Welcome to the first Tipsy-Turvy of 2018! What better way to start the year than to look back at some of 2017’s most significant trends and happenings in the drinks industry?
1. Cocktail bars shake up a storm
Is Malaysia experiencing a cocktail boom? You bet it is. Last year saw more and more great cocktail bars popping up around Kuala Lumpur, including JungleBird and Jack Rose in Damansara Heights, Three X Co in Bangsar, Pahit and Mr. Chew’s Chino Latino Bar at the Bukit Bintang area, and Botak:Liquor Bar at Petaling Street.
(On a more personal note, I’m also happy that the whole obsession with calling them “speakeasies” has pretty much died down.)
In addition to their own bartenders, many bars also started having regular guest stints by visiting bartenders, including those from countries like Singapore, Thailand, Europe, South Korea and Hong Kong. This growing trend added a lot more vibrancy to an increasingly exciting cocktail scene.
2. Awards and world champions
So, with the rapid rise in cocktail culture in KL, how does one know which are the best ones out there? Well, that’s what the Bar Awards were for. Held in KL for the first time, they focused solely on the city’s bar and drinks scene.
Unlike other ceremonies in Malaysia, which tend to be popularity contests voted for by the public, The Bar Awards winners were chosen by a panel of 39 professionals from the Malaysian F&B industry, including bartenders, bar owners, restaurateurs, distributors and members of the media.
During the awards ceremony held in October, Coley in Bangsar was the big winner, winning the awards for Best Cocktail Bar and Best Hospitality Team. Its founder Chee Kheong “CK” Kho was also voted Bartender Of The Year.
In the other categories, JungleBird won Best New Cocktail Bar, Taps Beer Bar won the Best Beer Bar category, and PS150’s Angel Ng won the Ada Coleman Award, which recognises the achievements of female professionals in the industry.
Speaking of awards, local bartender David Hans did Malaysia proud by winning the prestigious Giffard West Cup global competition in Angers, France, the first Asian to do so in the international bartending competition’s almost 20 years history.
3. Gin gains ground
Move over, whisky and cognac, gin is the next big thing. More and more new brands have been entering the market in a big way, including Napue Gin, Monkey 47, Citadelle Gin and others.
One of the best drinks-related events this year was the East Imperial Gin Jubilee, a four-day event in September that saw KL bartenders competing to create the best gin and tonic in town. The event ended with a hugely successful Gin Lane Street Party at Plaza Batai, Damansara Heights.
2017 also saw some excellent speciality gin bars opening. One of them, Pahit, was founded by CK Kho of Coley. It specialises in gin cocktails and drinks, and is arguably one of the best new bars of 2017.
If you wanted to try even more gin, the place to go is Maze at Menara Lien Ho in Tropicana, KL, which boasts more than 200 labels of gin, many of which are available by the glass. The bar also features a cocktail menu created by Adam Westbrook, who used to be a gin distiller. Maze also holds regular “Ginology 101” classes for people who want to find out more about specific brands or gin in general.
5. The rise of rum
Gin wasn’t the only spirit to enjoy a growing fan base here though – rum is also gaining a growing fanbase in Malaysia.
It also helped that cocktail bars like Jungle Bird, Coley, and The Locker And Loft were championing the spirit. The three bars even came together to organise the annual Rum Fiesta, which had guest shifts, masterclasses, and of course, lots and lots of rum drinks.
Rum lovers were also spoilt for choice with the opening of The Rum Bar KL at Changkat Bukit Bintang, which has over 250 labels of rum from all over the world, most of which are available by the glass, or in flights. If you wanted to learn about rum or just taste as many different rums as possible, this is THE place to go.
6. Spirited year for spirits
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for fans of other drinks though. Quite the contrary, actually. Fans of independent whisky bottlers had lots to cheer about with the debut of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Malaysia. In terms of official bottlings, major brands like The Singleton, Macallan, and The Glenlivet made their presence felt with a number of major events, while we also saw the debut of smaller brands like AncNoc and India’s Paul John.
7. Craft beer goes mainstream (sort of)
Craft beer was in the headlines for the wrong reasons last year, with the controversy over the cancellation of the Better Beer Festival. The bright side was that it got the word out on craft beer in Malaysia, although most people still thought the festival was the same as Oktoberfest (it wasn’t).
We did see more and more craft beers in the market though, with supermarkets increasingly stocking them on their shelves, and a couple more craft beer bars joining the likes of Taps Beer Bar, Ales And Lagers and The Great Beer Bar.
Speaking of Taps, the craft beer specialists moved their outlet in Mont’Kiara to Plaza Arkadia in Desa Park City, and expanded its operations beyond its outlets and Klang Valley, setting up smaller beer stands in Ben’s Independent Grocer supermarkets in in IPC Shopping Centre and DC Mall, as well as in Penang (The Saw Emporium).
Even the commercial beer boys started getting in on the craft beer action. Carlsberg Malaysia launched craft beers from Brooklyn Brewery, including the famous Brooklyn Lager and the Brooklyn East India Pale Ale.
Meanwhile, Heineken Malaysia launched a new variation of Guinness called Guinness Bright, which was crafted exclusively for Malaysia through a partnership between brewers at Heineken Malaysia Berhad and the Open Gate Brewery at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, Ireland.