How Malaysia's best cocktail bars survived the pandemic


Bar Trigona was once again the highest-placed Malaysian bar on the list, and also won the Best Cocktail Menu award. ­— Photos: Handout

It has been a tough couple of years for the Malaysian bar community, but things are finally looking up now. The industry even had something to cheer about recently when the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022 was announced at an awards ceremony in Bangkok, Thailand.

Kuala Lumpur bars Bar Trigona and JungleBird came in at #29 and #35 respectively on the list, which featured establishments from 16 cities across Asia.

The extended 51-100 list also saw Penang bar Backdoor Bodega making its debut at #97 (becoming the first bar from the state to be on the list), alongside KL bars Three X Co (#70) and Coley (#100).

I caught up with the folks from each of the five bars to get their reactions on the awards, how they’ve managed to survive the past two years, and also what they are looking forward to in the new “old” normal.

Bar Trigona

Bar Trigona, which became the first Malaysian bar to make it on the World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2020, is located at the Four Seasons Hotel KL, and sets the standard for sustainable bar practices not only in Malaysia, but in Asia as well.

Besides coming in at #29 on the Asian list this year, Bar Trigona also took home the inaugural Best Cocktail Menu Award, recognising it for a unique menu that focuses on Malaysian produce.

According to assistant bar manager Julian Benjamin Brigett, the past few years have been really tough for the industry, especially for Bar Trigona, which was closed to guests during the movement control order period.

“We had to keep the whole team busy last year when we were closed, by conducting training, creating new ideas for drinks, doing a whole lot of research and development,” Brigett said. “This helped keep us motivated and on our toes.”

Bar Trigona also won the inaugural Best Cocktail Menu award.Bar Trigona also won the inaugural Best Cocktail Menu award.

One of the things that kept the team busy was developing the Herb Garden In Your Glass menu, which won them the Best Cocktail Menu award.

“The menu focuses on four different herbs common in Malaysia – pandan (screwpine), lemongrass, pegaga (Asiatic Pennywort), and bunga kantan (ginger torch flower),” he explained.

“We grow the herbs that are used in the cocktail in the hotel itself, and they are used by both our culinary and bar teams to elevate our food and drinks.”

With borders now fully open, Brigett is looking forward to seeing more international guests at the bar. “We will also be launching a new menu again in a few weeks’ time, with a whole new concept,” he added.

JungleBird

Named after the classic Malaysian cocktail, JungleBird is a self-styled “Rumah Rum”, specialising in drinks made with the sugarcane spirit. This is the fifth year the bar has been on the list consecutively, and co-founder Joshua Ivanovic called it an achievement that is “both surprising and incredibly humbling”.

“With so many excellent new entries each year, we’re always over the moon to make the list,” he said.

According to him, nothing prepared them for how utterly devastating the pandemic was for the entire industry, both locally and globally.

“We are beyond thankful that we have so far managed to make it out the other side. We definitely owe that to every person who kept us going during the lockdown, be it through ordering freshly baked pastries and boozy ‘tiRUMisus’, or buying prepaid vouchers and beverage kits for family and friends.

“The entire team here at JungleBird has been incredible as well. When push came to shove, on so many occasions everyone pitched in when it mattered the most,” Ivanovic added.

The bar moved to a new location in 2021 (yes, in the middle of the pandemic!) and Ivanovic said the response to the new location has been positive so far.

“We have worked hard to safeguard the same playful approach to what we do, while maintaining a sense of seriousness to the products we offer,” he noted, adding that the bar will also be launching a new cocktail menu later this year.

Backdoor Bodega

Located in the heart of George Town, Penang, Backdoor Bodega started out as “just a hobby” for founder and head bartender Koh Yung Shen. Soon, the place garnered a reputation for serving excellent drinks and its unique “buy a pin and get a free drink” concept.

Koh said he did not expect the bar to make it on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list at all.

“For a small bar like ours here in Penang to even be considered for the list was beyond our wildest expectations,” he said.

“It was truly a humbling moment for us, to be mentioned alongside all the great bars that we look up to and admire.”

