Words: Han Sen Hau Photos: Monica Tindall
Cocktail culture in Kuala Lumpur isn’t a new thing, although it certainly feels like it with the number of watering holes popping up in the most unusual locations, reviving interest in overlooked parts of the city and spawning a new generation of alcoholic connoisseurs. But the appreciation for cocktails runs a little thin among most Malaysians who, instead of identifying with individual recipes like a Manhattan or a Cosmopolitan, prefer being associated with what cocktail culture itself entails: privilege, wealth, and a high tolerance for alcohol.
Of course, this is not to say that there is something amiss about how we’re embracing this hobby of ours. It is, after all, almost impossible to keep up with the number of new cocktails being invented behind bars for us to refer them by name. The demand for bartenders to one-up each other’s creations has shifted the focus away from making the same award-winning cocktail twice, to designing eye-popping concoctions whose renown probably wouldn’t last a season, much less a lifetime. Cocktail recipes that aren’t already established “classics” are made to be consumed like social media posts: they astound, they amaze, they amuse, and they’re instantly replaceable with something new.
Thus, we have traded away longevity for ingenuity, which again, isn’t a bad thing, and only goes to show how our hunger for the contextual past for these drinks have been replaced for the rapid commercialisation of modern mixology. Though when you visit a bar like Coley, neatly tucked behind the already famous Dr. Inc in Bangsar, you’d hopefully start asking the very basic questions; for instance, why “Coley”?
Unlike most bars in KL, Coley immediately stands out by virtue of its name. It is neither a reference to the bar’s theme, the name of an elusive cocktail, nor the name of its owner; rather, it is a nod to the charismatic inventor of the Hanky Panky, female head bartender of London’s Savoy Hotel during the turn of the century, Ada Coleman, affectionately known as “Coley”. Now that’s a name to remember during Women’s History Month. Though no image of this pioneer hangs on the walls of her namesake bar in Bangsar, head bartender CK Kho would happily serve up his interpretation of the Hanky Panky while indulging you with this oft forgotten chapter in the history of bartending.
No stranger to the Malaysian bartending scene, CK has designed a delicious menu that melds together the familiar past and the fantastic present. While you’ll find familiar names under the “Cocktail” section, including the Hanky Panky, it’s the ingredient list for the drinks under “Koktel” that would raise eyebrows. Never would I imagine seeing Bubble Tea pop up in a cocktail bar and mixed in with Irish whiskey, even if both just so happens to be a few of my favourite things. The “koktel” in question, Whiskey & Bubble Tea, was an experience generously provided by a regular patron, Nicole, who had dropped by for an evening sip. Being a fan of bubble tea myself, I had to resist from draining the entire glass that, despite my taste buds screaming otherwise, was 100% non-halal.
The couple of drinks we did order for ourselves under “Koktel” were the Gin & Coconut and Rum & Ambarella. The former is a ridiculously simple recipe of London Dry Gin and fresh coconut water with a squeeze of lime, but it’s also a bestseller that upholds the old “less is more” adage. If you have kids and they steal this off the bar from you, they’ll probably say this tastes just like coconut but with a funky aftertaste that just forces them to sit down and smile and develop a premature appreciation for all the colourful bottles lined along the shelves. Not that I’m encouraging underage drinking, but hey, what do I know about good parenting?
The Rum & Ambarella, on the other hand, is equally refreshing, though sweeter and thicker in consistency. The ambarella (or kedondong for local ears) and asam boi combo is ubiquitous in kopitiams and food courts alike, but it’s the addition of Gold Rum that gives this Malaysian staple a much-desired kick we never knew we needed.
Having started out with the lighter “koktels”, we then transitioned into the bolder “Cocktail” section, beginning with the Hanky Panky. Complex with a bracingly bitter profile and a subtly sweet aftertaste, Coley’s signature drink works wonders as an aperitif or a digestif. Alternatively, you can make do without either label and just have a tryst with this sultry mistress whenever you please. Made of the usual suspects like Ford’s gin, Red Vermouth, and of course the dominating Fernet Branca, the Hanky Panky is best enjoyed in small sips, and never in haste.
