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Adding A Splash of Colour to Malaysia's Cocktail Scene: A Chat with Bar Trigona's Rohan Matmary


No trip to Kuala Lumpur is complete without a visit to the one bar that consistently tops rankings for the best cocktails in the city: Bar Trigona. Located in the Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur, Bar Trigona is a glamorous cocktail bar that has been wowing guests with its opulent decors and delicious cocktails for years. Led by Head Bartender Rohan Matmary, Bar Trigona recently cinched the title of The Best Bar in Malaysia 2023, its fourth year in a row.

Rohan himself is no stranger to the cocktail scene. Prior to taking over Bar Trigona’s beverage programme in 2022, he also served as the Head of Beverage at Sidecar India, the first Indian bar to break into the Asia’s 50 Best list, as well as at Cocktails & Dreams, a popular speakeasy in New Delhi. 

Fresh off the launch of Bar Trigona’s newest “Colour Me Curious” cocktail menu, we had the opportunity to sit down with Rohan himself to dive deeper into this new colour-themed menu and what visitors can expect from it. What follows is an exciting behind-the-scenes look into on some of the fascinating cocktail techniques and unique ingredients that shape this menu!

For more, be sure to follow Rohan and Bar Trigona!

 


 

88B: The new menu at Bar Trigona is certainly an eye-catching one. Called “Colour Me Curious”, it features cocktails that pay homage to the vibrant colours and textures of ingredients and produce found across this region. Could you tell us more about the inspiration behind this colour-themed menu?

Rohan: When we were creating the menu, the team at Bar Trigona did quite a bit of research on what theme to choose. The impulse for bars might be to choose a theme that is more comfortable to execute and that is more comfortable to them, but for us we really wanted to have a theme that people could connect to.

What we felt differentiated us from other hotel bars is our love for nature, because that is abundant in Malaysia. As a team, we always look forward to times when we get to visit the farms because its more colourful and more vibrant – you get fruits, florals – it’s a nice break from the grey buildings in the city centre. So we thought why not create something that transports the consumers in the same way?

"As a team, we always look forward to times when we get to visit the farms because its more colourful and more vibrant – you get fruits, florals – it’s a nice break from the grey buildings in the city centre. So we thought why not create something that transports the consumers in the same way?" - Rohan explains the inspiration behind "Colour Me Curious"

When it comes to hotel bars, you’d often find drinks like Negronis, Manhattans, Old Fashioned – all very dark and spirit forward. Yet, you don’t really see them doing fresh juices, or having drinks with really beautiful colours and in which you can even taste and feel the crunch of the fruits.

So that's why we thought that this could work and sounded really promising. As we stated designing the menu, it looked very colourful and that prompted us to take a step back and ask ourselves: is this a bit too colourful for Bar Trigona given how rustic our current ambience is? But we realised that even with all the colour, it still kind of blended in and carried the theme of nature in a way that felt different, but not out of place. That encouraged us to go ahead with this theme and put colours into the glasses rather than the more conventional red and gold. 

88B: It's interesting you brought up the fact that Bar Trigona differentiates from other hotel bars through colour. Do you reckon there are some of the traditional perceptions of hotel bars?

The Iris cocktail from "Colour Me Curious", made from cognac, nutmeg, coffee stout and ube.

Rohan: Yeah, when people look at cocktails, they often assume that hotel bars has to be “dark”. It has to be almost like a cigar lounge. It’s not seen as a bright place, or a tiki bar. We wanted to break that stereotype and show that hotel bars can be fun and vibrant as well.

88B: Something not many patrons at Bar Trigona will realise is that you and your team use a wide range of different cocktail making techniques across the menu. This ranges from sous pression, sous vide, fat washing and barrel aging. Could you tell us more about each of these techniques, and how you employed them to achieve the flavour/texture you were going for in a particular cocktail?

Sous Pression

Rohan: Sous Pression is a technique which is very recently invented by Iain McPherson from Panda and Sons in Edinburgh. It involves drawing out flavours via freezing – sort of like an inverse sous vide. When I had a conversation with Ian and I was trying to understand how sous pression was different from a sous vide or any other technique, he mentioned that a lot of fruits and vegetables in this part of the world should be understood better [through Sous Pression] as they do not play well with heat.