While many bars pivoted their businesses to focus on selling food during the MCO, Koh said that it wasn’t an option for them.

Backdoor Bodega founder Koh is looking forward to helping the Penang cocktail bar scene grow once more.Backdoor Bodega founder Koh is looking forward to helping the Penang cocktail bar scene grow once more.“Food was something we felt we could not do well enough in order to keep the lights on. So, we focused solely on bottled cocktails and merchandise delivery,” Koh shared, adding that his e-commerce background meant that he already had all the resources available to immediately set up an online store for the bar. They even had packaging materials and came up with logistics solutions to deliver bottled cocktails throughout Malaysia.

“This really helped us in generating precious revenue throughout the lockdown as we were able to reach consumers beyond Penang – especially those in KL and Sabah and Sarawak,” he said.

One range of those bottled cocktails, comprising drinks that were named after the various Covid-19 vaccines, proved to be a huge hit and even got featured in international news sites.

“At the time, the demand for Covid-19 vaccines was growing rapidly in Malaysia, so we thought it would be funny to create some vaccine-themed bottled cocktails for people to buy while they wait for their actual vaccine doses,” Koh explained.

They cleverly named their drinks Pfizermeister, Extra-Gineca, Sinosour... you get the drift.

“Little did we know it would do so well. People are still sending enquiries to us about it today!” he revealed.

“It most definitely helped pull us through the last few months of the lockdown in 2021 when it seemed the darkest for our bar’s future, and I will forever be grateful for that.”

Now, Koh is looking forward to welcoming guests back to the bar once again.

“I always believe that a bar is about the people first and foremost. Therefore it gives me great joy to be able to welcome guests back again, and to be alongside the team I have missed working with over the past two years,” he said.

“I also look forward to playing our part in picking the Penang cocktail scene up from where it left off in 2019, and getting the momentum (and good times) back on track again.”

Three X Co

Located on the third floor of Bangsar Shopping Centre in KL, Three X Co was founded in 2017 by three friends with a common interest, hence the name. The bar blends local oriental cultures with a Prohibition-styled speakeasy theme, and is helmed by bartender David Hans, who was the first Asian World Champion at the Giffard West Cup in 2017.

Three X Co made the actual Top 50 list last year, but although it dropped to #70 this year, bar manager Angeline Tan said they were still happy to make it into the list.

“We were open for not more than six months in 2021 and with not much international travel happening, too – we are glad we still managed to be on the list,” she said.

Three X Co’s drinks blends local oriental cultures with a Prohibition-styled speakeasy theme.Three X Co’s drinks blends local oriental cultures with a Prohibition-styled speakeasy theme.Three X Co was one of the first bars to pivot to delivering beverage “care packs” and cocktails, and even launched a series of “DIY @Home Cocktail” videos on social media to try and get more people to appreciate the craft of making cocktails and to grow the pool of cocktail drinkers in the country.

They also did their part in helping Malaysians in need through the White Flag movement, with the team gathering on weekends to pack family-sized food aid boxes and distributing them to those in need during the MCO.

“We were able to reach out to 650 families with our food boxes,” Tan said.

With things opening up now, the bad is looking forward to seeing their regulars again, and also welcoming international guest bartenders.

Coley

Kho Chee Keong, founder of Bangsar bar Coley, was happy that the bar just managed to squeeze into the list at #100.

“I did not expect (to make the list) because it was almost impossible to host anyone at the bar,” he said, adding that to survive the difficult period, Coley pivoted to food and cocktail deliveries, like many other bars.

“We were also more active on our social media, so that we could keep the brand out there, going deep into our store and inventory to find anything and everything we could use as a marketing tool,” he said.

“We also did collaborations with industry friends, especially chefs, to explore different ways to reach consumers.

As Coley removed all its seats at the bar during the lockdown and partial reopening, Kho is now looking forward to finally having guests seated at the bar at long last.

“We’re so excited that we can seat customers at the bar again! We will be having more ideas to share, and hopefully we can expand and expose more guests to new concepts once again.”


Michael Cheang is looking forward to not having to make his own drinks at home, finally. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram (@MyTipsyTurvy).

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