KUALA LUMPUR: The sweet, grassy fragrance of pandan filled the air, as the bartender sliced the long leaves into thin strips.
Using a pair of tweezers, he carefully inserted a few strips into a one-litre plastic drink bag through its screw-top opening.
This was followed by a large measure of vodka, coconut water and some syrup to help round off the taste, and a few shakes to mix everything together. And that is The Locker and Loft’s signature Kelapa Rock cocktail, ready for a home delivery order.
Many sectors of the economy were shut at the start of Malaysia’s movement control order (MCO) on Mar 18. Even as the country eased into the recovery phase from Jun 10 until Aug 31, some business establishments have been ordered to remain closed.
As such, bars in the Klang Valley have to adapt their business model to try and survive the prolonged closure. Offering their cocktails for takeaway and delivery is one way to ensure that their customers can still enjoy their favourite concoctions.
FROM NOVELTY TO NECESSITY
Takeaway cocktails are not a new fad, for gin and tonic or rum and coke have been canned for easy drinking. Craft cocktails, however, are usually made live at the bar with perishable ingredients such as fresh fruit juices.
Rick Joore, the manager and co-owner of Botakliquor Bar in Petaling Street, just outside Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, said in the past years, some cocktail bars have been offering small bottled cocktails, to be served on the spot.
“Other busier places might pre-batch a bunch of bottles, to help speed up service,” said Joore.
But with the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, what was a novelty is now a survival tool for those in the industry. Joore said that a number of cocktail bars have repackaged their products for home delivery.
Paul Dass, the owner of The Locker and Loft and one of the earliest bars to come up with a delivery service, said it was earlier experimentation that allowed the bar to come up with a delivery menu quickly.
“We were a step ahead when we started our pop-up bar concept for private events, and we thought it’d be cool to have bottled cocktails too. Who would have thought a creative idea would turn out to be a necessity down the road during the MCO,” Dass recounted.
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KEEPING DRINKS FRESH
One problem with bottling craft cocktails, as bartenders experiment with new flavour profiles and ingredients, is preserving their creations' drinkability, especially when ingredients include perishables like fresh fruit juice or egg white.
For Dass, he generally recommends that The Locker and Loft's drinks be consumed within the day.
"It wasn't exactly the easiest, the challenge was for the customer to be able to receive the bottled cocktails and that they could keep for a period of time. We wanted the guests to have the same enjoyment pouring it from a bottle, the same as having it at the bar," he said.
"There are always changes and alterations to the process, as we always try to improve and learn ways to grow our bottled cocktails."
Joore of Botakliquor noted that some bars have brought back milk-washing as a preservation technique for their cocktails.
"What you do is you mix your booze and other ingredients, you add warm milk and lemon juice ... like making ricotta cheese. The mix starts curdling, you let it sit for a while, then you strain the solids and the result is a clear liquid," Joore explained.
The resulting drink, he said, could be kept for up to a year with refrigeration.
For Andrew Tan, the co-owner and bar director of Hyde 53M, he and his bartenders decided to market a series of spirit-forward cocktails comprising a Negroni, Boulevardier, Old Fashioned and Manhattan. All are barrel-aged and therefore impart different flavours from that of their fresh-made versions.
They were sold out within a fortnight, and they had to wait another four weeks or so before starting new barrels.
"We were surprised when most of our batches sold out with single-digit waste percentages, It can be hard during times like this MCO and RMCO period, but patrons totally understand how hard it hits the bar business and are able to support us in many ways," said Tan.
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With the amount of home deliveries, what happens to the bottles after that?
"We're looking at are mechanisms on how to get people to recycle the empty cocktail bottles," Dass said.
The sales volume of delivery cocktails stands at around 40 per cent of usual sales before COVID-19.
Pubs and bars are still closed under the recovery phase of the MCO, which will last until Aug 31.
Other activities that have been allowed to resume include the hairstyling industry, museums, indoor busking and physical contact sports, among others.
In the meantime, the bar owners are searching for new methods to generate revenue and even collaborating with other establishments, as the bartending circle in the Klang Valley is quite small.
"The new normal will definitely change how the bar scene functions in Malaysia and moving forward, we'll see bar owners' ideas constantly changing to improve not only concepts and ideology and offers, but also link their back-end finances," said Tan.
He said that for Hyde 53M, he and his staff would have to tighten their belts and come up with ways to trim losses and find new income, such as home delivery for some time, until at least next February.
"We won't be able to do it alone. These are trying times, where I hope all the bars can come together and find ways to diversify and collaborate with one another," said Dass of The Locker and Loft, who is currently collaborating with another cocktail bar in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur to market each other's bottled cocktails.