Once a minefield, now the pinnacle of sake and shochu excellence, Sora Khmer is savouring the taste of success. This Cambodian distiller of “Khmer liquor” has made a meteoric rise, transitioning from agricultural beginnings to the pinnacle of the international sake scene.

Their agricultural concoctions have captured the imagination of sake enthusiasts worldwide. Now, they are tipped to win the coveted President Award at the 2023 Kura Master competition in France, an esteemed sake competition held since 2017.

“The President Award, due for presentation at the medal ceremony on August 28, represents the apex of this competition. This distinction is reserved for the creme de la creme of sake producers,” shared Hong Sokmean, the director of Khmer Jyoryu Co Ltd.

Ta Sen commune, located in Battambang province’s Kamrieng district, is the birthplace of Sora Khmer’s success. Once a dangerous landmine hotspot, in 2006, Japanese deminers joined forces with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), sponsored by the Japan Mine Action Service (JMAS), to liberate this land for agriculture.

After five years of gruelling work, overcoming tragic incidents, including a mine explosion that took seven lives, the land was finally cleared in 2011. The villagers, led by Sokmean, saw an opportunity to reinvent their future sustainably.

But the newfound safety and agricultural prospects came with marketing challenges, especially due to limited transportation infrastructure.

“Farmers transported their cassava to Thailand every day, but some days we saw them returning, and sometimes their products got spoiled by the rain. This is due to price factors and weather conditions that cause damage to cassava,” Sokmean told The Post.

“Demining alone is insufficient to meet the needs of the community,” Sokmean quoted Ryoji as saying.

“So he encouraged me to research how to make sake,” he noted.

It was during that time that Sokmean decided to resign from his role as Takayama Ryoji’s assistant and became Ryoji’s representative to run an enterprise focused on producing sake.

Recognizing the need for expertise in sake making, Sokmean and Ryoji hired Japanese experts to train them and develop their sake distillation methods. Culminating in their first official batches of sake in 2013.

Their initial production focussed on shochu, distilled from cassava, mango, and banana. With time, they broadened their offerings, incorporating Khmer rice wine and sugarcane wine. In April 2017, Sora Khmer celebrated its first international shipment.

“This showcased the potential of agricultural products from former minefields,” Sokmean stated.

Despite hurdles posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing difficulties, Sora Khmer has persisted. Aiding their recovery is support from Khmer Enterprises, an implementation unit of the Entrepreneurship Development Fund (EDF).

Sokmean and his team are developing packaging and production standards, improving product quality and aesthetics. Recent negotiations with Japanese buyers promise a hopeful future.

“Negotiations with Japan, a country with high standards, took almost a year. But the first shipment of our products has recently been made,” revealed Sokmean, adding plans for collaborations with other nations.

As testament to their progress, Sora Khmer’s products, elegantly repackaged, were displayed at the global food service exposition, Sirha-Lyon expo 2023. They were the sole Cambodian representative among 4,700 wineries and distilleries.

The overwhelming support, especially from the Cambodian community in France, was encouraging.

“Even the French attendees were interested in tasting our products,” Sokmean exclaimed.

This inspired Sora Khmer to participate in the Kura Master Competition 2023.

In this intense competition, Sora Khmer made a stunning debut. With 503 breweries and distilleries participating, their products rose to the top.

The verdict saw Sora Khmer’s White Cassava Sake and Banana Shochu clinching the Jury Prize with Platinum Medals, the Rice Wine garnering a Platinum Medal, and Mango Shochu being awarded the Gold Medal.

“We received fantastic and unexpected news. Not just for us but also the organisers, as it was our first year in the competition, and we managed to secure the Jury Prize for two products,” Sokmean expressed.

The scoring scale, with Platinum awarded to those scoring 93-100 and Gold between 80-92, speaks volumes about the quality of Sora Khmer’s products.

This remarkable accomplishment has placed Sora Khmer firmly on the global sake map. The enterprise, currently producing around 35,000 litres per year, sources local agricultural produce like rice, cassava, and sugarcane.

“Sales have been relatively low, but the ageing of sake and shochu enhances the quality,” Sokmean explained.

The enterprise’s eight products are brewed using local agricultural produce such as sugarcane, rice, and cassava. Sora Khmer, despite its smaller size, procures around 20 tonnes of rice, and sugarcane and cassava from local farmers or grows it themselves.

“We purchase around 10 to 15 tonnes of mangoes annually,” shared Sokmean.

Sora Khmer’s victories present an opportunity to enhance their reputation, increasing demand for their agricultural products. The enterprise is planning to negotiate a second round of exports to Japan in July.

Sokmean is optimistic that successful exports to challenging markets will pave the way for smoother ventures into other markets.

Acknowledging that Sora Khmer’s products are priced higher than similar sakes and shochus, Sokmean attributes this to their stringent standards and focus on quality.

“Sora Khmer’s rice wine is priced twice as high as we use premium jasmine rice and import yeast from Japan. However, we also provide smaller bottle packaging options that are affordable for local customers,” he reasoned.

Despite the higher prices in the local market, the company’s commitment to quality, use of premium ingredients and affordable packaging options add to the value proposition of their products. A dedicated team of six permanent and six seasonal casual employees furthers the brand’s mission of continuous improvement.

The August medal ceremony where Sora Khmer hopes to secure the President Award promises to be a monumental moment for this remarkable enterprise.

“We are expanding our presence and visibility by participating in global competitions held by institutions in countries like the US and Japan,” Sokmean enthused.

Sora Khmer, the wine phoenix rising from a former minefield, remains a testament to the unyielding spirit of Cambodian people and their aspiration to taste the fruits of their determination.