a great excuse to reminisce about our travels. And I guess, as a late 20-something, I secretly hoped it was also read as a sign of our increasing cosmopolitanism. We’d been to Cuba, a country only communists, trade unionists and sex tourists were visiting back then. And we’d drank mojitos in Havana!

We established similar traditions over the years, wherever we lived, with bottles of liquor that we would cart home from travels to other countries. For a while it was margaritas, after we brought mezcal and tequila back from Mexico. I finished the bottle of pisco I bought from a distillery in Chile before I left the country. But I did manage to save the cachaça from Brazil, so when I returned from South America we began a sunset ritual of sipping caipirinhas, years before the global craze.

If you’re starting to think we are cocktail trendsetters, forget it. We’re only just starting to see pisco getting used around the globe and limoncello  is rarely offered outside Italian restaurants – for some reason it doesn’t travel well. Why is that? We hardly touched the bottles we brought home from the Amalfi. Maybe it was just harder to imagine being back in Italy from our apartment in Dubai. We had no trouble with arak or raki.

I can’t imagine Cambodia’s national drink of rice wine, which is really rice ‘spirit’, would travel well either. Get it back home and it will probably taste like nail polish remover and remind you of little else other than the heady ‘scents’ that wafted from the tiny hair salons and beauty shops you squeezed by in Siem Reap’s Old Market, rather than the time you first tried it, wherever that might have been.

Our first taste was at a Laotian village on the Mekong, and our second time, which was much more memorable, was on a trip to Bac Ha markets in northern Vietnam, where we drank several bottles of the potent brew with a group of locals. We bought a bottle to take home, but it sat in our hotel mini-bar in Sapa for days and I think we left it there when we left town.

Taste it at the home distillery of an old Cambodian bloke from Battambang who has been making it for years, dredging the water from the creek behind his bamboo home, and filtering, distilling and infusing the potent brew with local herbs and spices, before packaging it in plastic 1-litre waters bottle and recycled supermarket bags, and it’s a different story. Although that bottle sat in the fridge for a while too.

Rice is the main staple of Cambodia. A rich agricultural region here isn’t known as the country’s ‘fruit bowl’ or ‘bread basket’, it’s known, as Battambang is, for instance, as Cambodia’s ‘rice bowl’. It therefore makes sense that throughout their long history, the Khmer people have used rice as the base of the distillation of alcohol to produce rice spirit. They infused it with spices, herbs, roots, and fruit, to use it for traditional medicine as well as to drink socially.

Visit any village on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll find rosy-cheeked locals – men and women – with a glint in their eyes, playing cards, sharing laughs, lazing around on bamboo or wooden platforms or swinging in a hammock, as they share a bottle (or three) of a very crude rice wine that one of their neighbours has probably distilled. Don’t be surprised if they invite you to join them. Do, but, trust us, there’s no need to take a bottle home.

You will probably want to take home a bottle of Sombai, though…

Sombai (pronounced ‘Som Bai) means “some rice, please” in Khmer, and it’s a brand of infused rice spirit that was developed by Joëlle Jean Louis and Lionel Maitrepierre, an expat couple who live in Siem Reap.

Although its base is Cambodian rice spirit, which the couple sources from a local producer, it’s not as potent or as heady as the pure stuff, as they have infused it after distillation, with Khmer spices, herbs, roots, and fruit, such as lemongrass, lime, tamarind, ginger, galangal, and chilli. It’s Cambodian in taste, yet it should travel well. It’s also something you can serve to friends without fearing that they might drop dead.

Joëlle and Lionel were inspired by traditional Cambodian rice wine, but they knew it was too heady and medicinal for most people and not always safe for foreigners with weak stomachs or sensitive dispositions. Drawing further inspiration from the fruit infused rums of Joëlle’s native Mauritius, they began experimenting with infusions of premium quality rice spirits back in May 2012.

The couple only use local ingredients in the rice spirits. The Anise-Coffee rice spirit, for instance, is made from Cambodian coffee beans from Ratanakiri province.

Back in April 2013, Joëlle and Lionel opened a tasting lounge in their home overlooking lush rice fields two kilometres out of Siem Reap and began spruiking the aromatic liquors to selective restaurants, bars, and boutique hotels in Siem Reap, as well as selling it at their stall at the artisanal Made in Cambodia Market at Shinta Mani resort.