I wouldn’t necessarily say the same for the Kopi Old Fashioned though, which is next on our list, as it is by far the most sobering concoction of the lot. Talk about a wake-up call. With ingredients like Plantation Dark Rum, Ethiopia Chelelectu, Pedro Ximenez, and Grapefruit Twist, CK’s interpretation of the Old Fashioned will jolt your senses, slap your face, and shoot right up your nose like wasabi. An incredibly potent brew that playfully stimulates the palate, this Kopi Old Fashioned doesn’t actually use any sugar as you normally would when making it, but it contains enough sweetness birthed from the marriage of ingredients to keep this absolutely delicious.
Our final selection off “Cocktail” is the Saffron Sour, a citrusy blend that works like a cleanse with its gentle flavours arising from saffron infused bourbon, vanilla syrup, a dash of lemon, egg white, and Angostura bitters. Simple, refreshing, and akin to biting a fresh orange, the Saffron Sour positively glows and stands out in bright yellow. Watching CK make this is an experience in itself. The amount of concentration etched on his face as he carefully lays the final decorative touches using a pipette demands silent admiration, though I had the nagging desire to tickle him, just to see if he breaks focus.
As befitting a man who has clocked in over a decade’s worth of bartending and remains au courant of developing trends in the cocktail industry, CK never shies away from collaborations if it means improving his craft and helping fellow bartenders market noteworthy creations. Flip the menu and you’ll see a small list of guest creations by stalwarts of the trade. The one we had, a sophisticated Pondan Sour, was created by Ash from The Vault KL. A decidedly sweet entry with mangosteen, pineapple, and pandan syrup mixed in with Angostura Reserva, the Pondan Sour reminds me vaguely of another common drink in Malaysia, the sirap selasih.
We were in for a real treat after the transitional Pondan Sour, as CK spoiled us with the Mezcal Alipus Tasting Flight. Richer and smokier than your usual tequila, artisan mezcal is incredibly robust and simply going through the four different types we had that day was an eye opener. When comparing tequila with mezcal, one might easily perceive the former as being smoother of the duo, though this doesn’t mean mezcal is unrefined; rather, mezcals are agave incarnate and only the bold can appreciate its oft-spicier palate. The San Balthazar, in particular, was like swallowing a punch (as in a fist, if that even makes any abstract sense). The flavour dissipates as quickly as it overwhelms. Nothing lingers, except perhaps for the flame in your eyes and the back of your throat. All that’s missing is perhaps a recording of Bamboléo playing in the background as we stomp on the countertop.
We jest. Never do that at Coley, please. CK’s bar deserves better than a couple of drunks flamenco-ing on top of it.
As we refrained from swaying at our seats, we were served with the penultimate Sparkling Cocktail with Chandon, made from Ford’s Gin, Strawberry & Ginger Shrub, and the eponymous bubbly. Tasting almost like mead, only fruitier, this sparkling cocktail lives up to its ingredients list and made for a delightful finish, though the experience was marred only by the fact that CK surprised us with Gin and Tonic soft-serve ice cream, which brought out the five-year-old in all of us. At that point, we had been happily inhaling alcohol off the glass that we’d forgotten the euphoria of imbibing alcohol off a sweet cone. I would serve this at every party if I could.
Having visited a plethora of bars around KL, there’s always that risk of being jaded with what’s being served on the table. A cool looking bar keeps the conversation going, yes, but it’s the quality of the drinks that retain customers. Coley is outstanding because it doesn’t attempt to outshine; you’re never too distracted by your surroundings as to have your intimacy with your cocktails dampened. In other words, Coley is anything but a try-hard. CK does a pretty good job contextualising and reinterpreting age-old standards with local infusions, which is probably why you’d see a creation of his on every other table, even before sundown on a weekend. So if you ever have a hankering for a Hanky Panky, just head on to the back of Dr. Inc in Bangsar, and look for the mustachioed gentlemen with the glasses.
Reasons to visit: Hanky Panky (obviously); Whisky & Bubble Tea (if you enjoy the sweet life); Kopi Old Fashioned; reasonably priced cocktails in a casual and relaxed setting; and to all the photographers out there, Coley (and by extension, Dr. Inc) is incredibly photogenic.
Coley Cocktail Bar
8 Jalan Kemuja
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia