We Tasted Georgetown In A Gimlet: Backdoor Bodega Is The Penang Experience You Shouldn't Miss
There's something oddly comforting about Penang, even though I've never stepped foot into this State until recently.
It's a quaint mosaic of culture, food and island life squeezed into a quiet corner of Malaysia. The capital, George Town, is a UNESCO Heritage site known for its British colonial buildings, century-old Chinese shophouses and mosques. It sees a vibrant street art scene with murals scattered around the city and even a 19th century temple that is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Southeast Asia.
Penang Island is home to a population no larger than a bustling borough in a metropolis, so it's hard to imagine a cocktail bar that could rival the speakeasies of Tokyo or London. But along the textured streets of the art district, right next to the iconic Hin Bus Depot art space, lies Penangites' favourite drinking hole: Backdoor Bodega, a cocktail bar recognised by the Asia's 50 Best Bars list.
My journey began along the same street as Hin Bus Depot, along which you would spot a spinning barber's pole lamp and a clothing store The Swagger Salon. Step right into the clothing store and head to the back to find the clandestine entrance to the Bodega. If you're wondering how this hidden bar even made a name for itself, its success was said to be accidental.
A self-taught bartender, the owner Koh Yung Shen originally ran several clothing stores including The Swagger Salon in Penang, and felt frustrated by the absence of Penang's own cocktail culture back in 2016. He turned the backroom into a personal haven for himself and his friends who were thirsting for cocktails with a touch of homeliness.
Finally entering Backdoor Bodega, you're enveloped by a space that combines Southeast Asian industrial chic with a touch of neo-classical design elements. The rhythmic beats of 90s' hip hop serve as the backdrop.
The vibe is fairly casual and laid-back, with an eclectic crowd of young adults - mostly Penang-born prodigal children returning from Kuala Lumpur, or tourists from all over the region seduced by Penang's quiet charm.
The hospitality is great. The staff is eager to please and more than happy to guide you through the menu. A small team of bartenders stand behind the bar toiling away; some of them seem to still be learning the ropes, while some others are more adept. Sure, Penang might not be renowned for its bartending game, but what's offered here is impressive, especially by local standards. I cannot complain.
My drinking companions and I got ourselves half a dozen of drinks from their menu, starting with the lovely Kepala Hotak.
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Coconut fat-washed white rum, homemade pandan syrup, clarified coconut custard.
With such a delicious-sounding name, I initially thought this drink was named after a Malaysian dish. Later on I realised it was just a local exclaimation for something like "of course not, you idiot!" Either way, it's not a phrase to use at street food stallsif I don't intend on picking a fight with locals.
However, the cocktail itself was perfectly delightful. It's clean, lightly sweet, refreshing and filled with incredibly familiar local flavours. It has the light and mildly sweet aroma of coconut agar-agar jelly.
Tasting it, it's clean with light kaya and pandan leaf sweetness, along with the refined sweetness of steamed brown sugar sponge cake (Kueh Neng Ko). There is a light alcoholic kick from the white rum, that can be felt only in the finish, along with a slightly drying texture.
This is one of my favourite cocktails, period. I love how they integrated familiar local flavours that I grew up with, creating a cocktail that has coconut cream flavours that isn't actually creamy or oily. It's perfect if you want a cocktail that tastes creamy but isn't overly rich.
Chrysanthemum-infused Roku Gin, homemade tea syrup, Lapsang Souchong cold brew tea.
Next up, we had the Chrysanthemum (I truly have trouble spelling this word so excuse any typos). Much like the Kepala Hotak, this is delightfully clean, mildly sweet and filled with familiar Asian flavours I grew up with.
On the nose, it smells bright and sugary, distinctly like Yeo's Chrysanthemum Tea.
Sipping it, it tastes of unadulterated chrysanthemum tea of the type that you could buy from Chinese herbal medicine stores. It has some rock sugar sweetness, along with the woody bitterness from the florals meld really well with the lightly citrusy notes of the Roku Gin.
This is an easy, enjoyable sipper, and especially well-liked by those who do not enjoy overly alcoholic cocktails. The bitterness of the gin is sort of disguised by the woody bitterness of the chrysanthemum tea, making it taste less boozy than it actually is.
