It seems almost an oxymoron to describe a speakeasy as the place to see and be seen. In Prohibition-era America, the concept began with a ban on alcohol, and speakeasies were underground bars that served illicitly-obtained liquor to a tiny, trustworthy clientele. Hidden entryways and mixers that masked the rough taste of moonshine characterised the experience.
Yet speakeasies flourished in Kuala Lumpur when the trend came our way, and though it peaked a couple of years ago, new “clandestine” bars are still being rolled out, albeit at a calmer pace. Word has it that Penang has a speakeasy scene that could rival that of the capital city. On a recent holiday up north, suffering from the unrelenting afternoon heat and humidity, the nights proved ideal to explore the island, and where better than places recommended by locals? And the media. And social media ratings and check-ins. Speakeasy patrons of the 1920s would be appalled. With nothing but addresses in hand, we called on a few of these much talked-about venues.
If you, like me, have friends whose minds have marinated in the gutter, chances are you are privy to a less-than-savoury definition of the name. This is the second venture by the Penangite masterminds behind George Town’s notable izakaya, ChinChin Gastrobar, and it is making waves on the local nightlife scene for its luxurious take on speakeasies.
We pull up in a darkened Lebuh Bishop around 11pm and only by tracing the numbers of the shophouses do we manage to identify Golden Shower. It is fronted by a pristine street-facing bathroom. You read that right. Looking out behind glass doors are black-and-white chequered marble flooring and a gilded porcelain throne. A young woman in a tight dress is awkwardly posing in a white bathtub, upping her social capital with that priceless Instagram shot. We open a second door and find ourselves in a compact room with starkly contrasting décor: a defiled back alley. Now apprehensive, we push open door No 3 and finally find ourselves in the upscale bar.
The walls almost pulsate with pink and I feel like Jonah in the whale in this flushed, enveloping embrace. We park ourselves at the long island that acts as the bar. Groups prefer the gathered seating further in, the entire space glowing with a pink and gold palette. Award-winning Penang interior design company, Nevermore, conceptualised this to be a layered visual representation of human sensuality. The theme of appealing to the most primitive and polished aspects of humanity is carried on with a pared-down but plush menu, including a cocktail list created in collaboration with Wholly Spirits.
Our bartender, Monir, walks us through the menu. The gin selection is impressive and the rye-based Napue (RM35) from Finnish distillery Kyro proves effortless to drink with tonic and a lime wedge, lightly green and citrusy. We try a few cocktails: the Monk’s Swizzle (RM39), with pineapple and gin, evokes poolside lounging while the King Kong’s (RM39) Monkey Shoulder base overpowers the other ingredients. Bar snacks include the earthy truffle chips (RM15) and the pinchos-style small plates, should you arrive in time for dinner, are meant to be quite a treat. The primary appeal of Golden Shower, however, is the space itself, a real hot spot with the crowd ranging from 20-somethings constantly taking photos to a knot of gentlemen in their forties or fifties having a riotous time. Reservations are a must for visits before 11pm if you want a seat.
86, Lebuh Bishop, George Town. 04 263 6868. Tue-Sun, 5.30pm-2am.
Oriental-themed bars are springing up across Penang and among them, Manchu rates especially highly. It does the deed fully, outfitting staff in Manchurian dress and including Chinese opera singers — complete with dramatic headgear — in its entertainment line-up. It’s just after 1am and we find the bar easily. Never mind the stone statues and Chinese characters, just follow the noise and crowd. The place is heaving.
The requisite birdcages, parasols and lanterns of varying shapes and sizes are scattered throughout, as are props patrons can pose with for photographs. We are whisked through a flurry of bodies around the wide, segmented space before being ushered past the DJ booth and through heavy red curtains. This private room is divided into two, sheer drapes separating a larger table on a platform from the smaller one on the floor. We take the latter, the last one available in the bar. Red lighting and the privacy we are afforded instil a sense of sin. Despite the din outside — we missed the opera, there’s a duo singing onstage who segue from a Chinese number to Ain’t No Sunshine above the chatter of the crowd — it’s relatively quiet in here.
We pore over the drinks menu and the waiter obliges our request for recommendations with skilled familiarity. The Gan Bei (RM40) is delightful — whisky mixed with honey, 3-star bai nian, lemon juice and Malta for a light, sweet swallow. “It’s like whisky met rice wine and the two became best friends,” says one of my companions. Admittedly, she’s had a few but I understand what she means. We sample the Cinnabar Red (RM40), quirkily presented in an orb. Vodka proves a discreet canvas for the fruit bowl of ingredients, with sweet dragon fruit the dominating flavour of this spiked pick-me-up. This we offset with the tart Dried Grapes Negroni (RM38) — a cocktail of gin, sweet vermouth, Campari and dried grapes infusion.