Sous Pression works really well when you think about a fruit that has a certain crunch to it when you bite into it, that you don’t necessarily get in a jam or pureed form. When you consider a fruit like lychee, it has a really delicate crunch and aroma, but much of this essence is prone to spoiling away when you apply heat to it. Unlike something like a pineapple which tastes amazing when you grill it, not a lot of all the fruits, vegetables, flowers here really retain their delicate flavours when its heated.

The Zen cocktail uses Sous Pression to meld the fresh flavours of lychee into a reimagined martini.

Hence, we applied Sous Pression as a method to introduce the flavour of lychee into a reimagined martini. To that, we also added a touch of pickled ginger, which carries a slight salty savouriness from the vinegar and a bit of heat. We combined the mixture of gin, vodka, lychee and pickled ginger into a vacuum sealed bag, freeze it for 24 hours before straining it out. And the result is then used in the final cocktail, called Zen.

Sous Vide

Rohan: Sous Vide is one of those techniques we’ve used for very long because it simply works really well with ingredients that you don’t really like the colour of and when you don’t want to impart a lot of impurities into the drink. It’s a process where you can add heat with the alcohol and then you can just pull in the flavour without actually adding some cloudiness and still keep the liquid clear. You get all the flavour, without feeling like you’re almost drinking juice.

Fat Washing

Rohan: Fat Washing is quite straightforward. You take any fat, put it into any spirit, allow it to melt and blend in, then freeze it and remove the slab of solidified fat. What this does is to impart the flavour of the fat, but not the fattiness itself. This technique was invented in the US around 25 years ago, and from there on, it’s been used a lot around the world.

Why we like to use it is because most of our cocktails focus a lot on temperature. So making sure the cocktails are at the optimum temperature is very important. Fat Washing allows us to play with the texture of the drink and lock the spirit with a certain denseness and richness. In that way, it remains nice and flavourful even when poured over ice. Especially in Asia, when its around 30°C all year round, it’s important to have cold cocktails and to serve cocktails with ice.

One of the drinks which we employ Fat Washing in is called the Tropica. For this, we fat washed the whole drink with coconut and then we also add coconut water for the dilution. So we have two variants of coconut within the drink - the coconut water gives you the coconut aroma and smell while the coconut oil adds a certain level of richness you're looking at in a Negroni.

"Fat Washing allows us to play with the texture of the drink and lock the spirit with a certain denseness and richness. In that way, it remains nice and flavourful even when poured over ice. Especially in Asia, when its around 30°C all year round, it’s important to have cold cocktails and to serve cocktails with ice." - Rohan explains the benefits for Fat Washing in spirit-forward cocktails at Bar Trigona.

Barrel Aging

Rohan: Barrel ageing can be a bit tricky. The way we do it is that we sort of made a barrel out of this wood called Palo Santo, a very nice incense from South America. I personally really love researching and buying wood just generally for using in cocktails, and I managed to get a good batch of Palo Santo this time around and made a box out of it. We pour the whisky into it, and the exposure to the wood adds a finishing touch and infuses aromatics into the spirit and ultimately, the cocktail.

" So that’s what we’re trying to do here as well, we take a mix of bourbon, whiskey and vermouth and age it in a Palo Santo barrel for three months. This process imparts a spicy note from the Palo Santo flavour without adding sweetness, and we use the resultant barrel-aged spirit in a whisky sour." - Rohan explains how Barrel Aging is employed in the Santo cocktail.

In the same way that whisky can be finished with a ex-sherry cask or an ex-bourbon - that three months in the cask alone can impart such an amazing flavour. So that’s what we’re trying to do here as well, we take a mix of bourbon, whiskey and vermouth and age it in a Palo Santo barrel for three months. This process imparts a spicy note from the Palo Santo flavour without adding sweetness, and we use the resultant barrel-aged spirit in a whisky sour.  

88B: Given that this menu utilises a wide variety of unconventional fruits, florals and vegetables, were there any particular ingredients that were surprisingly tricky for you to work with when workshopping this cocktail menu?

