3 veteran mixologists redefine art of bartending in Malaysia

Shawn Chong, Shirmy Chan and Jon Lee on creating a unique space and concept that reflect their outlook and ideas.

Shawn Chong of Bar Mizukami, Shirmy Chan of Terumi and Jon Lee of Penrose KL (Photos: Low Yen Yeing and Sam Fong/ The Edge Malaysia)

A flurry of watering holes have popped up all over the Klang Valley, each boasting a unique take on cocktails with an aesthetically pleasing ambience. Meet three mixology veterans in the Malaysian scene who have decided to start up new concepts that are all their own.


Shawn Chong
Bar Mizukami

In the world of Malaysian mixology, the name Shawn Chong carries weight. Known for the much-missed Omakase + Appreciate, he has amassed quite a following. The pandemic definitely threw Chong for a loop, but by late 2020, he was invited by Cilantro Restaurant & Wine Bar to create a unique experience for its guests. “We came up with the idea of doing trolley service in Cilantro, which has never been done in its 22 years,” he explains.

Chong was then approached with a proposal to run the bar at Shiso Dining in MiCasa All Suites Hotel. “I jumped at the opportunity, but I did not want to just open or run a bar for the sake of it. So I put together Mizukami’s concept in two weeks.”

Looking closely at the business models already around, he wanted to create something different. A portmaneau of the words mizu (Japanese for water) and kami (Malay for ‘us’ or ‘our’), Mizukami Collective allowed the flexibility of different concepts under one umbrella brand. “I could build something that is associated with the same brand but with different concepts so that people get an idea of quality. Because when people associate Mizukami with me, then they know there must be something of a decent quality behind it.”


Chong preparing the Kings Valley, a light green cocktail devised by legendary Japanese bartender Ueda Kazuo for a Scotch whisky cocktail competition (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/ The Edge Malaysia)

Slowly more opportunities arose, but each Mizukami Collective experience is catered to the space, forming a new outline to suit it — for instance, Shiso Dining had simple highballs; the Chow Kit Hotel suited cocktails with more Malaysian ingredients as well as zero-proof options for teetotallers; and for the InterContinental Kuala Lumpur’s OneSixFive lounge, a more regional classic menu was crafted. “But I still try to maintain the Mizukami brand, Japanese classic, because I’m always about building foundations wherever I go, whether it is for the hotel, venue or consumer.” Some of the concepts were for six-month stints, whereas locations such as the Chow Kit Hotel are already onto the second menu iteration.

Jump forward to August this year, Chong finally managed to launch his main passion project: Bar Mizukami. It is located behind a nondescript door at Ming Annexe — a space he has been renting out since Omakase + Appreciate closed, with the intention of opening his own venture. This simple room has a U-shaped bar at its centre; the bar side is surrounded by pristine white walls with abstract raindrop art and ceiling lighting that mimics cascading water; while a section at the entrance is all red (a nod to Omakase + Appreciate) with a record player, and a shelf with books.

Seating just 10 people, Bar Mizukami currently does not have a fixed menu, but rather guests are invited to tell Chong what they like before he concocts something to their taste. As we have a preference for whisky and sour drinks, Chong served us Kings Valley, a light green cocktail devised by legendary Japanese bartender Ueda Kazuo for a Scotch whisky cocktail competition. With a whisky base, it includes Cointreau, lime and blue curacao. Other than its clean and refreshing flavour, Chong is drawn to this recipe as it was created in his birth year, 1986.

Unlike most drinking establishments, this one does not have many bottles on display or glasses arranged in a row. It is very minimalist, allowing the drinks to have a blank canvas. In very Ikea-esque drawers and cupboards, everything has a space of its own inside the bar, which he insisted on when the space was designed.


Bar Mizukami seats just 10 people; Johnnie Nut Sour (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/ The Edge Malaysia)

Our next drink is a Johnnie Nut Sour. “I created this drink in 2010 for a Johnnie Walker party and I’ve been serving it ever since,” he says. Made with three simple ingredients, namely Johnnie Walker, hazelnut and lime, this concoction is bright, lightly sweet and served with a simple slice of lime — Chong is not a fan of fancy garnishing. A minimalist at heart, he feels a garnish should be functional. It must add aroma or flavour.

He has experienced so much over the years, from his previous undertakings until now, taking on important lessons to ensure that Bar Mizukami is the best it can be. “The one biggest mistake I have made with a business was not having a proper, dedicated person for a certain job. For example, accounting and marketing. I was doing everything myself earlier.” As a master mixologist, outsourcing jobs he has no expertise in allows him to focus on what he loves.

