Srah, or rice wine, is one of Cambodia’s oldest and most traditional alcoholic drinks. It’s been used through the ages in ceremonies and celebrations, as well as medicinally. An apple a day for us in the West is a pre-breakfast shot of rice wine for a Cambodian farmer. And while younger people in the cities may have moved on to beer and whiskey, in the countryside rice wine is still the dominant post-work tipple.
In Battambang, we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us where the stuff is made. We were brought to The Rice Wine Guy near Ek Phnom, who has been making srah for about 30 years. He started his trade on the border with Thailand, but now distills in a small wooden shack along the Prek Daun Teav river in a leafy little neighbourhood outside of Battambang.
Rice wine is produced by mixing boiled rice with a type of yeast called called mae. The mixture is put into clay jars to ferment, then a few days later it’s boiled over a hot fire that is kindled with leftover rice husks. The resulting steam is condensed and cooled, producing an 80 percent spirit that is blended to produce 35 percent rice wine.
Although producing srah is a Cambodian tradition, in recent times home brewers and mass manufacturers have been trying to create higher-APV rice wine as quickly as possible by using chemical additives—namely methanol. Methanol poisoning from rice wine has become a problem in the countryside, with hundreds having been hospitalised and dozens dying after imbibing impure or phoney srah over the past four years.
While the Ek Phnom distillery is a regular stop on Battambang’s tuk-tuk tourist trail, The Rice Wine Guy is one of the few distillers that still does things the traditional way. “One-hundred percent organic!” His me is homemade, as the factory-made stuff typically made with chemical additives. He infuses the rice wine with spices like cardamom, curry seeds, and chilli peppers that he grows himself. “I don’t want to use any of that stuff from the market, it all comes from China,” he said—confirming our suspicion that everyone everywhere except the Chinese thinks things from China are bad. The only thing The Rice Wine Guy purchases for his rice wine is rice.
Sombai sells at the markets for 2,000 rial ($0.50) per litre, which makes it a cheaper and more potent alternative to beer. The Rice Wine Guy does a pretty roaring trade with his organic, non-methanol-tainted product and all the tourists rolling through, and with a srah revival on the horizon in Cambodia he’s confident he’ll be making magic happen for quite some years to come.
While rice wine is still being produced all over the country, there’s only one place in Cambodia that produces good ol’ vino: Prasat Phnom Banan Winery. Named after Phnom Banan, old Angkorian-style ruins that are Battambang’s main sight, the winery is run by a local woman who was so enamoured with the stuff she drank on a trip to visit her brother in France, that she came home and learned how to make it by reading books. Yikes.
Located about 14km south of downtown Battambang, you can spot the vineyards from the road. They look out of place in the Cambodian jungle, and it’s worth stopping by just to check out the strange juxtaposition of vineyards and tropical palm trees. The winery itself isn’t very big, and neither the owner nor her staff were interested in explaining anything to visitors the local or foreign visitors, so we showed ourselves around the vineyard then stopped back at the entrance for a tasting.
For $2 per person we got small glasses of the Banan shiraz (which was the only wine available when we visited, though their selection seems to change every year) and brandy, and shots of grape and ginger juice. The wine was served cold, which was probably for the best. It smelled alright, if not a bit too fruity and sweet, and the taste was sour—but not too sour. Drinkable. Better than the £2.99 “Italian” wine you can buy at Costcutter in Sarf London, and way better than the awful stuff we had in Uzbekistan, but not good enough to make the jump and buy a whole bottle.
The brandy was actually pretty palatable, though neither of us really like brandy. The grape juice and ginger juice were awesome, though, and I picked up a bottle of the latter in hopes that a solid shot of ginger, maybe mixed with some potent rice wine, would help us out in times of street food-induced abdominal distress.