Hands-down my favourite is the Whisky Sour (RM38). Fragrant orange peel opens the senses and the texture is perfectly thickened by whipped-stiff egg white. Sweet, sour, tart and mellow pricks of flavour compete with and complement each other, somehow achieving a holistic balance. Honestly, I would return just for this.
38 & 40, Jalan Pintal Tali, George Town. 016 484 0884. Daily, 6pm-3am.
Crafty entrances are an authentic speakeasy trait, and Magazine 63 succeeds in spades. We walked past the nondescript door set amid a row of shophouses along Jalan Magazine several times. A couple of people are lingering outside over cigarettes or waiting for their rides and we find the entire set-up rather dodgy. It isn’t until someone pushes open the door to exit the bar did we realise our ignorance. So clever is this arrangement that the place is colloquially known as “Hidden Bar”.
From the inside, the entrance/exit appears to be boarded up with planks, and hanging at the top is a black-and-gilded signboard featuring Chinese characters. Divided into sections with screens, the casual seating and exposed brick walls throw the focus to the bar counter and the pounding house music after midnight (they must have seriously invested in soundproofing). A mezzanine right beside the bar acts as a dance floor.
Upside-down parasols, Chinese fans on the wall and lanterns mark this as another oriental tribute. Much of the space is occupied by 20- or 30-somethings, though there are the occasional exceptions.
In all honesty, drinks here are fairly unremarkable. The best description we come up with for the Old Virgin is likening it to yoghurt drink Yakult, not necessarily a bad thing if you are after something easy for the evening. My Gin and Tea, which featured osmanthus tea and lemon, is a hint sweeter than I would have liked with a clean mouthfeel. The Rum Squash is heavy on the orange and pineapple juice, with the hit of rum almost indiscernible.
What I will give Magazine 63 props for is presentation — apart from glassware, authentic Chinese crockery also serve as cocktail vessels — and creating an atmosphere that bridges that of a bar and club. To achieve that level of volume, both in the music and the crowd, and still remain completely concealed and quiet when standing just outside the door is no mean feat.
63, Jalan Magazine, George Town. 016 499 2299. Daily, 10pm-3am.
Unlike the others, Noct doesn’t wave the speakeasy banner but it does boast an elegant after-dark concept that warrants it a place in this round-up. By day, the 500 sq ft café goes by the name Norm and serves excellent coffee. The speciality hand brews and espresso-based cups of salvation are matched with a list of premium black, white and green teas, all pairing well with signature waffles. Daytime sees the café flooded with sunlight, thanks to large cut-out windows and a minimalist aesthetic anchored by cement floors and white-tiled walls trimmed in black. Seating is bar-like around the periphery with small tables accommodating 20 to 30 customers. Come sunset, the sign is flipped over and the cosy space is dimmed to better blend into the night as baristas make way for bartenders. Throughout, the ambience remains laidback and unpretentious.
We are grateful for immediately finding seating on our spontaneous visit. The menu changes accordingly from day to night and we browse the drinks list — called Noctails — with interest. Much effort has been poured into its creation and offerings are divided into Signatures, Classics and Milk Punches. There are also spiked Drunken Desserts for those so inclined.
The Serai Kampung Pandan (RM28) sounds cooling in this heat, a cocktail built on Tanqueray gin infused with pandan and lemon grass, then enhanced with the essences of both and topped with bitter lemon soda. It is shockingly sweet but one of the owners happily agrees to replace the drink. The second version is refreshing, the pandan aftertaste peeking through shyly. Our Brand(y) New Old-Fashioned (RM35) features a twist on the classic, remade with an exclusive stash of barrel aged brandy. This goes down well enough with a decent brandy kick but rings a little hollow in depth of flavour. I choose Hendricks for my Gin & Homemade Tonic (RM35), a silkily smooth mix served with cloves and cucumber.
Service is friendly and the relaxed café-turned-bar is a great place to visit by day or night. Bring a book for some alone-time or meet friends to catch up over coffee or cocktails.
1, Gat Lebuh Macullum, George Town. Daily, 9am-midnight.
This article first appeared on May 21, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.