When longtime Chicago bartender Annemarie Sagoi, a veteran of the Dawson and the Drifter, went to Cambodia last year with her business partner, David Chhay, to consult on a hotel bar opening in the city of Phnom Penh, she only expected to stay for a few months. But while plans for that bar fell through, both Sagoi and Chhay became enamored of the city. At the beginning of 2016 they opened Le Boutier, a craft cocktail bar that celebrates Cambodia’s “golden age” of rock in the 1960s and ’70s. On January 3, Sagoi will be bringing several of Le Boutier’s cocktails to Bar DeVille for a one-night pop-up bar highlighting Cambodian flavors. She talked to me recently about her bar, the drinks she’ll be serving in Chicago, and cocktail culture in Phnom Penh.
How did you end up in Phnom Penh?
Neither [David Chhay or I] had been despite the fact that he’s French Cambodian. He was born and raised in Paris; his parents were refugees of the war. He spoke the [Khmer] language a little bit but didn’t know much about the culture. We just thought it would be fun to explore, and we unexpectedly fell in love with it. It’s beautifully tragic, because for a long time Cambodia was a ruling empire, and in the 60s it was the crème de la crème of music. Music nerds all over the world know that Cambodian 1960s rock and roll was a big thing. All that was overshadowed by the war after that: the Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of their population, mostly the artists and musicians. Everyone is really positive and never really got the memo that they’re supposed to be devastated by what happened. It’s a beautiful place.
What’s the cocktail scene like in Cambodia?
It’s not like when you go to Singapore or Thailand or Shanghai, where you find people challenging the standards. You still get green drinks, blue drinks, things that are too sweet, “martini” lists. We saw an opportunity to try to help elevate the standard. There are places that look like cool cocktail bars but they don’t really know what they’re doing. They’re shaking martinis until they’re all water, using shitty ice—how most bars were in the 90s. There’s only one other bar in the city, called Elbow Room, doing stuff of similar quality. We’re all working together to help change the way people think. Nothing like [bitter, boozy drinks] had really been done before. Now other bars nearby are getting consultants, starting to understand how to use ice. It’s surprising how much it’s changing.
How interested are people there in cocktails?
There’s a huge expat population that lives in Cambodia; mostly they work for NGOs or in real estate. They’re already used to Western-style cocktails and were very happy to see us open. There’s also a rich Cambodian tier. It’s kind of like India, where most people are poor, and a very small sliver of people are richer than you can even imagine.
There are ten drinks on the menu, every one focuses on part of the culture. I think Cambodian people appreciate that. The other cocktail bars are a little bit of a bubble. They’re mostly Australian owned, and they tend to replicate what they have in their own country, instead of trying to bridge or honor or respect where they are.
How do you go about trying to respect the culture?
I use a lot of local flavors, but I can’t use most of the spirits distilled here. There’s one rum distillery not far from my bar that I’ve thoroughly checked out and they cut the heads and the tails, do proper distillation. Other than that, a lot of the booze they have, I don’t trust. I don’t think they know what they’re doing yet. So I make a lot of tinctures and syrups. Kampot pepper—it’s got eucalyptus and really nice pepper flavors—I make a tincture out of that, I make a curry syrup, lemongrass infusions, sticky rice syrup. I try to take the Cambodian flavors and pair them with spirits that work well together.
What cocktails are you serving at the Bar Deville pop-up?
Most of my [Le Boutier] menu is more on the refreshing, citrusy side. But since this is winter and I’m serving Americans, I picked two drinks that were more bitter and boozy, and two that are more typical of what people like here.
One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula is named for a song by Dengue Fever, an LA band that does covers of 1960s-era Cambodian rock songs. It’s local rum, pineapple, coconut, curry syrup, lime, fish sauce. The fish sauce thing freaks everybody out, because the only thing you see on menus here is blue margarita, mojito, Sex on the Beach, things like that. I always have to calm people down.
Cambodian Space Cocktail is named for another band that covers music from that era. It’s bitter, boozy: rye, yellow chartreuse, sweet vermouth, bitters, kampot pepper tincture. Manhattan style but with a nice pepper finish.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is the name of a documentary about 60s Cambodian rock and roll that I saw in Logan Square at a film festival about a year and a half ago. It’s vodka—you have to have vodka drinks, because a lot of people here are scared of anything but vodka. Sticky rice syrup—I take rice, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, sugar, infuse it in hot water for a few days and then strain it. It’s almost like horchata flavors. Then I use some longan and lime as well.
Bura the Explora is named after my tuk tuk driver. It’s another Western-style drink: cognac, because there are so many French people here, apricot liqueur, dry vermouth, Calvados, and angostura bitters.
Le Boutier pop-up, Tue 1/3, 7 PM-midnight, Bar DeVille, 701 N. Damen, no cover