When JungleBird made its grand debut in 2017, rum at such breadth and depth was a new concept in Kuala Lumpur. That imbibers are now well-versed in its applications beyond pina coladas and daiquiris can be credited, in part at least, to the trio behind the city’s first rum bar and their advocacy for its appreciation.
Joshua Ivanovic, Lolita Goh and Divyesh Chauhan launched JungleBird as a tropical-inspired tribute to one of the oldest natural spirits in the world. Its original roost in Bukit Damansara reflected both its locale and rum-producing nations, from the use of rattan, native hardwoods and jungle-print wallpaper and cushions to hanging lanterns and framed monochrome pictures of plantation houses. Much of that is recalled in its new digs just a few metres down the road.
“New landlords had taken over our lot and their conditions were not favourable for us, so we scouted around and found this place,” says Divyesh. “It was pretty much a blank canvas.”
That is an understatement, if the chortles from the other two are any indication. The former office then restaurant had sat empty for months, and the founders bought a completely gutted space that seemingly defied all architectural logic.
“We had complete freedom to do as we wished with it, but it was rather maddening to work around,” laughs Goh, whose background in architecture came in especially handy here. “We had the floor plans to guide us but I swear, nothing in this space is straight or symmetrical on any plane or level. The floor tilts in one direction, the ceiling in another. Even the window panes each have their own measurements, with no two alike.”
“Bad would have been fine, we could have handled bad; this was horrible,” Divyesh says, shaking his head. “This place is wider in some places and narrower in others, with no rhyme nor reason.”
“It’s like one of those trick-of-the-eye drawings where nothing you look at works,” chimes in Ivanovic.
With time on their hands and slow foot traffic courtesy of the pandemic, they worked on much of the interiors themselves. Although the founders say there is still more to be done, the outcome looks like a cohesive whole to visitors entering the first-floor bar. To the right is the long bar and high tables with rattan stools lining a corridor, with Sarang kitchen at the far end, fronted by blue pastel-wash shutters redolent of an island sandwich shack. Turn left and beyond a semi-private booth is the sun-drenched open lounge, split in half to evoke the plantation and veranda sections. Demarcated by a cement and hardwood floor respectively, they feature leather sofas, stools, ample cushions and woven rattan lights that invite guests to take a load off.
“In terms of square footage, it’s about the same size as our first location, but the layout is different. The last place was two half-lots put together, so we had sectioned rooms, whereas this is an open flowing space,” says Ivanovic. “The new JungleBird is more modern, sleek, bright and airy, and the upated menu reflects that.”
Said menu — some 14 novel cocktails have been confirmed so far under the Rummin’ Round the World section — complements the perennial favourites and staples that defined the original JungleBird experience, as well as showcases just how the innovative bar secured its spot among Asia’s 50 Best Bars. Rummin’ Round the World is an homage to classic and obscure cocktails from rum-producing nations. Funk ‘N’ Jerk (Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva and Tiki Lovers OP Rum, oloroso sherry, jerk and black walnut bitters) is a nod to Jamaica, for instance, while the Bridgetown Black Gold (Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum, roasted corn, lime oleo saccarum and clove) riffs off the classic Corn & Oil cocktail from Barbados.
The food menu, too, has been expanded. At the helm of Sarang, the kitchen named after the Malay word for “nest”, Goh called upon her mother’s widely experimental approach to the culinary arts to create an inventive melange of snacks and meals.
“Many of the dishes are a representation of us,” she says. “Sarang showcases our mixed heritage, what Josh, Divy and I grew up eating in our respective countries and cultures, and is also an homage to the places we celebrate at JungleBird through Latin American flavours.”
Think Perkedel Kentang, Homestyle Kunyit Fried Chicken Wings and Aunty Lena’s “Ngoh Hiang” Meat Rolls juxtaposed against Tobagoan Curried Crab Dumplings, Good Ole’ Chip Butty and the Dem Baad Maan Tings burger inspired by a carnival in Trinidad. More and more guests are walking in for the food, though drinks are very much still the star of the show with almost 300 bottles behind the bar, of which some 250 are rum.
Four years into operations, the local scene has matured significantly and customers come in better knowing what they like or are more eager to explore.
“Category exposure is definitely wider now,” says Ivanovic. “We get more people coming in wanting to try rums. I’ll bring out four or five bottles and they’ll go, ‘had that, had that, had that’. Four years ago, this was few and far between. There are still some misconceptions, though, like rum should always be sweet or drunk a certain way. There are spirit geeks who think it’s their job to tell you what to drink and how to drink it, but it’s not. We are here to broaden your education and exposure, but if you like something a certain way, go for it.”
“There are some things that are factual and correct, but when it comes to consumption, there is no right or wrong way to enjoy rum,” says Divyesh. “If you want to drink a RM500 bottle of rum with Coke, that’s entirely up to you. I enjoy a good rum and Coke myself. There’s absolutely no judgement here.”
While novices are gently guided through the varieties of rums and cocktails, Divyesh suggests customers enhance their bar experience by learning to articulate their vocabulary of likes and dislikes.
