We go to Japan knowing there will be shochu with soba noodles in our days and hot saké with silky uni in our nights. We head to Scotland with an incontestable agenda of seeking single malt whiskies that experts age so enviably. Hong Kong, however, is a dynamic bar mecca anyone can go to with no foregone conclusions, just a blank itinerary to be filled any number of ways. And if intrepid boozehounds ever need some recommendations to sample the local scene, the eight establishments that made the latest Asia’s 50 Best Bars list will keep their imagination and palate constantly energised.
It was still anyone’s game when a glitzy glut of mixology talent from 17 cities convened at the Rosewood Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui to see where they ranked during the annual unveiling of the prestigious bartending event, the first full-scale gathering of the bar community in Asia since 2019 due to Covid-19. Even the most informed awards prognosticators differed on whether Hong Kong’s front runner Coa or Singapore’s crowd favourite Jigger & Pony would take home the ultimate gong. But all speculation was finally put to rest when the latter, through the process of elimination, was announced first, subsequently amplifying Coa’s chances of winning The Best Bar in Asia for the third consecutive year.
A crescendo of swelling voices and supportive chants from fellow nominees filled the room when host and content director of The World’s 50 Best Bars Mark Sansom announced the final prize of the night — the No 1 for 2021 and 2022 had steadfastly held onto its throne once again.
Beating the previous record set by Singapore’s Manhattan as a two-time winner, Coa’s bartender-owner Jay Khan reflected on what the hat-trick meant to him, especially receiving the honour on home turf. “It’s the best, to be honest. Among all the number ones, this means the most. I was born here. I grew up here. And Hong Kong is everything to me.”
Malaysia had a commendable showing at the awards too, with newcomer Penrose KL in Chinatown clinching the No 50 position and Bar Trigona of Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur at No 36. Four local watering holes also landed on the 51 to 100 bars list announced earlier: JungleBird in Bukit Damansara (No 55); its neighbouring peer Reka:Bar (No 65); Bangsar’s Coley (No 67) and Three X Co in Bangsar Shopping Centre (No 77).
Although these names are distinguished by design and drinks, they collectively prove an important point: The same old pints are no longer enough to lure city dwellers out from evenings at home. Bars will not only need to ride the wave of the cocktail revolution and improvise beyond gimmicks involving locating yet another well-disguised door, but to also reconstitute the idea of mixology by looking for concepts that are a true departure from the past and carve out a clear identity to defy their cosy confines. More Malaysian representation on a global platform or an awards list shows that our bartenders are serious about demonstrating how artful and thought-provoking cocktails can be.
“I believe [being chosen for the awards] showcases Malaysian hospitality in a better light as we progress more to putting the country on the map of cocktails. I give great credit to the bars that have opened before us and helped us lay the foundation such as Coley, JungleBird and Three X Co,” says Jon Lee, owner of the intimate 25-seater Penrose KL.
A self-professed “geek for art in numbers”, the ex-bartender of Tippling Club Singapore draws references from the fivefold symmetry in Penrose’s tiling, using it as a guiding principle for making his cocktails. Hence, each concoction consists of a quintet of elements: alcohol, taste (sugar and acids), flavour (modifiers like fruits), body (either the addition of cream or prosecco) and dilution (ice).
Asked about his maiden appearance and plans for the future, a gleeful Lee replies, “The team and I are ecstatic! The fact that we have been operating for less than a year [and being shortlisted] shows we may be doing something right. We had an overall celebration in Hong Kong after the win and visited too many bars to count. But in general, everyone was elated. For now, we will continue to maintain our quality and service the best we can.”
Bar Trigona, who is no stranger to the awards as it has been named Best Bar in Malaysia six years in a row, echoes the sentiment. “Global bars have always been about hospitality, service and humility. The ‘people’ connection is far superior than any product or ambience possible. If we work towards it, there is a lot more we can offer,” asserts acclaimed mixologist and head bartender Rohan Matmary who, since taking the reins from Ashish Sharma last October, has injected fresh energy into the bar by solidifying its relationship with Malaysian farmers to supply ingredients for its signature staples as well as patriotic drinks programme, Foraged Malaysia.
Receiving an accolade certainly adds lustre to one’s name but the stiff race to the top is a pernicious undertaking as F&B businesses can be in thrall to capricious rankings and unforgiving critics. “We will always have the pressure, and that’s what keeps us going forward and achieving milestones like these,” admits Rohan, who capped off his first trip to the “Fragrant Harbour” with an auspicious victory.
“It has been increasingly important for the team to work towards maintaining the title as we believe in catering to all kinds of guests. However, I think we still need more support and education to compare ourselves with cocktail capitals like Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. As for Bar Trigona, we will continue to uphold our sustainability ethos — it lies at our core and it always will. Right now, we want to celebrate Malaysia’s victory with our newest promotion ‘Bars of Malaysia’, which will showcase one cocktail from each local bar that made the list, starting Aug 20.”
Being included in Asia’s 50 Best Bars lends a venue certain cachet because it is indicative of where many in the industry — particularly a generation of shrewd customers looking for a transformative or theatre of experience — want to be drinking right now. It also commands a degree of credibility as the annual list is put together by an influential and anonymous group of 260 industry leaders that include bartenders, bar owners, drinks writers and cocktail aficionados. Our southern neighbour claimed the lion’s share (pun intended) of this year’s awards, earning 11 mentions in the top 50.
Of course, the perennial debate remains of whether a drinking award, susceptible to human foibles and biases, can derive fresh enthusiasm and remain relevant in a landscape where honest reviews and word-of-mouth are perhaps of more worth. But to many micro and under-the-radar establishments, vying for a spot on the list is an excitement, a goal to work towards and a privilege to stand in the company and brilliance of luminaries rattling the status quo. You see your peers growing up with you.
At the end of the day, what becomes clear is that established bars of magnitude and magnetism, as well as modest, hole-in-the-wall outlets, will all have their place and purpose on the podium.
This article first appeared on July 31, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.