Soon after, the pretty Sombai bottles – hand-painted by local artists and sporting the traditional Cambodian checked krama (scarf) wrapped around their necks – became Siem Reap’s must-buy souvenir, while a sunset tasting at the hospitable couple’s home became the thing to do after a day spent scrambling Angkor Wat and before heading out to dinner.

A few months ago, the couple opened new tasting rooms and an infusion workshop in another beautiful traditional Khmer timber house a little over halfway between their home and Wat Damnak village in Siem Reap.

There they take visitors through tastings of the whole range of Sombai’s rice spirits, which currently come in eight blended flavours, each of which has two flavours – the Ginger-Red Chili is my favourite.

Joëlle and Lionel take the time to describe the flavour profiles (they have detailed tasting notes, along with cocktail recipes, on their website) and explain which flavour is best served as a shot, aperitif, mixed in cocktails, offered as a digestif, used in cooking, or poured over a dessert (the Banana-Cinnamon).

You’ll see small selections of the charming bottles sold in gift stores, souvenir shops, mini-marts, and supermarkets all over town. They also have a stall at the Made in Cambodia market. But it’s much more fun to take a tuk tuk out to the Sombai tasting rooms, meet Lionel and Joëlle, do the tasting, and buy some bottles there from their more comprehensive range. I’ll be including a bottle of Sombai in the Siem Reap edition of Take-Homes when I finally get around to doing one.

A tasting is a fun thing to do late in the afternoon before you head out for cocktails and dinner, but it’s also a great way to escape from the monsoon rains. Especially if you follow it with a cocktail class at Asana in the old town…

Sombai Tasting Rooms 176 Sombai Road (look for a red concrete wall), five minutes by tuk tuk from Old Market area, Siem Reap. It’s best to phone ahead and book a tasting. Also get your tuk tuk driver to call for directions in Khmer if he doesn’t know the place: +855 (0) 95 810 890 (English/French) +855 (0) 77 579 130 (Khmer). Tastings 10am-6pm. and Sombai Facebook page. Prices: $5 (10cl), $7 (16cl, boxed), $10(16cl, hand-painted), $13 (70cl),  $20 (70cl, hand painted).

Un article sur Sombai publié dans The Siem Reap Post (en anglais).

SOMBAI !!##!!?!

I know, it sounds like a Japanese exclamation, just before the hero in a comic strip hits the baddy! Well, you’re a tiny bit close with the Japanese, but only a tiny bit close. Actually it’s an infused rice spirit, marketed in Siem Reap by a very nice group of people. I met with Lionel and Joëlle to chat about the drink.

Apparently the idea came from Joëlle (who is from Mauritius). There, they have a drink based on an infused Rum. Known as “Rhum arrangé” in the French, it is a delicate drink, which is popular on the island. When Joëlle came to Cambodia, the idea came for an infused rice spirit. The first task was to find a base spirit that was neither too strong, nor had too powerful a flavour, so the infusions would be tasted over the raw spirit taste.

The result was “Sombai”. The word means “Some rice please” in Khmer, and is obviously appropriate. The spirit comes from Phnom Penh. When it arrives it is at 35%, but with the addition of sugar cane and the fruits, the alcohol content drops a little. It ends up at 29% to 31% , depending on the flavour. The fun came when they tried to make the blends. They came up with 8 flavours, which I have copied from their website, but I’ve added notes of my own (in red below).

The 8 Flavours

Anise – Coffee

Expert combination of badian (star anise) from Cambodia and Ratanakiri coffee beans. Ideal as an aperitif to enjoy the natural virtues of anise and coffee. As a digestive after a nice dinner, the coffee taste that lingers on your palate keeps you coming for more…
The flavour of the licorice is powerful. It’s a very “Mediterranean” drink, bringing the power and passion of the latins through.

Banana – Cinnamon

A blend of sweet and spicy, the prevalent taste of cinnamon gives a festive touch to this flavour. Perfect to accompany a dessert, namely the famous banane flambée with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.
This is a delicate blend. Lovely and tingly on the tongue. The cinnamon really comes through.

Coconut – Pineapple

Cambodian version of the Piña-Colada, with a sweet hint and coconut predominance. Be careful, this drink can be scrumptiously treacherous.
This really is a sweet drink. It smells and indeed tastes of cake. I have been told it makes a wonderful flavouring in soufflé!

