Maybe it’s the hefty portion of deer antler that explains its popularity.
Or maybe it’s another of the “precious Chinese herbs” that are blended into its generations-old, ultra-secret recipe.
Or perhaps it’s that dubious pledge on the package that drinking it will “build up a strong physique and mental state.”
No matter what the explanation, the Lao Hang Heng Wine Co Ltd and its flagship product Special Muscle Wine have been gulping up an increasingly large share of the domestic liquor market, company and government officials said Monday.
“Special Muscle Wine is the best-selling Cambodian-made liquor in the country,” Lao Hang Heng General Manager Ung Kuong said.
“What can I say? We were the first Cambodian liquor company to have success. People trust us because we are a local product and local label. When people learn that they can become healthier by drinking [muscle wine] then they remain customers,” he said.
Special Muscle Wine, which sells domestically for $2.50, can be found in duty-free shops, international expositions and Khmer restaurants and retailers across the country.
With the company eager to tap into the 18- to-40-year-old male demographic, the muscle wine’s trademark—a Speedo-clad, bicep-flexing bodybuilder—has appeared as a sponsor at events as high-level as the national kickboxing selection tournament.
“Last year, muscle wine was sent to an expo in Vietnam. At that time I saw many Vietnamese people taste the wine and buy it,” said Kuoch Ky, secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce.
“Muscle wine is sold at the airports. Khmer Americans usually buy some for their relatives, or for friends as a souvenir,” he said.
Founded in Phnom Penh in 1930 by ethnic Chinese Cambodian Lao Hang Heng, the family-run firm began as a small soft drink distributor under the French protectorate.
Today, it is a booming business producing 10,000 bottles of muscle wine daily and employing more than 70 workers at five locations nationwide.
“We started producing alcohol after 1963 with the Black Cat Brandy brand,” said Ung Kuong. “In 1968 we introduced Special Muscle Wine. It became very, very popular. Any Cambodian over 50 knows our name.”
Ear Cheam Heng, the company’s 65-year-old president and grandson of Lao Hang Heng, said that when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975 the company was forced to close. He and his family moved to Hong Kong and did not return to Cambodia until 1999.
After a 25-year hiatus, Special Muscle Wine was re-introduced to Cambodia in 2000 with the same logo and recipe.
“It’s a very unique, traditional recipe that we can now produce with high-tech machines,” said Executive Manager Hok Sovanna, who would not disclose company revenue but claimed that Lao Hang Heng has increased its profits each year.
“We import all the ingredients from the Tang region of China and our president oversees the process. He is the only one who knows the recipe,” he said.
The recipe for Special Muscle Wine is a closely guarded formula. Company officials claim that the ingredients are all natural and give the beverage its alleged health-promoting properties.
“It’s like Chinese doctors: They never tell you what’s in the medicine,” Ung Kuong said.
“After you drink other alcohol, like whiskey, you wake up tired and you have a headache,” he said. “When you drink muscle wine you wake up feeling fresh and healthy.”
But not everyone is convinced.
“Some wine companies are advertising that drinking their wine will mean good health. But in general, wine drinkers will never have good health,” said Minister of Health Nuth Sokhom.
The package for Special Muscle Wine claims that the product—which is 35-percent alcohol, or 70 proof—is particularly effective in alleviating rheumatism and fatigue.
“This is a strong beverage. You cannot have a strong mind after you drink it,” said Jean Baptiste Dufourcq, medical director at Calmette Hospital. “All alcoholic beverages, even beer, are detrimental to the body.”
But Dufourcq would not rule out the possibility of beneficial aspects of Special Muscle Wine.
“We have to be careful of our Western opinions of medicine,” he said. “Some medicines can be helpful as a placebo.
“Perhaps this wine helps the patients psychologically, but it’s certainly not any chemical help,” he said.
Still, company officials steadfastly maintain that Special Muscle Wine has been proven to promote health by consumers and governmental agencies alike.
“It’s true. If you lie you will lose your customers and your market will go,” Ung Kuong said.
“We have had tests done by the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy and by the Ministry of Health,” he said. “Also the governments of Japan and Thailand allow us to sell the product in their countries.”
Nuth Sokhom and Ung Phirum, secretary of state for the Ministry of Health, said they had not seen results for any tests on the wine.
Ung Phirum said it has probably been laboratory tested.
Nuth Sokhom said the ministries of agriculture, commerce, health and industry, mines and energy are not clear about which ministry should be inspecting what.
“We don’t make clear which ministry inspects what types of products,” he said.
“We need to decide which ministry is in charge of what type of goods. But in general, products that affect people’s health are always blamed on the health ministry,” he said.
Kham Samreth, 37, said Monday that he drinks his muscle wine with ice or mixed with soda.
He drinks it at least twice a month, and said that three people can usually put away two to three bottles in one sitting.
“The taste is good. If you drink a lot you will get drunk, but you don’t get a headache,” Kham Samreth said.
But, he added: “It doesn’t matter where the wine comes from, if you drink too much you will still crash when driving.”