“How did you come to write a column about alcohol?”
This is a question I get every time I tell people about Tipsy-Turvy. And it’s a question I’ve been hearing for the past 10 years.
Yes, this coming May 6 is a special date for Tipsy-Turvy, as it marks the column’s 10th year. That’s 10 years of sampling and tasting alcoholic beverages and writing about them.
Rum, whisky, brandy, tequila, vodka, gin, baijiu, sake, shochu, schnapps, liqueurs, lagers, stouts, IPAs... I’ve tried them all, and written over 250 articles about them. I’ve met some of Malaysia’s and the world’s best bartenders, visited distilleries and breweries, forged invaluable friendships, and tried some of the most exquisite spirits ever made.
After all that, I STILL get asked how I came to write a column about alcohol. So, for today’s piece, let’s to go back to the very beginning of this column to see how it began and how far it’s come.
In the past, StarLifestyle (or Section Two, what we used to be called then) ran a column about wine called Uncorked. It was mostly about wine, and hardly anything about any other alcoholic beverages.
So, I went up to my editor at the time, Lim Cheng Hoe, and asked, “Why do we have a column about wine, but not one about beer, whisky, or vodka?”. His reply was, “Why don’t you start one?”, and that was how Tipsy-Turvy was born.
From the very beginning, I had a clear idea for what the column was going to be – to educate people about alcoholic drinks, and to encourage Malaysians to drink BETTER, not drink MORE.
Alcohol is a sensitive subject, and one thing I am firmly against is the over-consumption of it.
I didn’t want people to get drunk – I wanted people to appreciate their drinks more for the flavours and stories behind them, and not just because it can get you intoxicated. I may write about alcoholic beverages, but the alcohol is often the least important aspect of what I write about.
The credit for the name has to go to Frank Murray, who used to be the bar manager for Sid’s Pub at Bangsar South, which I frequented quite often at the time. I’d been tossing around some ideas for the name (Drink Tank was one of them), but 'Tipsy-Turvy' was the one that seemed to work best.
There were a few concerns that the word “tipsy” had a slight negative connotation, but eventually, I reasoned that, being a play on the phrase “topsy-turvy”, “tipsy-turvy” could indicate that we’re turning the meaning of ‘tipsy’ upside down, by telling people NOT to get tips.
Now. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit of a noob about spirits and beers at the time. In fact, I’ve been looking back at some of my early stories and cringing over how naive and clueless I was at the time. My knowledge on spirits was rudimentary at best, and I could barely even tell the difference in flavour between cognac and whisky!
I didn’t know ANYTHING about most spirits or even beers. Heck, my main tipple of choice at the time was lager, and the spirit I was most familiar with was vodka, having spent a little time in Poland before joining The Star.Hence, Tipsy-Turvy was a chance for me to expand my own knowledge about drinks, and also to try new and different things.
Since I was (and am still) not an expert on the subject, I decided that I would only write about a certain subject if there was an expert or spokesperson there to talk me through it. Hence, the first few articles were mostly about getting these individuals and personalities introducing certain spirit categories or brands, with very little input or opinion from me personally
It was a very different era for the drinks industry in 2010. The beer industry was (and still is) very much dominated by the two big breweries, with hardly a craft beer in sight. The single malt whisky industry was still finding its footing, and you could count on one hand how many gin brands there were in the country. And last but not least, Malaysia didn’t even have a cocktail culture to speak of, even though we had plenty of talented bartenders around at the time.
So yes, it was tough at first to find things to write about, especially since I was determined to make the stories about the drinks, rather than just the brands.
Tipsy-Turvy started out as a weekly column, but it soon became apparent that I would struggle to find things to write about on such a regular basis, so we decided on a bi-weekly format instead, which has since evolved to today’s schedule of coming out every first and third Saturday of the month.
Funnily enough, the first story I did was about craft beer, despite craft beer being relatively unknown at the time. There was a place called Craft Brews in Mutiara Damansara that served some of the most different and tasty beers I had ever tasted at the time.
Ten years on, the craft beer scene has definitely grown a lot bigger, though it’s still a relatively small market share compared to mainstream beers. Watching that growth, and the gradual maturation of the beer market in Malaysia, has been one of the more fascinating aspects of writing this column this past decade.
There have been plenty of changes in the industry since I started the column. Over the years, I’ve seen Malaysians become more affluent about drinks, and also developing more discerning tastes as well. We’ve seen the rise of cocktail culture in Malaysia, an increasing affluence amongst consumers towards single malt whiskies, craft beers and other spirits, and the influx of many other brands in various categories. We’ve also seen some genuinely world-class bars and bartenders emerge over the past 10 year.
While I cannot claim to be responsible for any of these changes, writing Tipsy-Turvy this past decade has given me a front seat to witness the growth of Malaysia’s bar and beverage industry.
So, what’s next for Tipsy-Turvy then? Well, for starters, I plan to revisit some of the articles I wrote in that first year of Tipsy-Turvy to see just how far things have change over the past decade. As for the future of the column itself, I hope to be able to keep writing it for as long as I can.
Michael Cheang is open to ideas on how to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Tipsy-Turvy. Contact him at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (fb.com/MyTipsyTurvy) or follow him on Instagram (@MyTipsyTurvy) or Twitter (@MichaelCheang).
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