LIFE is often described as a mixture of chance and choice, with random variables coming together to nudge one down a particular path.
At a no-menu craft cocktail establishment like The Mandarin Bar in Penang, offerings are conjured on-the-fly depending on the customer’s mood, personality and preferences, as well as what the bartender has to work with on any given day.
But as it is a speakeasy, you will have to find it first. Located within a nondescript old shophouse on Irving Road in George Town, the only clue is a street number on a postbox.
Hint: the building is painted light beige and has maroon metal sheeting. Knock, wait for the doors to open and then venture inside the domain of self-taught mixologist and owner Lim Yin Wei.
He will ask about your day and what you like. Tired after work or game for adventure? Do you like to experiment or play it safe? Sweet or bitter? Fruity or herbaceous? Favourite foods? Any allergies?
Based on your descriptors, he intuitively picks from the hundred-or-so different spirits, liqueurs and house infusions to proffer a wholly personalised restorative.
You could stop by on different days and be presented with totally different concoctions.
Lim is a master of his craft so take that leap of faith – you might just land on something memorable!
On my visit, I happened to be slightly hungry.
After peering into his mind’s crystal ball, he reached for Irish and American whiskies. Lemon, bitters, syrup and salt went into the mix which was then capped with a smoker and set alight.
Once the plumes dissipated, I found sweet, smoky and savoury nuances that reminded me of a barbecue. It was exactly what I needed.
When done right, the dealer’s choice does pay off. This also encourages customers to venture outside their comfort zone and explore new ingredients and flavour profiles.
“Locals tend to be more reserved about their preferences. By striking up a conversation, we can read their palates better and also gauge their drinking prowess.
“Only then can we make a drink that truly resonates,” shared Lim, who previously worked in the automotive and F&B industries before opening The Mandarin Bar in August 2019.
He was hands-on with the interior design and the industrial-style back bar made from corrugated metal sheeting and piping is a source of pride.
Lim was adamant about not having a menu from the start.
“I didn’t want customers to simply go along with what we offered. I wanted to craft personalised experiences that are all about them instead.
“Some of the wildest requests we’ve had include Mala and Chinese herbal soup cocktails. Every drink is a challenge but we embrace it,” added the award-winning mixologist.
Some might see this approach as rolling the dice, but he and fellow bartender Rex Choo said customers were seldom unhappy.
If one really finds a drink unpalatable, they will replace it.
I requested something fragrant and photogenic next.
Lim turned to gin, combining English and Japanese labels with lemon, lychee juice and butterfly pea syrup. It was then put through a carbon dioxide injector and voila, a stunning violet tonic emerged.
The rose petal garnish delivered immediate floral notes while the gas gave it a champagne-like fizzy mouthfeel that accentuated the gin botanicals.
Upon learning of my love for single malts, coffee and durian, Lim cleverly brought them all together.
By chance, he had just steeped durian husks in stout barrel-finished scotch. After adding a shot of espresso to the mix, out came a glass that resembled a decadent iced mocha.
Whipped cream on top played to that but once the whisky and pungency of durian hit, it was like a warm and comforting hug. A magical way to end the night.
The bar does not serve food so grab a bite beforehand. Reservations are advised as the intimate space only seats 20.
They will also be participating in the upcoming Penang Cocktail Week from Oct 20 to 29 which features guest shifts by renowned bartenders, masterclasses, workshops and tastings.The Mandarin Bar — 3B Jalan Irving, 10450 George Town, Penang. Business hours: 7.30pm to 12.30am Monday to Friday. Tel: 018-405 8887
This is the writer’s personal observation and not an endorsement by StarMetro.