The Malaysian bar scene lost one of its greatest unsung heroes earlier this week – Jeffrey Ong Swee Teik, the creator of Malaysia’s only internationally recognised classic cocktail, the Jungle Bird.
According to an Instagram post by local beverage website Thirst Magazine. Ong passed away peacefully in Penang on Tuesday. He was 71.
The Jungle Bird is a rum-based cocktail that is made using 45ml Jamaican rum, 20ml Campari (an Italian amaro liqueur), 15ml fresh lime juice, 15ml simple syrup and 45ml pineapple juice, and is arguably the most internationally recognised cocktail created in Malaysia.
The cocktail has made a comeback in recent years thanks to the increasingly vibrant Malaysian cocktail scene, and also local bartenders who have been championing the drink as Malaysia’s national cocktail. Walk into any respectable cocktail bar in Malaysia, and you would be able to order a Jungle Bird, whether it’s the original classic drink, or a twist on it.
Surprisingly, Ong was only revealed as the creator of the drink in July last year, when Kim Choong, founder of ThirstMag, went on an 18-month investigative journey to discover who exactly invented the drink (the full story of her search can be found in her three-part article, Finding the creator of Jungle Bird).
Before Choong’s efforts, the only thing we knew about the origins of the cocktail was from the first ever published Jungle Bird cocktail recipe in John J. Poister’s 1989 book, The New American Bartender’s Guide, which stated that the Jungle Bird was created in 1978 at the former KL Hilton’s Aviary Bar on Jalan Sultan Ismail.
Choong said she embarked on her search because she considered an important part of the bar industry’s history in Malaysia. “I feel that it is my duty as a drinks journalist in the city where the drink was created to complete the story,” she said in an interview.
“Many bartenders have asked who the creator is. When you think about it, if you want to promote Jungle Bird, a classic cocktail from Malaysia, you’d want to know if it is created by a Malaysian. Thank goodness it was! And to find out the actual year of the creation to straighten the record is a bonus.”
During the course of her investigation, Choong interviewed former staff of the hotel, who stated that the Jungle Bird cocktail had been served as a welcome drink at the hotel since it opened in 1973 (not 1978, as stated in Poister’s book) and was served in a “bird shaped ceramic glass with a pineapple garnish” (which unfortunately went missing after the original KL Hilton closed down. It became Crowne Plaza Mutiara in 2002, but the building was demolished in 2013).
Ong, who was the beverage manager at the time, was the one who came up with the drink, which according to ThirstMag‘s report, was picked from a list of six cocktails. The name ‘Jungle Bird’ was meant to commemorate the live birds that were on display at the Aviary Lounge (not Aviary Bar, as originally thought) during the time. According to Choong, Ong worked at KL Hilton for two years before moving back to Penang to work for Rasa Sayang Resort.
The main appeal of the Jungle Bird is its versatility, and balance of flavours it has. “It’s a well-balanced interesting, refreshing rum drink that uses the bitter element of Campari to great affect,” says Divyesh Chauhan, co-founder of KL bar JungleBird (which is named after the cocktail), and also the Campari group’s brand ambassador in Malaysia. “It’s not only the name of our bar, it’s also one of our top-selling drinks.”
According to Karl Too, co-founder of pioneering cocktail bar Omakase + Appreciate, the Jungle Bird deserves its status as Malaysia’s classic cocktail.
“It’s such a sophisticated tropical cocktail, and the bitterness (from the Campari) contributes depth and enhances the overall flavour,” he said. “Omakase + Appreciate’s cocktail programme emphasises on classic cocktails, and we are proud to have the Jungle Bird as one of our core drinks. I feel proud to promote the drink as Malaysia’s national cocktail.”
Too’s partner and co-founder Shawn Chong concurred, adding that the Jungle Bird is his go-to drink when welcoming a guest at his bar.
“When it’s a guest’s first time to Malaysia or when a guest can’t decide on a drink, we usually offer a Jungle Bird!” Chong says. “The flavours of the cocktail are well-balanced – it’s sweet, sour and bitter, tropical yet sophisticated. It’s not too strong nor too light. There’s something for everyone with the Jungle Bird.”
“The different flavours of sour, sweet, bitter & tropical represents the unity and melting pot of Malaysia,” says bartender Angel Ng and co-founder of MY Bartender’s Handshake, a community of Malaysian bartenders. “We are a young nation when it comes to cocktails so it’s humbling when the world is able to recognise that Jungle Bird belongs to Malaysia and it brings enormous pride to all of us. It puts us in the map, so yes, it is a very important drink for Malaysia.”
Michael Cheang will be having a Jungle Bird tonight, and raising a toast to Jeffery Ong. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page or follow him on Instagram.