The final drink we try is of Snowy Ananas — so-called because the snow-like foam on top — which is a mix of peach, pineapple, lychee, lime and gin. This tropical treat is not overly sweet, but very light and flavourful. As Chong serves it, he tells me how exciting the current bar scene is with more unique ideas and concoctions. If the right opportunities come, he is happy to expand the Collective, but for now is thrilled to be the solo server behind Bar Mizukami.

“This place was built for me by me, because I went through a very low and dark period during the pandemic. I had to think to see what I could do for the future, what I could see myself doing long term. This is my baby. I tell people this is actually my semi-retirement plan.”

Bangunan Ming Annexe, 9, Jalan Ampang, KL. Tue-Thurs, 6pm-midnight; Fri-Sat, 5pm-midnight. For reservations, Whatsapp 016 301 6498.


Shirmy Chan

Tucked in an upstairs lot in Taman Paramount, Petaling Jaya is Terumi, the tender bar. Its name is a portmanteau of two words in kanji — teru means brightness or to shine, while mi translates into beauty. This warm and inviting space is the brainchild of Shirmy Chan. Part of the F&B industry since 2009, she only entered the world of bartending in 2013 in the ever popular Omakase + Appreciate. After its closing, she went to 61 Monarchy, but when the pandemic hit, she freelanced at a few places.

With accolades such as Bartender of the Year KL in 2019, Chan has always strived to improve her craft and absorb knowledge. “I learn from other successful bartenders, some bosses I have worked with and, of course, most of my customers are bosses themselves so I also learnt from them and saw how they managed their business,” she says.

One of the main lessons that has followed her to this day is to always build long-term relationships with customers, and as a result, many fans who have known Chan from the start of her career still look for her concoctions today. “Knowing how to make a drink is a performance where you have to show who you are. But being a bartender is also about taking care of the people, reading their emotions,” she explains.


With accolades such as Bartender of the Year KL in 2019, Chan has always strived to improve her craft and absorb knowledge (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/ The Edge Malaysia)

Styled with comfy yet chic furniture, Terumi feels like a luxe living room. Homely orange and brown tones are balanced by concrete and sleet shades, bringing to mind the warmth produced by charcoal and wood. The space is separated into sections: the main bar features lighting to best showcase the cocktails; the large “community table” is perfect as a sharing space or for bigger groups, which is next to some seating suitable for four people each; and the long zen hallway, which Chan calls the “sensory lounge”, with a stone walkway has a sofa seating stretched across one wall.

In the lounge, there is also a little window through which guests can witness bartenders artfully carve ice for drinks. “One of the key factors in a drink is ice. Ice creates dilution and temperature. Serving the right ice also affects the drinking experience. I have been cutting ice for the past 10 years, and I’m proud of it. To make sure my bartenders are confident, we push them to make it a performance. I want customers to see the effort as well.”

Terumi’s menu features classics, spirit-free options as well as quick drinks, but the truly exciting section is the list of signature cocktails. Chan is now in chapter one of her signature menu, and she calls it this to remind herself to think about how far she would like to go. The drinks themselves are named using Japanese words that convey the emotion or feeling she hopes to evoke with each tipple.

We start off with Hakanai (fleeting, momentary), a refreshing gin and tonic crafted with house-blended guava tonic water, salted plum foam and a guava slice. The foam has this nostalgic feel, with a flavour reminiscent of asam boi, and the overall drink has a clean flavour. Made with vodka infused with Japanese purple potato, almond water and lemon, Ukiyo (the ephemeral world) has this bready or beer-like quality because of the foam, and the drink itself is subtly sour, earthy and nutty.


Styled with comfy yet chic furniture, Terumi feels like a luxe living room; Majime (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/ The Edge Malaysia)

Majime (an earnest, reliable person) is crafted with bourbon, pomegranate, raspberry, vinegar, lemon and foam. Bourbon forward with layered flavours, this drink is salty, sour and balanced by the in-house honey comb and dehydrated strawberry garnish that has a jammy, almost cotton candy sweetness.

Shibui (uncomplicated) is like a savoury vodka martini or gibson, so do not let the addition of watermelon fool you into thinking this is a fruity drink. Concocted with vodka, dry vermouth and lacto-watermelon brine, this cocktail comes with an additional shot glass of a sweeter liquid that cuts the dry flavours of the main tipple, with a ball of torched compressed watermelon.

Chan is very happy to be at the helm of her business; however, she hopes to develop the skills of her staff enough so that she does not have to be there all the time. “I train them to be the next co-owner and that’s what I tell them.”

“I think all bartenders dream of opening their own bar. I had to be firm in what I wanted in order to overcome all the challenges,” she says. Chan had even asked friends to remind her of her big goal: to start her own bar before turning 35. And while the MCO might have slowed things down, it also gave her time to develop plans and, in the end, Chan materialised her dream.

