A View from the City: Kuala Lumpur

Hamish Smith speaks to Karl Too, Kuala Lumpur bartender and owner of Omakase + Appreciate about the Malaysian city's bar industry


Tell us a little about the history of KL’s drinking culture. 

Before the arrival of Europeans there was hardly any alcohol production or consumption in Malaysia. This was due to adherence to Islamic law which forbids the use of such intoxicants. The only real exception to this was in places such as Sarawak where people traditionally consumed a locally produced rice wine known as tuak. Contact with Europeans during the 17th century saw more Malaysians develop an interest in alcohol – mostly wine introduced by the Portuguese. The influx of migrant workers also meant an increased demand for alcohol – the Chinese community began brewing their own beverages. Since the 1930s Malaysia has become the home of many international brewers and distillers – including Guinness and Carlsberg.

When did the city get in to cocktails?

KL’s cocktail movement began in 2001, but then the golden age of cocktails arrived. We bartenders and bar owners are thankful for the craft cocktail renaissance which ignited our passion to developing a cocktail culture and refine the quality of hospitality. Especially Omakase + Appreciate who love to  encourage, promote and further boost the cocktail experiences and the true meaning of hospitality. Hopefully in the near future we will have a solid cocktail cultures.  

Who and what are the pioneer bartenders and bars?

First I would like to express my gratitude to Premraj Edward who was my first mentor back in my second bar job in Skybar, Traders Hotel in KL. He’s very dedicated to his profession as a hotelier and one of the key people who helped to improve the quality of hotel drinking experiences. Another pioneer is Arsenio Mariano Jr. He was  one of very few bartenders who used seasonal fruits and fresh herbs and spices back in 2001. Now he’s still actively refining local cocktail scenes. 

The next person is Rizal Junior (a rum fanatic), a bartender of humour and zest who has been supporting local bar scenes effortlessly for the past 10 years. Last but not least is our late Frankie Anthony who was very caring to any of his bartender brothers and sisters. His passion, sincerity and commitment sparked our love for bartending. During my college time I used to hang out at Twenty-One, an adventurous concept that melds an elegant dining experience with a vibrant bar and lounge. 

Where do you think the city ranks in terms of bar scenes in your region?

I believe consistency of overall hospitality quality its more important than the city ranking. As we know last year CNN acclaimed Singapore as the world’s hottest new cocktail city, for that reason I certainly agree that Singapore is influential as well as the Thai scene. The Malaysia cocktail bar scene is up-and-coming. 

What are the challenges the city’s bars face?

Bar owners face challenges in HR management, cocktail appreciation, cocktail programmes and hospitality quality. At some points we are pretty stressed but we are trying to handle each challenge positively because eventually it will improve the emotional quotient which is needed in our daily routines. At the same time we study every facet of every aspect in bar business strategy and hospitality to ensure we raise expectation and create the best experience possible.