“We can better help you choose the right drinks if you have an idea of your palate’s preferences and communicate that with us,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for particular flavour profiles or have an opinion. And if something goes wrong or you don’t like the drink, please say something right away. Customers around the world can be too shy in this respect, but if you talk to us immediately, we could maybe do something about it. And don’t be afraid to ask for guidance if you’re completely new to the spirit category. This is always a dialogue.”
In fact, both he and Ivanovic mention some of their favourite conversations centre around yeast, stills and sugarcane varietals, delighting in going down the rabbit hole to full rum geekdom.
That is, after all, the spirit in which JungleBird was founded, to share the ecstasy of new takes and techniques applied to an ancient spirit and help others find their own joy in this particular universe. The bar has tirelessly pursued all things rum for exactly four years now and are celebrating their anniversary throughout the month of March until April.
JungleBird teamed up with five rum bars — The Jungle Bird in Sacramento, California; Jungle Bird Freo in Freemantle, Australia; Jungle in Boulder, Colorado; and Laki Kane and Trailer Happiness in London — to showcase their signature cocktails, with a special passport in which to mark each one tried. Customers who collect all the stamps will receive merchandise or gifts to honour their cocktail trip around the world.
“The two London bars are very special to us because we had actually planned for them to come out here for our third anniversary,” says Goh. “All arrangements had been made, but just days before they were due to come over, the lockdown was imposed and we had to cancel everything.”
“It’s like dominos, wasn’t it? We’d get a WhatsApp from someone saying they don’t think they can make it and 10 minutes later, another message from someone else comes in and the whole thing falls,” says Ivanovic sanguinely. “It happens. Maybe we’ll have them over next year. For now, I can’t believe it’s been four years. When you’re in the eye of the tornado, it’s hard to see from the outside in. The years have gone by in a flash for us.”
As they tend to, when you are having fun.
New rumbles in the jungle
Although JungleBird’s doors were closed for a short time as it moved down the road from its original venue at Bukit Damansara, KL, the imagination that made the rum bar so popular was by no means in hibernation. Guided by the sort of mental maps that migratory animals use for navigation, this particular bird quickly settled into its home and was ready to rule the roost with new ideas.
The original menu retains perennial favourites and the travel-inspired Planes, Trains and Automobiles, while updates are arranged in Rummin’ Round the World, a tribute to rum-producing nations. In the last is the highly recommended JungleBird Pina Colada (RM45), a concoction of Bacardi Carta Blanca and Don Q 151 Rum with pineapple, coconut, lime, whey and sparkling water. Instead of the usual tropical punch, what was served was a tall glass with vodka-clear liquid. It was as though all the colour and texture from the classic iteration had been siphoned out and concentrated into flavour alone; this was clean in mouthfeel but round and full in flavour, exploding with a creaminess and intense coconut and pineapple completely at odds with its innocuous appearance.
Strawberries & Cream (RM50) similarly surprised, recalling an afternoon of tea and scones in Cameron Highlands. Founder Josh Ivanovic would later explain that this is a sort of clarified milk punch, with the rum butter-washed for creaminess, the strawberries introduced via sous vide and then clarified with milk and citrus. The combination of lemon juice and milk curdles the mixture, which is then filtered so it drips clear. The guest, who might never know or not care how this is put together, is simply impressed with the rolling flavours of cream and strawberry over undertones of tea.
We also tried the Martinique-inspired Put the Lime in Ti Coconut (RM40), featuring Clement Premiere Canne Rhum, coconut, mint, citrus and sparkling water, and immediately discovered the sweet notes were not to our taste. While we were content to chalk this up to experience and order something else, co-founder Divyesh Chauhan noticed something amiss and whisked it back to the bar to “see what he could do”, then invited us to order something else at no charge. This is precisely what makes JungleBird such a great entry point into the world of rum: it is a place to explore without fear among people so passionate about what they do that they simply want you to have a good time.
The Quentão (RM55) we then chose was a celebratory hot cider served in a goblet, the combination of Capucana Cachaca, hot cider reduction, Pimento dram, ginger and citrus reminiscent of a walk through London’s Winter Wonderland at Christmas.
If peckish, browse Sarang’s cross-continental menu of bites, sharing platters and hearty mains. Music lovers will be tickled to see ‘Sy & Gar’ Chunky Chips (RM16) seasoned with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (yes,like the song), while those in search of fresh flavours will enjoy dipping tortilla chips into a zesty Pico de Gallo (RM14). For a substantial meal, consider the Cubano. Ham, salami, slow-cooked mojo pork shoulder, Swiss cheese and pickled gherkins are sandwiched between ciabatta seasoned with lard and pork fat drippings. Sun-dried tomatoes, pickled gherkins and black olives add acid and brightness to counter an overwhelmingly meaty mouthful, and careful assembly ensures the entire affair holds together reasonably well. That said, it is a juicy bite with mustard and mayo, so anticipate a bit of a mess. We would give it two thumbs up but we were, frankly, distracted by this glorious porcine showcase.
JungleBird, 61M Jalan Medan Setia 1, Plaza Damansara, Bukit Damansara, KL. Mon-Fri, noon-midnight; Sat-Sun, 10am-midnight. Call 03 2011 5715 for reservations.
This article first appeared on Mar 22, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.