Tropical afternoons here beg for a cold drink — or several — and a worthy addition to the daytime drinking venue list is The Flowerpecker. The name has made the rounds for being the city’s first vermouth bar, a rather unusual choice of focus given that the fortified wine isn’t highly popular in Kuala Lumpur.
Set above vegetarian Mediterranean restaurant Barat in a quiet Bangsar neighbourhood, it draws its cues from its surroundings. The leafy pocket it faces is embraced through full-height glass doors that separate the balcony and flood the interiors with sunlight, picking up the cheery colours of the eclectic upholstery. Wooden tables and an all-black bar temper the effect. As a nod to Barat, which provides the snacks and dining menu, drinks are vegetarian-friendly, featuring no eggs or dairy.
Ignorance can be bliss if you’re willing to relinquish the reins and put yourself in the capable hands of Matthew. As the bartender hand-carves blocks of ice, he affably tackles the litany of questions I pepper him with, a routine he surely undergoes regularly as curious novices turn up at the counter. He walks us through the basics of vermouth, introducing us to the dry white, white and rosso variants before briefing us on the backgrounds of the four brands they carry — Dolan, Martini, Carpano and Mancino.
Like port, vermouth is a fortified wine, aromatised and flavoured with botanicals such as roots, flowers, seeds and herbs. It pairs well with gin, making for interesting cocktails if the drinks menu is anything to go by. Shawn Choong of Omakase + Appreciate had a hand in designing it, so my expectations are high. I’m adamant about giving vermouth a go but arriving on a Monday evening following a hectic weekend, the depleted inventory doesn’t allow for a tasting flight. Unsure how to proceed with ordering cocktails, I ask Matthew to take charge.
He determines my flavour preferences and mixes me The Old Lace (RM35). A champagne flute holds the blush-pink elixir that is Tanqueray Gin, dry vermouth and violet syrup, served with a sliver of lemon peel. Its aroma is intoxicatingly floral, the syrup evoking the violet notes in both gin and vermouth. The single-note bouquet is a surprise at a time when cocktails seem to be competing for complexity, and its clean mouthfeel and convivial disposition make it dangerously drinkable.
Matthew considers my companion’s penchant for nuance and recommends a yet-to-be-named (though unofficially known as Sooch) take on the Old Fashioned, topping the requisite single malt scotch, bourbon, angostura bitters and orange with homemade triple smoke comprising smoked scotch, jasmine and cherrywood. The mouth of the glass is covered to coax infusion and the result is a refined blend with the merest hint of smoke lingering on the nose and palate.
Reds and Blues is next, a composition of The Botanist gin, violet, bunga telang tea, grapefruit and lemon juices and soda water, garnished with a grapefruit segment and peel. This would be my favourite of the night, fresh, sour and just the right shade of sharp. Its zest contrasts beautifully with the Old Lace, making it an ideal aperitif or follow-up drink.
It opens the way to an assortment of snacks from Barat. The Mango Spring Rolls (RM17.90) receive a lukewarm reception but the Golden Fried Cheese with Spiced Jam (RM21.90), served in little bite-sized balls, gets the thumbs up while the well-seasoned, gently crunchy petals of the Wild Mushrooms in Ranch Dressing (RM21.90) earn the dish a definite repeat in my book.
We try The Bitten Rose next, a shockingly pink potion of The Botanist gin, lemon and grapefruit juices, rose water and crushed cardamom. I am still keen to explore vermouth and Matthew offers to experiment with the inclusion of dry vermouth into The Bitten Rose, so named for the citrus flavours that accent the spice and rose water. The original interpretation is too sweet and the rose too heady for my liking, with a friend commenting it reminded him of spiked sirap bandung. My version with a splash of vermouth goes down better, the faintly herbaceous flavour rendering the drink somewhat more savoury.
The highlight that round was the Watermelon Daiquiri. At first sip, it paled in flavour to The Bitten Rose, but as my palate adjusted, I appreciated its mellow, fruity mix. In fact, all cocktails here are remarkably smooth and light in texture, ideal for the earlier hours of the afternoon or pre-dinner drinks.
Co-owned by Charles and Patrick Devan — the brothers behind Cellar Eighteen and Poseidon Caviar & Seafood Bar — and partners, The Flowerpecker dispenses with frills and enigma. There are no theatrics, presentation is honest and straightforward, and the space doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. The relaxed quiet of the bar in the early evening makes for pleasant lounging and I must sing high praises of its service.
Without sampling a tasting flight or two, I hesitate to take a stand on vermouth and have to admit to preferring the cocktails sans fortified wine, though that is of course subject to individual taste. One woman’s poison could well be someone else’s pick. I will, however, tip my hat to the originality of the idea and the versatility of vermouth, as conveyed in the menu and Matthew’s willingness to experiment. When it was good, it was truly good.
The Flowerpecker, 17 Lorong Kurau, Taman Bukit Pantai. 012 302 6284. Daily, 10.30am-3pm; 5pm-midnight. This article first appeared on Apr 9, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.