We now know who the real creator of the Jungle Bird cocktail is.
In Part 1, I speculated about who would have had the knowledge to create a cocktail that made such a strong impression to anyone who tasted it. The reputation of the drink had travelled all the way to America where it was written about in 1989 in the Bartender’s Guide.
Someone who worked in the old KL Hilton, where the cocktail was served as a welcome drink, told me that it could have been the then F&B Director. The director was German and he may have been knowledgeable about classic cocktails. Mind you, whilst Jungle Bird was created in 1973, the popularity of tiki cocktails (which the Jungle Bird is considered as one) had faded in the 50s. So for him to introduce a tiki cocktail as a welcome drink for the hotel guests based on the tropical weather totally made sense. This story was published in the first issue of our print magazine in March 2017.
The story then developed further as I spoke to more people and got to know the bar crew in the opening team of the hotel. There were six outlets in the hotel, out of which the Aviary Bar in the lobby would be where guests first experienced their welcome drink. The bar was named after the birds which were kept free roaming in a netted area right outside the bar, where chirps from the colourful birds could be heard in the bar.
In Part 2, I wrote more about the interview with Jason, a personal butler in the hotel who was working there since even before the hotel was built. (Go read Jason’s story here, it’s amazing, he’s still working as I write)
Then I met David Hong, who was in the wine section of the hotel with the opening team (he imports and sells wine now). He totally collapsed my theory about the German F&B Director being the creator of the cocktail because the director had no clue about cocktails, he was a chef! He said that the hotel wanted a tropical drink as the welcome refreshment and the barmen (that’s what they were called at that time) were tasked to create one with tropical fruit juice, served in porcelain and garnished with an orchid.
The Beverage Manager at the time was Ong Swee Teik (born 10 August 1948), also known as Jeffrey Ong, and his creation was picked from out of six drinks made based on “creative creation” (as in freehand, or now referred to as twist) from the classics. Most of the barmen at that time already had basic knowledge of classic cocktails from their time in previous hotels such as Merlin Hotel or Federal Hotel.
The Jungle Bird cocktail was named to commemorate the birds of the Aviary Bar. It was said to have been served in a brown and greenish bird shaped porcelain glassware. These glassware were used up to the end of the hotel before it was closed in 2013 when it was run as Crowne Plaza Mutiara. Unfortunately, the glassware were stolen before they were sent to auction. We can’t find a picture of the original drink to date. If you have any information, please send us an email at email@example.com.
Let’s talk about Jeffrey Ong, the creator of the Jungle Bird cocktail. He was born in Penang and is now 71 years old. Yes, he is still alive and we got to tell his family about his story, creations, and when we found him earlier this year. Here is a picture of Jeffrey Ong when he was very young!
Jeffrey Ong (far right) circa 1970 [Photo from the family]
Jeffrey left to move back to Penang after a two-year gig with KL Hilton and started working for Rasa Sayang Resort in Penang. There, he created the Asmara, a welcome drink with pineapple juice, mango juice, grenadine, lime juice, simple syrup and a dash of bitters that was also very popular amongst the guests.
120ml pineapple juice
60ml mango juice
15ml lime juice
15ml simple syrup
Dash of bitters
1) Add all ingredients except the bitters into a shaker.
2) Add ice and shake till it is chilled.
3) Pour into a porcelain glass then add dash of bitters.
4) Garnish with a cherry skewed on top of a pineapple.
The Assistant Beverage Supervisor at the time, Andrew Charles, described him as “(a) nice guy to work with, who imparted his knowledge to the staff and cared for their welfare.” We also found out that Jeffrey was very quiet, soft spoken and doesn’t drink! His wife once asked him, how did he make all those cocktails when he doesn’t drink? He said he used his nose to smell the aromas, and simply tasted the drinks but not fully consume them.
Jeffrey left the bar scene in 1979 when he went to work as a clerk for the purchasing department of a hotel. You’d think it’s such a waste that a talent like him didn’t continue to make more wonderful drinks. He didn’t think like that, he just didn’t want his wife to worry about him working late and he wanted to build a family. Jeffrey worked in the purchasing department of Cititel towards the end of his career when he retired.
As requested by Jeffrey’s family, we ask for the public to respect the privacy of the man and his family and understand that they are not people who want the publicity. We ask you to remember Jeffrey Ong, the Penangite, as the one in the picture above, and as a man who cared for everyone around him, as well as a professional who is very much respected in his field.
[Update: Jeffrey Ong passed away peacefully on 26 February 2019 with his family by his side in Penang.]
As Malaysians, the Jungle Bird cocktail will always live inside us. Whichever good cocktail bar you visit anywhere around the world, order a Jungle Bird and the bartender will make you one. Because, it is that famous.
From 29 June to 14 July 2018, 13 bars in Malaysia are serving their own version of the Malaysian classic at a special price for the #DrinkJungleBird initiative. Come celebrate with us at GinRum.Me, the first gin and rum festival to taste over 20 labels of the spirits, take part in workshops, try drinks from our guest bartenders and also our signature Jungle Bird cocktail. Buy tickets here.
Jungle Bird recipe
45 ml Dark Jamaican rum
20 ml Campari
45 ml Fresh pineapple juice
15 ml Fresh lime juice
15 ml Simple syrup
1) Add all ingredients into a shaker.
2) Add ice and shake until it is chilled.
3) Pour into a tiki mug or a rock glass.
4) Garnish with a pineapple wedge.