Matcha-infused Roku Gin, clarified milk, elderflower syrup, lemon juice.
By the time it came down to the Matcha Magic, I'm starting to see a common thread. They fancy clarifying many of their drinks and it all works really well.
The Matcha Magic smells of like milk matcha powder and matcha fudge (think Royce's Matcha Chocolates). Sipping it, it has a slightly chalky matcha sweetness (not green tea but matcha), buoyed by a light milky sweetness of clarified milk. There's a finishing of green tea notes.
All their lighter cocktails were fantastic and so flavourful. Now, let's turn to the slightly richer ones.
Martell Noblige, cane molasses, aged soy sauce, Granny Smith apples, bubbles, topped with a piece of torched cheddar.
Next up, the Spellbinder is one of their dao you (Chinese soy sauce)-inspired drinks. The self-professed Cognac lover at my table ordered it because it contained some Martell, molasses and soy sauce.
But when it arrived at our table, I truly couldn't shake the thought of sweaty gym clothes from my head. Never nose this drink until you remove the piece of torched cheddar cheese placed on top, which gives it an unappetising and pungent sweaty odour.
After my drinking companion graciously ate that piece of cheese, everything became better. You could smell the depths of aged soy sauce and caramel. Taking a sip, it's slightly plummy, with notes of Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa (a liquorice-like honey loquat syrup), green apple juice offering a touch of clarity and fruitiness, and lots more notes of molasses with a slight drying finish.
It's on the sweeter side and it's a decent drink. However, while I personally love cheese plates, and I'd enjoy roquefort blue cheese, the sweaty cheddar topping was a miss.
London dry gin, torched ginger flower, kesum leaves, galangal, lemongrass, belacan, tamarind, and a house lime blend.
I powered on with the Georgetown Gimlet, the iconic cocktail that apparently reminds many of Penang's iconic assam laksa (a noodle dish with spicy, sweet and sour fish broth topped with various shredded herbs).
Sure enough, it reminds us of the iconic dish. On the nose, a party of spice and herbs – laksa leaves, fragrant lemon balm leaves, ginger flower shavings and even a light tamarind sourness.
Tasting it, it's a really balanced blend of sweet, sour, spicy and lightly savoury elements - though heavier on the sweetness and spiciness. Very dominant notes of tamarind, a beautiful aroma of lemongrass and the continuous spice of belacan chili and ginger flower.
It comes to an end with a clean finish of lime juice.
While this isn't my favourite cocktail (that award goes to the Kelapa Hotak), I am far more impressed by the Georgetown Gimlet. It takes skill and probably tons of experimentation to get the balance and harmony right for this drink. There is so much going on here and you could taste all the distinct notes from spicy and pungent Southeast Asian dishes in this little gimlet. It has a fitting name, this little gimlet represents all of Georgetown's diversity.
Dark rum, Campari, Pineapple juice, Lime juice, torched pineapple
We wrapped things up with the Kuala Lumpur favourite Junglebird for the finale.
This was on the fruitier, easier-to-drink side. The notes of pineapple juice sweetness and tartness were enhanced, while the Campari bitterness is toned down quite a bit.
The standout stars for me were undoubtedly the lighter, clarified cocktails - Kelapa Hotak, Chrysanthemum, and Matcha Magic. Each of them delivered a refreshing palate, while simultaneously bursting with distinctive and memorable flavors. However, the crowning jewel which captures their mixology skill and creativity has to be their signature Georgetown Gimlet. This drink is the very essence of what has garnered the bar its acclaim and awards.
Typically, Backdoor Bodega offers free enamel pins for every cocktail purchased. That way, they say, you're actually just purchasing pretty little pins and getting rewarded with free cocktails.
Unfortunately, they were out of stock for pins when I visited. Because I couldn't hide my disappointment, the kind waitstaff took off his personal Backdoor Bodega pin and gave it to me. What did I tell you about the service? They really do their best!
Backdoor Bodega offers a comfortable, casual experience with world class mixology right here in this quiet town. You'll also get a sip of Penang's mosaic of flavours and generous ensemble of scents. I'd love to be back!