9a Jalan 20/16, Taman Paramount, PJ. Mon-Sat, 6pm-midnight. For reservations, Whatsapp 011 5915 0308.


Jon Lee
Penrose KL

One of the newer establishments in bustling Chinatown is Penrose, a mysterious space next to Wildflowers that, unlike the surrounding shops and restaurants, is closed off from the street by an oddly shaped metallic door. When you walk in, you are met with what is best described as a cosy cave. The man behind this new watering hole is Jon Lee, former bartender at Tippling Club Singapore.

After graduating in culinary arts at 17, Lee went on to work at the Four Seasons Langkawi. At 22, he opened his own bistro but was burnt out in a year. With the help of a friend, Lee was roped into working behind a bar, and although he had every intention of going back to the kitchen, an offer to work at Tippling Club Singapore was too good to refuse. With Joe Schofield (formerly from The Savoy hotel) as his mentor, Lee grew to become a high-profile bartender.

Coming back to KL right before the pandemic took full effect, Lee went on to be the beverage manager for Bad Monte, which in lieu of bottled tipples sold alternative wines or wine cocktails. Collaborating with Dissolved Solids, Bad Monte had pop-ups and events as well as online sales. He approached co-founder of Wildflowers, Matthew Goh, with the hope of selling bottles, and the two became fast friends. It was not too long before Goh asked Lee if he would be up for a challenge: to turn the small space next to Wildflowers into something unique. “Two days later, I came up with a concept, chatted with him and ran through some numbers as well. Eight months later, this was built and we have Penrose,” he says.


With Penrose, Lee aims to expand on the menu rather than revamp it every year (Photo: Sam Fong/ The Edge Malaysia)

As a self-professed “geek for art in numbers”, Lee says the name and theme of this bar is inspired by the English mathematician, Roger Penrose. Taking a closer look at Penrose’s tiling, you see the magic number five used as a guiding principle for the cocktails. “We have a philosophy of how we build our drinks, and it’s always in a sequence of five. It’s not just a concept or gimmick. It’s the philosophy of each cocktail. Each drink will have these five elements.” These — alcohol, taste (sugars and acids), flavour (modifiers like strawberries), body (could be the addition of cream or prosecco) and dilution (ice) — are illustrated in a pentagon on the menu.

With Penrose, Lee aims to expand on the menu rather than revamp it every year. Version one is simpler, but he promises that each iteration that follows will be an evolution. “[At Tippling Club,] every year our menu changed, so guests who really liked the first menu could not have it back; it’s almost gone forever and I feel that’s quite unfair. As for the creative juices, you’ve done so well for one year. Why not expand on it? Why change for the sake of innovation?” he says.

The menu is split into highballs, sours, spirit forward and temperance. From highballs, we tried Cherry Pop — a mix of gin grapefruit, maraschino cherry and soda — which was refreshing and ideal for those who are not a fan of alcohol forward flavours. Next up was Rum de Violette, a beautifully layered cocktail with rum, violette liqueur, umeshu and sakura salt. It was a favourite because each sip revealed something new.


Oba Rossa; Penrose's subdued interior allows the focus to be on the drinks and people (Photo: Sam Fong/ The Edge Malaysia)

While being thoughtful with the drinks is a given, Lee was also very specific about how he wanted the space to feel. “We wanted something a bit monotonous and cold, but warm at the same time ... There is a sequence of theatrics, but nothing too loud or in your face. The only colour are the coasters, cocktails or the people.” The lighting at Penrose is quite dim, but curated pieces above the bar put a spotlight on the drinks, making the place perfect for photographs.

Both Storm & Spice, made with tequila, pear, ginger and tarragon, and Oba Rossa, a mix of tequila, oba leaf, yuzu and honey, have quite delicate flavours. The former is a great intro to tequila as it is quite subtle, leaning on the almost spa-like ginger taste, and the latter is fragrant, complementing the tequila with sweeter elements, like a Gimlet would. “We’re doing a little extra stuff, maintaining the structure of the classic but improving a little bit of the process and refinement,” Lee adds.

Our experience is capped with a Xoco Negro, made with vodka, cacao, fortified wine and fennel seed. Similar in flavour profile to a negroni, this cocktail is well balanced with a bitter chocolate finish. The edible parsley twig garnish adds texture and a little more cacao to the drink in a creative way.

While Penrose has quite a cosy and intimate setting, Lee says it is a friendly place where no one at the bar will ever feel alone. Although the space is relatively new, it has already garnered a few regulars. It is, safe to say, so far so good.

149 Jalan Petaling, KL. Wed-Sun, 7pm-1am. For reservations, see here


This article first appeared on Oct 17, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.


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