James Barker-Morgan, Head Bartender, Ril’s, Malaysia

The Yum List shares a few cocktails with bartender James Barker-Morgan and learns a few insider secrets
from behind the bar.

What do you do and how did you get into the industry?
I first started bartending when studying in London. After working in a couple of standard pubs, I applied for a job at a cocktail bar on Brick Lane where I learnt a handful of basic drinks and started to get acquainted with a small range of ingredients. As fun as it was, I struggled to learn the menu at first and often got confused, mixing up the wrong ingredients etc. Looking back, it was because I hadn’t been taught the basic structure of flavours and balance. I started to do a little research and soon enough discovered these methods myself. A short while after I moved to a restaurant called Caravan in King’s Cross, and through working side by side with chefs and talented bartenders, started to experiment with an array of ingredients to produce cocktails, vermouths, amaro, liqueurs and bitters. After recently moving to Kuala Lumpur to work at Ril’s, I am maintaining the same experimental approach, yet ensuring that what we do is kept in tandem with Ril’s 1920’s speakeasy vibe, working as creatively as I can within the parameters of that style.

What’s the best/ worst part of your job?

The best feeling for me is the gratification of getting a recipe right after repeated failed efforts. It happens a lot; sometimes you can spend literally days finding alternative ways to infuse a flavour the way you want it. The worst part has to be the number crunching, I never was any good at maths.

What’s the best thing about working in Ril’s?
The intimacy is great. To make a comparison, at my last job back home the energy was incredible, but there was very little social interaction between bartender and bar customer because of how busy it was. While at Ril’s, comfort, conversation and social intimacy is a large part of what the bar is all about. Another great thing about working in the bar is the quality of what we stock. I don’t think I have ever worked in a bar where the quality of house spirits is so high.

What’s your personal favourite drink at Ril’s?
Classically, probably a Tequila Old Fashioned. We give it a signature twist by adding our homemade saffron and cardamom bitters. I’m also a sucker for bittersweet flavours, so The Black Butterfly; a mix of Angostura rum, rose syrup, Amaro Montenegro and Fernet Branca ticks the box too.

What’s your favoured food and cocktail pairing?
A Boulevardier; rye whiskey, Campari and sweet vermouth, with serrano ham, stuffed vine leaves and guindilla peppers go together amazingly. Thinking about it, an Aperol Spritz would work with decent olives and padron peppers too. I also find that bitter, rich smoky botanical cocktails work well with lamb. Try mixing gin, fernet, and licorice solution (or an alternative sweet plant extract) together and see where it leads.

What’s one of the wildest things you’ve seen behind the scenes?
As you can guess some bars can get pretty wild after the doors close on a Friday night. Actually, even before the doors close. It was my birthday recently and one of my bartenders set up a little spectacle which included the live band singing happy birthday while he covered me in eggs, flour and garlic gravy. All in front of a room full of people. In the past there have been people breaking tables from dancing too hard and crabs being thrown around restaurants.

The perfect day off would be…
Good company, good food, a couple of beers and a good book. Oh and of course music, ideally on a beach, minus the sandflies, surrounded by attractive women.

What’s something you’d like guests to know about the drinks prepared at Ril’s?
Like I said previously, the quality of even the house spirits that we offer at Ril’s is unparalleled by anywhere I have worked before. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the best range in the city. On top of this we create and infuse the ingredients that go into your cocktails in-house. It’s long winded and takes effort, but means that we can offer top notch drinks made with fresh natural ingredients. Put simply, they just taste better.

What’s your view on the KL bar scene so far?
I think it is an exciting time for the bar scene, especially the likes of cocktail bars and other niche markets such as craft beer. Sure, there isn’t an endless list of these places but they certainly exist. The scene is at a stage where it’s not yet fully formed but is emerging, which really is an exciting time to be involved in something. The opportunity to work in a city where the bespoke cocktail trade is starting to come into its own is one of the reasons I wanted to work in KL. The scene isn’t saturated like it is in larger cities, there is lots of room for growth and the direction in which it will grow is in the hands of the bartenders creating the drinks. We have a collaborative responsibility to fulfil if the scene is to evolve into anything other than a string of generic bars. Additionally, Malaysia is a country which is incredibly diverse in terms of food. With this in mind, coupled with the concept that ‘mixology follows gastronomy’, the drinks scene has an incredibly valuable resource to draw from and as a result, has the potential to grow into something very unique.

What can guests look forward to in the upcoming months?
We are changing our signature menu on a seasonal basis so that every three months, guests will have the opportunity to enjoy our latest creations. Three months between each menu gives us time to research and source our ingredients, experiment with different flavour combinations and after repeated failed efforts, (I mentioned earlier) end up with a new, exciting and individual result for people to experience.

See some of James’ cocktail creations by following this link.

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