Reviving the Cocktail in Phnom Penh: An Interview with FCC-Featured Bartender and Drink Connoisseur Paul Mathew
From 26-29 March, Paul Mathew will be resident bartender at FCC’s Mansion for the FCC Legendary Cocktail Journey event. During the Mansion’s regular nightly lounge hours (opening at 530pm), Paul will have a special bar setup where he will be serving unique regional and historical cocktails. Each of the four nights Paul will focus on presenting cocktails from different time periods of Cambodia. Paul recently stopped by the FCC to talk about his life as a drink enthusiast, bartender, and crafter of specialty cocktails.
Where are you from and how did you arrive in Phnom Penh?
I’m from the United Kingdom. My wife’s a diplomat, and Phnom Penh is our current hope after four and a half years in Beijing before that, where I bartended and consulted for venues and drinks companies. I’ve been a bartender for about 20 years now, initially starting to help fund my way through university, but more recently as a full time career. After graduating I worked for conservation NGOs for around seven years, keeping my hand in behind the bar, but also seeing how different cocktails and spirits were drunk around the world, from the Caribbean to the Congo.
Eventually I left the NGO world to start my own bar – The Hide in London. I currently write for various drink magazines and consult for bars and restaurants in Beijing, Phnom Penh and London, together with other industry-related things like tasting sessions, brand marketing and judging the occasional cocktail competition. It’s a tough life!
How did you find FCC and become involved?
I’ve become interested in the heritage of Asia after being here for a few years. There are old cocktail books and travelogues with expats talking about drinks in different venues. There’s one in particular in which the author goes into the detail of every drink he encountered around the world in the 1930s. He even describes the recipes and names the bartenders, so it’s a great historical record of what was in fashion behind the bar then. In Beijing, I would find some of the locations that were spoken about, places that are still there and some that aren’t.
Every bartender I know who has been through Cambodia referenced the FCC and I came pretty soon after arriving, and got to know a few people in the industry. It’s a fantastic venue with an interesting history, and is rooted in the diverse heritage of Asia. With FCC, it’s a restaurant that fits the theme of “historical drinking.” For me it’s fun to bartend and study drinking culture now, because of the interest in the classic cocktails and how they’re made now. It’s nice to reference the history and heritage of some of those drinks.
Another great thing about being in Asia, in addition to exploring its history, is the availability of fresh fruits and spices. It frustrates me when bars try to make cocktails from fixed recipes that may not be appropriate – the ingredients used in 1980s California aren’t necessarily the best for Phnom Penh, so we get drinks that are heavy on imported, often artificial syrups. Wherever I’m based, I try to use what’s available, making local syrups and infusions, or traditional ones, but with fresh ingredients.
What’s your favorite cocktail to make? Favorite cocktail to drink?
I like things that aren’t too complicated or fussy, but that have a good story and can be twisted to fit a customer’s palate. The bartender’s favorite has to be the Negroni. Bartenders seem to have a preference for bitterness in their drinks. It’s a great drink for wakening up your palate as an aperitif and digestif. It has a nice history as well, centered on the Count Camillo Negroni of Florence in the early 20th Century. It’s a straightforward drink to make and you can order it with confidence throughout the world, but it’s also a great one to play with, as you can make many subtle changes depending on the customer and the occasion.
When it comes to making drinks, I think the joy of bartending is to create something tailored to the taste of the guest. I like making a classic, like a martini, as it’s a simple drink with many variations. It requires you to have a conversation with the customer – to ask questions and get to know them a little in order to make them the best possible drink. You have to understand all the variables, all the different components of what someone likes and dislikes to understand what they’re after. The drinks they order give you insights into who the people are, too. You’re constantly meeting new people and seeing people in a new light. When it comes to bartending, there’s a bit of sociology, diplomacy, and sometimes even a bit of psychiatry involved!
What’s the story with the Mansion drinks?
As you know, I’m interested in the heritage and colonial history of Asia. When I first saw the mansion, I didn’t know it had to do with the FCC. It was wonderful when I found out that it was part of the FCC. I said to myself, “If there’s a chance I can make some cocktails here one day, it would be a fantastic place to capture the heritage of some of the drinks drunk back then.”
Eventually I worked with the FCC and we agreed to do this fun event. I had a few wanders around trying to absorb the character and work out what drinks might fit. I looked through classic cocktail books from different eras and have put together a short list that goes through four periods of the building’s life, from the 1920s through to today. I’ll be bartending each of the four nights, so will hopefully have a chance to explain the drinks and concepts to anyone that’s interested (there will be the regular bar as well – after all, sometimes only a beer will do on a hot evening!).
For the first night, I want to show off the opulence the 1920s and 30s in historic Cambodia by remixing some of the classic cocktails from that period. For the second night, I want to continue by running up Cambodia’s history into the 1970s when things were a little more edgy. I’ll be taking some of the popular drinks of the 1950s and 1960s and twisting them a little. For the third day we’ll look at a 1980s-90s selection, exploring the theme of rebuilding by focusing on contemporary Cambodian ingredients. For the fourth day, we’ll look forward into Cambodia’s future with modern classics and some more experimental drinks. It’s a great venue in which to explore the history of drinking, but it’s also a great place to have some fun with the drinks – cocktails are about having fun and enjoying yourself, so there’s nothing too pretentious!
Paul Mathew is a British bartender, consultant, trainer and writer who has been mixing drinks for over 19 years. For the last seven, he has been the proud owner of the award-winning Hide Bar in London, and has more recently been based in Beijing writing for magazines and consulting for bars, restaurants and brands in China’s capital. He is now based in Phnom Penh, working with drinks companies and venues in emerging markets, as well as trying to open a second venue in London. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and and be sure to visit FCC on Facebook for all emerging event details.