New speakeasy-inspired winebar hits KL

From left: Purple Venus, Owari No Sekai and Mocking Mistress are some of the wine-based cocktails available at the bar.

If you ask me, Private Room isn’t at all hard to locate – unless you purposely want to get lost to play the speakeasy game. The address is posted on their Facebook page and Waze or Google Maps can easily get you there. The door doesn’t have a number but hey, they tell you it’s the yellow door.

Now if you really want to be discreet and hidden, you wouldn’t paint your door a bright lemon. If for some reason you are still lost, they’d tell you it’s next to Petit Bowery in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.

The yellow door will take you up a flight of stairs and you come to another closed door. This time, it is locked. Punch in the passcode which you received upon making a reservation, and the door unlocks to let you into Private Room – Kuala Lumpur’s first (if self-proclaimed) speakeasy wine bar.

Speakeasy refers to establishments that secretly sold alcohol in the United States during the 1920s Prohibition era, when sale of alcohol was banned throughout the country. Secrecy was of the highest importance to speakeasies back then.

Even if you don’t have a passcode as you happened to be in the vicinity and wanted to check it out, ring the bell. Chances are, they would let you in.

The speakeasy part is really just a fun distraction to recall the days when drinking was prohibited, and serving to make you glad for the time we live in now and heighten appreciation for the wines you are about to drink.

“We want to develop and share the wine culture that is still not popular among the younger generation,” says co-owner Keith Chong. “The whisky and beer culture is very developed in Malaysia but the same cannot be said for the wine culture. This is our attempt to make wine as popular as beer and whisky.”

Private Room only serves wine-based cocktails. Photos: Izzrafiq Alias

The space is small but fits in three private rooms and some 80 people can mingle around quite comfortably. It attracts the young, after-office crowd with its easy, cosy vibes and affordable range of wines priced between RM100 and RM200 a bottle.

“We want to attract newbies to the wine world, and we don’t want to scare them with exorbitant price tags. Price is one of the biggest concerns among new drinkers because wine is not a bottle that you can open and store for months like whisky. Our clients are careful with the money and we understand that,” he adds.

Private Room carries over 250 wine labels sourced from 13 local suppliers. It even carries hard-to-find wines such as Barista (RM154) from South Africa; Yannick Pinot Noir (RM163) from Savoie, France; Paco and Lola Albarino (RM166) and Losada Mencia (RM186) from Spain; and Rockford Moppa Spring GSM (RM295) from Australia.

“From a business point of view, it would be more viable to have just three or four wine suppliers, because then you can strike a deal and get better prices for the supply. But we want to reach as many winemakers as possible from Australia to South Africa and even Lebanon, and that is easier to do with many suppliers,” says Chong.

Private Room carries over 250 wine labels sourced from its 13 local suppliers.
Private Room carries over 250 wine labels sourced from its 13 local suppliers.

Justin Ho (left) and Keith Chong hope to encourage more young people to delve into the world of wines at Private Room.
Justin Ho (left) and Keith Chong hope to encourage more young people to delve into the world of wines at Private Room.

The wine bottles are arranged according to the types and are displayed next to the entrance. They are there, instead of in a cellar or the back of the room, for a reason.

“We don’t have a wine list because then our clients will only look at a list of names without exactly knowing what we offer. We want to have conversations with them, know their preferences and use it as an opportunity to talk about wine. We encourage people to hold the wine bottles, to read the descriptions, and to ask us questions,” says co-owner and sommelier Justin Ho, who holds the title of Malaysia’s Best Sommelier (2015).

For newbies, there’s always wine by the glass. Currently Private Room offers four labels for the 125ml pouring – Noche y Dia Cava Brut (RM40), Philippe Dreschler Gewurztraminer 2013 (RM30), Stanley Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (RM40) and De Bortoli Windy Peak Shiraz 2014 (RM28) as well as a wine of the week.

“We use vacuum pump to extract air from the opened bottles, and re-seal them with stoppers. The vacuum in the bottle slows the oxidation process, so the wines can be kept for at least two days,” explains Chong.

But with their current order flow, most of the unfinished bottles are out for less than a day.

For clients looking to spend more, Private Room has about 40 premium wine labels which starts at RM600, and most of them are sold below the market retail price, according to Chong.

The Salon Champagne Vintage 1999 is priced at RM3,800 here although it could reach up to RM5,000 at some restaurants and hotels, and the Louis Roderer Cristal 2006 (RM1,800) and Paul Jaboulet La Chapelle 2005 (RM1,200) are a few hundred ringgit cheaper than elsewhere.

So how do they maintain the low prices? “Well, it’s a trade secret. We have a few strategies that include buying in bulk and paying cash. That gives us a lower margin to start with,” says Ho.

The room temperature is maintained at 16-18°C at all times, and the wines are also sold quickly, so there isn’t any worry about bad stock. The premium wines are stored separately to avoid any breakage or tampering.

Private Room has two sommeliers, so there is always someone to answer your questions.

“Since we are targetting newbies and potential converts, we need qualified personnel who can give the right answers and be able to educate others about the grapes, the vineyards, the winemaking, and more,” says Ho.

The Salmon Bruschetta uses crackers instead of bread to add a toasty flavour to the drink.
The Salmon Bruschetta uses crackers instead of bread to add a toasty flavour to the drink.

From left: Purple Venus, Owari No Sekai and Mocking Mistress are some of the wine-based cocktails available at the bar.

A sommelier’s duty is also to help pair food with wine, and that is what Ho tries to do with the limited items on their food menu. Private Room serves Roasted Pork (RM12 per 100g), Rosemary Lamb Rack with Mash (RM65), cheese platter (RM55), Salmon Bruschetta (RM20), cold cut platter (RM75) and bar snacks.

“We’re planning to expand the menu after April,” says Chong.

A speakeasy is known for its unique blend of cocktails and Private Room has that covered as well. Ho, who is also the chief mixologist, has produced some interesting wine-based cocktails after giving in to clients who kept requesting them. They do serve gin and tonic, Whisky Sour, Old Fashioned and other basic hard liquor-based drinks.

“This is first and foremost a wine bar, and we don’t want the cocktails or liquor to overshadow that. But at the same time, we also don’t want to alienate our clientele who may prefer to drink something other than wine,” says Ho.

He uses sauvignon blanc for Retemed Demeter (RM26), a sourish and zingy cocktail and Mocking Mistress (RM35) that also has a tropical feel thanks to Malibu, cucumber and lime. The Purple Venus with blue gin, parfait amour, Pedro Ximenez and lemon is slightly herbaceous.

Ho’s favourite concoction is the Owari No Sekai which means “the end of the world” in Japanese. This drink with gewurtztraminer, yuzu juice, pink grapefruit syrup, sencha, lime and ginger is shaken dry, which means that the ice cubes are only added right before serving to preserve the flavours.

“I had the inspiration to create this drink after watching an anime. It has a good combination of sweet, sour, bitter and salty taste,” says Ho. “I also believe that it tastes differently according to the mood of the drinker. It’s sweet if you’re happy, and bitter if you’re feeling sad.”

Private Room is also slowly trying to introduce the cigar culture, and has a limited selection of Cuban cigars.

Business is good, if the full house on a Wednesday night is any indication. That pretty much shows that everyone knows exactly how to find that yellow door ... or perhaps it’s all thanks to social media and geo-tagging.

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