There have always been cocktail bars in Malaysia. One may associate cocktail bars for places to watch bartenders throw bottles around while making your drink (like Tom Cruise in the 1988 movie Cocktail or the flair bartending in Jump if the 90s was your era) but this scene has changed significantly especially over the past few years, with bartenders focusing more on taste than flair. Cocktail bars are now seen as exclusive hangout places for the elite.
In March 2016, Omakase + Appreciate (O+A) became the first bar in Malaysia to be inducted to the World’s 50 Best Bars (Asia edition), placing 10th on this prestigious list.
O+A is a speakeasy style bar, though not the first. Tate was opened earlier in 2012. There is also Mr Brooks with a hidden door next to a garage in a shopping mall. These bars have literally opened doors to introducing this style of cocktail bar to consumers. Drinkers are understanding better now what to expect when visiting a bar with a hidden entrance, dimly lit environment and crafted cocktails made with exceptional ingredients.
After three years operation, O+A has also proven that bars can be successful by being independent from any brand backing. For years, bar stocks are based on which spirits producer the bar is working with. Base spirit brands used in cocktails are therefore limited to range under the producer’s portfolio. Independent from any major brand means less promotional rates and marketing funds by the producer to the bar, but it also means that the range of products allowed in the bar becomes infinite. Customers are now spoilt with choices of different spirits from around the world. They can now try different brands and compare them side by side. This opens up palate experiences to a whole new level.
O+A has recently opened another speakeasy bar, Sparrow, hidden at the back of a cafe. The trend of speakeasy bars has seemed to take off with everyone wanting to open up this style of bar. There is also PS150 with its entrance in a toy shop of a building that was previously a brothel. The identity of a speakeasy bar in Malaysia has aligned its image first with a sense of the illicit, and then good craft cocktails. There is an injection of local ingredients in twisted classics that makes these bars even more enticing.
However, the definition of a speakeasy bar is still not fully understood by the vast public. All the speakeasy bars nowadays are modern takes of the speakeasy, which means they look and feel like speakeasy bars but they are not in actual fact, illegal. Speakeasy bars were establishments that sold alcohol illegally. This kind of bars existed even as early as the 1800s and unlike the modern speakeasy bars that serve cocktails made with exceptional ingredients and skills, the old time speakeasy bars just served whatever alcohol was available, nice or harsh. The image of speakeasy bars became more ingrown during the Prohibition Era (1920s) in the United States when there was a nationwide ban on alcohol.
It may have been a speakeasy bar that puts us on the world map for cocktails but let’s not fixate ourselves with the idea that this is the only way that works for a cocktail bar. What happened to hotel bars and classic cocktail bars? We hope to see other forms of cocktail bars in KL that break out of this mould and do as well with crafted cocktails without being speakeasy. What say you, discerning drinkers in Malaysia?