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How Kuala Lumpur Became a Craft Cocktail Capital

These bars are contributing to this Malaysian city's cocktail bloom.

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It’s a predictably humid spring night in Kuala Lumpur. A band of 20-somethings seem impervious to the heat as they queue up outside a modestly appointed toy store, amid the bustle of Chinatown. They aren’t here for children’s trinkets. A door opens at the rear of the shop revealing a secret entryway. Through a dimly-lit brick corridor, they arrive at a glowing backbar, crowded with five shelves worth of booze. A dozen pages of menu describe the alcoholic arrangements, divided by era of origin and basic flavor profiles. Someone orders a Salty Nihonsan from the ‘disco’ section, and a lively construction of shochu and citrus soon sits atop the bar.

The setting at PS150, one of the city’s hippest speakeasies, might seem familiar to anyone accustomed to contemporary bar life. But Malaysia’s capital—KL as it is colloquially known—is anything but typical. The culture is something of a cocktail in and of itself, synthesizing equal parts Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Western traditions into a vibrant mix of modernity. And the drinks here humbly reflect that blend.

Two hundred miles to the south, Singapore has been hogging much of the regional spotlight. With quiet determination, though, Kuala Lumpur is slowly stepping out from behind the shadow. Welcome to Southeast Asia’s newest craft cocktail capital.

Recent buzz belies the fact that KL quietly owns something of a mixological pedigree. Its oldest bar resides in the Royal Selangor, a stately, 130-year-old social club. In the late ‘70s, the Hilton here invented the Jungle Bird—a bittersweet take on Tiki, combining Campari and lime juice with pineapple and dark rum. The drink slowly spread its wings across the globe, while the city that birthed it remained relatively obscure to American drinkers. It took until 2013 to shake it out of dormancy. That’s when local bartenders Shawn Chong and Karl Too opened the city’s first high-end cocktail destination.

Omakase + Appreciate was a risky proposition at the time—an unmarked space, hidden from foot traffic, devoid of a traditional menu. Those with the resolve to find it were asked to place their trust in bespoke concoctions, surrendering the impulse to order anything specific. “Our core selling point is we customize cocktails based on the guest preferences on spirit, flavors, even texture,” explains Too. “There’s also four special cocktails created by Shawn [Chong] and myself that change every 6-8 weeks.”

The concept was a smashing success, of course, due, in no small part, to the creative genius of its owners. But also because this city was thirsting for something new. And proof poured out in the flood of specialty cocktail bars to follow.

Today, Omakase is joined by places such as Coley, a playful parlor in the trendy neighborhood of Bangsar where whiskey is mixed with guava bubble tea, and Fireball collides with soy milk and cincau. At Pahit, house-made modifiers like lavender basil syrup and hibiscus soda re-freshen a gin-centric menu. Bar Trigona at the Four Seasons concentrates on native Malaysian ingredients, sustainably sourced. Turmeric and raw organic honey work their way into many of the offerings. Karl Too’s next project, opening later this year, is a cafe concentrating on alcoholic beverages blended with coffee.

“It’s not uncommon to see bars serve cocktails infused with rice wine, Chinese tea or local ingredients,” says Natassia Faber, beverage director at The RuMa Hotel. “I’ve even seen a bar using Chinese herbal remedy in a drink.”

The experimentation is yielding results in the form of worldwide recognition. This year’s coveted list of ‘Asia’s 50 Best Bars' awarded distinction to no less than three KL outposts, more than ever before. Included among the winners was JungleBird—no longer just a cocktail, but an elevated tiki lounge fusing whimsy with lofty execution.

“The cocktail scene has been on the rise for at least the past 5 years now,” observes Faber. “There are constantly new bars opening up at least every month; some thematic, while others focus on offering a unique cocktail menu.” Tasked with crafting the drinks at the city’s latest luxury boutique—with three separate venues under her purview—she’s an integral player propelling that scene forward.

Faber leans on setting to inform the focus of each respective space. At Seven—a bar set off to the side of the property’s elegant lobby—copper-clad fixtures and a minimalist aesthetic both beg for classic preparations. So she opted to dive deep into gin and tonic culture. But traditional assembly is reimagined in over a dozen different variations, where the botanical profiles of spirit and mixer are matched with corresponding local ingredients. Pandan and laksa leaves, smoked coconut, highland peppers all take star turns in refreshing elixirs ranging from $10-16 a piece.

“We have spirits that are not commonly found in regular bars around the city,” notes Faber. “This enabled us to be a bit more creative with our cocktail menu, featuring unique spirits and pairing them with premium mixers and garnishes.”

In higher-profile settings—New York, London, Hong Kong—hotel bars have long lived as breeding grounds for cocktail exceptionalism. A strong indicator of its continued evolution, Kuala Lumpur is beginning to adhere to the same template. Faber, for one, feels the pressure to stay on the cutting edge. Beside an outdoor pool at Santai, suspended six floors above the city, she presents guests her craft spin on the Jungle Bird, served under a metal cage. Cheeky props aside, in KL nothing can keep the cocktail scene from taking flight.

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