Absinthe on a nearly deserted tropical island.
We’d read on a poster at our guesthouse that Koh Ta Kiev island is home to Syn Absinthe Distillery, producer of some of the most thujone-packed spirit in the world. The legendary, rumouredly psychoactive drink that was historically favoured by all the crazy artists and is now banned or highly regulated through much of the Western world, being brewed up on a palm tree-studded beach in the Gulf of Thailand. It seemed so wonderfully incongruous yet perfectly sensible that we couldn’t leave Sihanoukville without seeing it ourselves.
Coincidentally, Johan, a Californian native who moved to Cambodia and set up on this tiny desert isle to continue his craft of creating extremely potent absinthe—because that’s what you do—was selling his beverages at the Otres Saturday Market the evening before we’d hoped to make it to the distillery. Johan, who I had taken to calling The Absinthe Guy, chatted absentmindedly while he casually sprayed absinthe onto sugar then lit it on fire. Johan looked like a rock n’ roll pirate who had been drinking absinthe all his life, and his silver jewellry flashed in the firelight as he conjured up small cups of opalescent green and red potion. We were entranced.
A few mixers later, we told him we’d been looking for absinthe on our journey across Eurasia, and were surprised and excited to finally find it in Cambodia, of all places. “You guys are lucky, that’s something special,” he said. “To travel and finally find what you’ve been searching for, how many people do that?”
But we weren’t there yet. We still had to get to Koh Ta Kiev.
There are a couple different tours from the mainland to Koh Ta Kiev, but Legends Boat Trips came recommended by The Absinthe Guy. Legends isn’t just a tour to the distillery, but a $15 day trip that includes booze and a bunch of beachy water activites. One of the organisers had coincidentally pimped the tour out to me earlier in the day on Otres 1, so the chance was there waiting for us to reach out and grab. I’m not what you would call a “beach person” and swimming isn’t really my forte, but Mook and Meg’s enthusiasm for aquatic adventure and my drive to experience this increasingly amazing-sounding absinthe distillery trumped my aversion to getting on a boat. We were in.
But unfortunately the next morning Mook was sick. His stomach bug and absinthe indulgence the previous night had him firmly stationed within steps of the porcelain god. So it was up to Meg and I to go on this legendary boat trip-cum-absinthe tour by ourselves.
Legends Boat Tours is run by a group of South African (and one Canadian) lads that love their drink as much as their adventure, and they frown on passengers that won’t make at least a little effort at both. Once we set sail on the turquoise fishing boat, the first event was a beer skulling contest. “Whoever beats me gets a free beer,” yelled one of the South African organisers, who looked like he was still awake from the night before. Some French dude who had never heard of skulling gave it his best, but when the South African tipped his head back, the can of beer was gone in seconds. No contest.
The tour’s first stop was snorkelling. There weren’t enough masks for the group, but everyone was excited to get into the water anyway, even another French dude with a cast on his arm.
Hardcore. As a non-swimmer, I managed to escape the adventure here, though people had started to turn on the pressure. “Take a life jacket, you’ll be fine,” some told me, while others climbed out of the water complaining about stinging sensations from jelly fish or some “microorganisms” or something. Uh, no thanks.
Next stop was cliff diving at a cool little spot on Koh Ta Kiev. The cliff itself seemed about eight or 10 metres high and was shaped like an elephant, but the waters below are filled with treacherous little sea urchins that can stab and poison you if you accidentally step on one. When the boat stopped it was Paul’s job to take an axe and dive down to clear the landing area, and he informed us quietly that there were actually a lot of sea urchins down there that day. Awesome.
The jump looked pretty cool, though. Everyone who went up managed to take dainty little leaps off the cliff and land square in the sea-urchin-clear zone, resurfacing with a gurgle and exclaiming how thrilling but fucking scary the jump was. A few of us pussies stayed in the boat, but after a beer and one very strong vodka cranberry I was intrigued; not because I wanted to swim but because I wanted to jump off that fucking cliff too. It didn’t take much persuasion, and I headed up with Action Woman Meg on her third and final dive. The jump was fun and the saltwater was shit. I consoled myself with another drink.
The third stop was a beach. We were getting closer and closer to the goal of ABSINTHE DISTILLERY. The guys plied us with more drinks and handed out awesome spicy tuna baguettes for lunch. Then it was nap time. No, wait, it was ABSINTHE DISTILLERY TIME.
The distillery is located just metres off the beach in the most amazing little jungle house. It didn’t disappoint. On the ground floor was the distillery space, where the magic happens. Some Spanish (?) dude who was working temporarily at the distillery, learning the sacred craft of the Green Fairy, tried to explain the process to us, but the Legends guys had heard the tour so many times that they pretty much told us how to make absinthe themselves.
We learned that Syn’s absinthe is different because it’s made from highly distilled rice spirit made from local rice wine, instead of grape spirits favoured by European absinthe. An Asian touch that is simply easier to source, and organic. The rice wine is charcoal filtered and then distilled, the methanol is removed and the resulting spirit is then infused with 13 herbs imported from the USA—including the all-important anise and wormwood. The final product is bottled in reused Mekong whisky bottles and sold in Sihanoukville.
Up a wooden ladder was the treehouse tasting deck. The vibe was a bit too chill with Radiohead on the stereo, but there was ample seating with brilliant green cushions surrounding the bar and three tiny tabby kittens looking for love.
The absinthe itself went down smoothly. We tried both the 69 percent green and 85 percent black versions. Both burned a bit on the way down to let you know they weren’t messing around, but the green was anise sweet and smooth while the black left a long-lasting bitterness. At 120ppm, the black absinthe has four times more thujone than the green, and although thujone’s psychoactive effects have been scientifically disproved, the punch was enough to make you sit back and appreciate your own l’heure verte. And the location was wicked; there were green fairies everywhere.
The sun was setting and it was time to head back to Otres. We were properly toasted after a day of booze and salt water, but the Legends crew made sure to squeeze that extra bit of effort out of us on the way home. I don’t know if it was the extra strong rum and cokes or the 85 percent absinthe, but the sunset sure looked awesome from that little fishing boat.