Galangal – Tamarind

Clearly the most exotic flavours of the 8, mixing the sweetness and acidity of the slightly candied tamarind to the spicy aroma of the fresh galangal.
This is one of those drinks with the “marmite” syndrome. You either love it or hate it. Personally I love it!

Ginger – Red chilli

The spiciest flavour of the range, combining 2 hot flavours that have been smoothly softened. Ideal to wake up any kind of appetite without it being a rotgut…
This one would make a great base for a cocktail. Very interesting flavours!

Green tea – Orange

It will appeal to those who are less inclined to sweet, with a subtile woody aroma and a scent of wild honey. If you become too fond of it and find this too delicious, you can focus on the antioxydant and anticancerous benefits of green tea; you will feel much better and less guilty…
The smell, amazingly is of honey. This comes from a stick of sugar cane put in each bottle. You can taste it there too. It is wonderful as a flavouring for Sprite.

Lemon – Lemongrass

Inspired by a recipe common in traditional Khmer medicine, lemon being an excellent natural tonic while the infusion of lemongrass has proven anti-fungal and calmative virtues. This Cambodian Limoncello makes a delectable digestive.
It is super refreshing. I have also been told that as a rub, it makes an excellent anti-mosquito balm. Just don’t be surprised if your friends start licking you!

Mango – Green chilli

With a high fruity tang, relatively sweet, and a pleasant spicy touch, this flavour is the women’s favourite. It can be enjoyed as an aperitif or with a mango-based dessert or made from other exotic fruits.
This had a most interesting taste. It would be one I’d return to time and time again.

So there are the eight flavours. Now it’s your turn! Why not go over and have a free tasting yourself? Just call Joëlle on 095 810 890 to make an appointment. They are located at the back of Angkor High School (see the map below – click for a full size version) and it’s not too hard to find. Go down the right road, and look for the Thmor Meas Hotel on the left. A little after that is a huge blue shed, opposite the Angkor Artwork Building. Their track heads off by the side of the blue shed. They are just down there on the right. It’s possibly easiest if you call when you get into the track again, and one of the kind folks will come out and open the gate for you.

In fact, it’s best to go with a group of friends. A party atmosphere is always nice for a tasting and you can all compare notes. When you’ve finished, bottles are on sale from between $6 for a small plain bottle to $18 for a large, painted bottle. Oh I didn’t mention yet. There are options of painted bottles as souvenirs. The bottles are painted by local young Cambodians. Each one is different and unique. It’s as much fun for Lionel and Joëlle as it will be for you, to open each new shipment and look at the designs they have created. Occasionally, there is a particularly special bottle. I was shown one of an Apsara dancer, with gold glitter added. This gave the effect of jewels in the costume. Alas that particular bottle is not for sale!

After the tasting, you can join in the debate. Do you drink the spirit as a cocktail or an additive with soft drinks (such as Sprite) or do you drink it straight (maybe with ice)? I can see an argument for each. But I’ll leave you and your friends to enjoy the discussion.

Finally, you may well be asked what Nationality you are. Don’t get offended. Lionel and Joëlle are looking at which flavours appeal to which Nationality. So far it’s the Anise/Coffee that appeals to the French and other Latins. The Americans and Australians like the Banana/Cinnamon. The Japanese go for Lemon/Lemongrass and Coconut/Pineapple. The Germans favour the Mango/Green Chilli and the Brits are, as yet, undecided.

Whatever you do, where ever you are from, go and try. Then buy a bottle or two as presents for friends. Or better still, buy some for drinking yourself. It’s a unique experience and only in Siem Reap!

For all the details, see their website at

Sombai – Alcool de riz infusé Siem Reap

Depuis quelques mois nous pouvons voir fleurir dans des bars et des restaurants de Siem Reap un alcool délicieux à base d’alcool de riz : le Sombai. Rencontre avec Joëlle la créatrice de cette boisson. : La recette de votre alcool de riz infusé est-elle une recette Cambodgienne ?

Joëlle : Les Khmers ont une longue tradition d’infusion d’alcool de riz, souvent pour raison médicinale, mais aussi pour améliorer le goût de l’alcool qu’ils consomment. J’en ai gouté un peu dans les villages, mais, malheureusement, il leur manquait quelque chose dans leurs recettes pour rendre cette boisson vraiment agréable et facile à boire.
Ce sont ces petits secrets que j’ai ramené de mon Ile Maurice natale. : D’où vous est venue l’idée de tenter la recette de l’alcool de riz car l’alcool de riz n’est pas le candidat auquel on penserait en premier ?

