Inextricably linked to the tropics, the slave trade and pirates, rum is one of those products whose history is just as wide-ranging as its versatile application. Distillation of Caribbean rum took place on sugarcane plantations, where molasses, a by-product of sugar refinement, was fermented into alcohol. The process was refined, the impurities removed and alcohol concentrated, and rum in the closest form as we recognise it today can be traced to the early 17th century across continents, from Brazil and Barbados to the cargo hold of a sunken Swedish warship.
Slaves worked these plantations and the association of the tipple with piracy began with British privateers, some of whom later became pirates and buccaneers, informing the storyline of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The various cultures from which rum originate result in diverse consumption methods, from Cyprus’ supposed preference for an almond milk mixer and the Jamaican penchant of blending various West Indies rums together to the British Navy’s dilution with lime juice to reduce its potency for sailors.
This colourful history is vividly depicted at JungleBird, a rum-themed speakeasy in Plaza Damansara that stays faithful to the spirit’s roots through evocative design cues. The first-floor bar is outfitted in bamboo and rattan elements, wrapped in jungle-print wallpaper and illuminated by old-fashioned hanging lanterns. Framed black-and-white photographs of grand plantation houses allude to the source of the celebrated drink, honouring its legacy without being contrived or kitschy.
Past a corner nook and through a doorway is the long bar counter with narrow high tables and rattan stools scattered around the room, while the higher platform of the split-level space provides relative privacy for bigger groups. The back wall here is padded to form natural seat backs while long sofas demarcate sections.
We swing by after dinner one quiet Monday to discover we had our pick of seats in a near-empty bar. We settle down on a sofa and squint at the comprehensive drinks menu, the dim lighting making us feel older — but possibly look younger — than our years. JungleBird plies the versatility of rum across a wide selection of classic and original cocktails, as well as tasting flights for the keen or curious rum scholar. And schooled you could be, with the founders’ evident expertise and the amiability of the bartenders.
In unspoken agreement, we decide on the passive experience, that of someone who walks into the bar without wanting a tutorial on rum appreciation, preferring instead to let the drinks do the talking. Among the Classics, the unabashed Best Drink in the World (RM35) seems certain that to pass it over would be one’s loss. We concede to this blatant self-promotion and are served Plantation 3 Stars Rum, Diplomatico Planas Rum, sugarcane and lime served unadorned in a coupe glass. It seems deceptively simple but possesses big flavours, the spiked sweet-and-sour mix stretching to open up the palate.
Beside it, The Grass is Always Greener (RM40) from the Original Creations section comes across as complex but easy to appreciate. The blend of Rhum Bieile Bianc Agricole, calamansi, pandan, kaffir lime, egg white and Peychauds bitters results in layers of flavours, its nuances spanning a lightly herbaceous body to a gently sweet finish.
You can’t go wrong with an Old Fashioned, and the waitress recommends the rum version (RM45) when we ask for something sour or bitter. “Do you want it strong?” she asks, and we are hardly likely to shake our heads in response. Strong it is, with generous amounts of Diplomatico Mantuano and Angostura 7 Rum paired with cane rock candy, and chocolate and cardamom bitters. The rums are the stars of this show, accented in spice and sugar with a notably clean mouthfeel.
In the Bosuns Pride section, which celebrates award-winning concoctions by the bar geeks behind JungleBird, I am immediately drawn to the Childhood Charlestown Fizz for its laundry list of ingredients. The juxtaposition of Angustora Reserve Rum, almond, lemon, lime, honey, fresh cream, egg white, orange blossom bitters and East Imperial grapefruit tonic reads like a foolproof recipe with its cohesive complementary flavours. This 2017 Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge Asia winner is almost piña colada-esque with a strong almond scent, notes of citrus and honey, and a light, creamy swallow.
Stave off regret from accidentally putting away a few drinks too many with an order from the succinct food menu: calamari, an Italian salad, a cold cuts and cheese platter or a selection of pizzas would help offset some of that alcohol. Otherwise, nibble throughout on the JungleBird spiced nuts snack of peanuts, anchovies, chilli, garlic and spices.
Rum is given ample opportunity to strut its stuff with almost 100 labels representing 20 countries and cocktail prices ranging from RM35 to RM80. But should the easy-going spirit not tickle your fancy, a decent selection of wines — red, white and sparkling — are on standby, as are tequila, mescal, brandy, cognac, gin and whiskies from Japan and America to the Scottish Highlands. They’re certainly not forcing rum down you here.
Quiet if you go early and positively hopping on weekends and ladies-night Thursdays, the successful flight of this JungleBird is the result of its union of rum heritage and geekery. This neighbourhood bar is worth a visit for the curious and aficionados who might want to talk all things rum.
JungleBird, 5 Plaza Damansara, Jalan Medan Setia 1, Bukit Damansara, KL. 03 2011 7715. Sun-Wed, 5pm-1am; Thurs-Sat, 5pm-3am. This article first appeared on July 23, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.