Joëlle : Au contraire, tout comme le riz est la base de l’alimentation locale, l’alcool de riz est l’alcool de référence au Cambodge. Théoriquement, n’importe quel alcool qui tire à plus de 20% Vol peut se prêter à l’infusion de fruits et des épices. Dans la pratique, il faut trouver un alcool relativement neutre et doux pour obtenir un bon résultat. Après quelques recherches, ayant trouvé l’alcool répondant à ces critères, je me suis empressée de le cuisiner avec les fruits du jardin. Le résultat était bien au-delà de mes espérances, même bien meilleur que les rhums arrangés de chez moi. Mais, chut, pas un mot à mes compatriotes, je vais avoir des problèmes (rires). : Quels sont les différents formats et saveurs que vous proposez ?
Joëlle : Les bouteilles se declinent en 8 saveurs differentes:
Mangue-piment vert, citron-citronnelle, gingembre-piment rouge, anis-café, galanga-tamarin, thé vert-orange, banane-cannelle, et le dernier né de la famille, coco-ananas.
Nous avons 3 formats de bouteille : la grande (70cl), la flasque (33cl) et la mini (16 cl). Pour en faire des objets souvenir, nous les décorons avec du raffia et un morceau de krama (ndlr : le tissu traditionnel cambodgien) sur le bouchon. Certaines bouteilles sont même peintes à la main par de jeunes artistes cambodgiens. C’est le cadeau ou le souvenir idéal à ramener du Cambodge, à la fois beau et bon. : Quelle est la bouteille avec l’association de saveurs qui a le plus de succès ?
Joëlle : La mangue-piment vert reste le parfum le plus populaire car tout le monde aime la mangue. Personnellement, j’ai un faible pour l’anis café, la banane cannelle et le coco-ananas, vu que c’est le dernier né; c’est un peu l’instinct maternelle ça (rires). : Comment faites-vous pour faire des associations de saveurs ? Pourquoi ne pas garder une saveur unique ?
Joëlle : Une infusion avec une seule saveur donne un parfum dont on se lasse vite. Avec la combinaison de 2 saveurs, on arrive à des résultats plus équilibrés, plus complexes aussi. Et on ne s’en lasse pas du coup.
Pour y arriver c’est un peu d’instinct et beaucoup d’essais. Au départ je suis partie des combinaisons traditionnelles que l’on fait à Maurice. Et puis, j’ai ensuite cherché à faire des combinaisons plus « cambodgiennes » en intégrant des produits purement locaux et des associations de saveurs que l’on retrouve dans la cuisine locale.
Sombai est avant tout un produit fier d’être cambodgien, bien ancré dans son terroir Siemreapois : Où peut-on acheter et goûter votre Sombai ? Et où acheter vos bouteilles ?
Joëlle : Nous sommes très présents sur Siem Reap, on commence tout juste à nous trouver sur Phnom Penh. Pour goûter, je vous conseille d’aller à Asana, le cadre typiquement cambodgien convient parfaitement à la dégustation.
Pour acheter les bouteilles, nous sommes souvent dans des boutiques d’hôtel, mais nous sommes maintenant un peu partout à Siem Reap. Le mieux est d’aller faire un tour sur notre site internet à la page dédiée (ndlr :, il y a une liste mise à jour régulièrement et les liens vers les sites de nos revendeurs.
Mais il est aussi possible de venir directement à notre petite case où nous préparons le Sombai. Il suffit de me contacter un peu a l’avance.

Merci !

Voici un commentaire très sympatique trouvé sur Tripadvisor à propos de Haven Training Restaurant dans lequel il est fait référence à Sombai entant qu’alcool de riz local intéressant (« interesting local rice spirit »).

Nous sommes très heureux d’apporter l’expérience Sombai d’une boisson locale de qualité aux clients de nos clients.


Haven Training Tripadvisor Review

Article rédigé par Nicky Sullivan à la suite d’une dégustation de Sombai tenue à l’hôtel Héritage de Siem Reap. Nicky y partage son expérience de Sombai qui l’a surprise compte tenu de sa réserve originale vis-à-vis de l’alcool de riz. C’était sur le parfum « Thé Vert – Orange ».

Cette article a été publié dans les pages Siem Reap Insider du principal journal cambodgien The Phnom Penh Post le 07 septembre 2012.