Rohan: There were two ingredients (laughs).

The first was Rose Apple, or Jambu Air (meaning fruit of water) as it’s called here in Malaysia. It's a fruit which is grown across the continent, and you will see it in some wet markets in Asia. It pops up in the markets sporadically, in two or three kilograms, and there’s often not a regular supply. So we wanted to see what we could do to bring this fruit in. Because there’s not much steady consumption, the fruit is not grown as often, and so we thought, “why not we grow it?”. We asked the farmers we worked with to help grow it for us!

 The Pastel cocktail is a Cobbler-style cocktail that utilises fermented jambu, or rose apple, a particularly tricky ingredient that the team at Bar Trigona sought to work with in the new menu.

What’s interesting is that Jambu in Malaysia tastes like a mix between apple and watermelon. Hence, we wanted to lean into that profile. The tricky thing is that this menu focuses on colour, and jambu turns black and loses its colouring when it oxidises. So instead, we fermented the jambu and experimented with the process for almost two months to achieve the colour we were going for.  The final cocktail sells really well – it looks very attractive, and its fruity and light. It’s a fruit that we’re really proud that we managed to work with and make the cocktail out of.

The Sienna cocktail is a pickled margarita, made from carrots, pickles and saffron. The team at Bar Trigona used 24 hours sous vide to extract the flavours from the carrot. 

Another fun ingredient is carrot. Because the fruit is so hard, it's almost impossible to kind of extract the flavour and extract the full aroma. Well, you could blend it up, but then it becomes a glass of carrot juice, but we felt we wanted something a bit more nuanced.  We eventually experimented and found that by using sous vide on high temperatures for 24 hours, you can really extract a stronger carrot flavour from the carrot – it’s almost akin to making carrot jam. From there, we decided to make a pickled Margarita, which combined carrots, saffron and pickles. So it’s a very simple vegetable, but it took us quite a bit of time to figure out how to work with nature and achieve the flavours and textures that we wanted.

88B: Bar Trigona has a long history of working together with local farmers. How did that come about and how is your team taking this forward with the new “Colour Me Curious” menu?

Rohan: Since Bar Trigona’s inception, we’ve always prioritised working with local honey farmers. And over the years, we kind of changed the way Trigona honey was looked at in Malaysia; the way the honey farmers were actually harvesting the honey; and the amount of honey they could produce and they could sell. That collaboration has been fantastic and it gave us the inspiration to really deepen these partnerships this time around with the Colour Me Curious menu. Instead of just buying stuff from farmers, we thought why not give them a certain share of our revenue and make them a business plan that helps them to grow with Bar Trigona?

Hence, we support these farmers through revenue sharing, and work with them to reinvest this additional capital. There are various ways in which different farmers might use that money - some will use it to improve their extraction processes, bring in more species of honey bees, or to make other kinds of produce.

"Instead of just buying stuff from farmers, we thought why not give them a certain share of our revenue and make them a business plan that helps them to grow with Bar Trigona?" - Rohan on how Bar Trigona works hand in hand with the farmers as partners.

While Trigona is a hotel bar, it's a very busy bar. So it was a very tricky thing for the farmers because unlike some restaurants that might just buy one or two kilograms of something, Bar Trigona needs something that the farmers can produce hundreds of kilograms over months and months. Hence, we need to really support the farmers and work together with them hand-in-hand. It’s turned out really well, we just did our first pay out in fact and I think everyone’s quite pleased with how it’s going. Given that we are a bar which is built on trigona honey, we feel it’s important to have very sweet relations with our suppliers. 

88B: What are some cocktail trends you’re noticing that you’re excited about?

Rohan: There is a lot more passion driven bars coming into the picture. So you see a lot of bars which are very small scale, 15-20 seaters, making amazing drinks and very small beverage programmes. These bars are coming up quite a lot.  This is great to see because they are also bringing in a lot of techniques and art which a lot of busy bars cannot afford in terms of time and just space and things like that.  

But having said that, hospitality is something which is going to be a very big part of cocktail bars. I've been seeing a lot of cocktail bars which make amazing drinks, but when you actually visit the bar unnoticed, the hospitality is very different than what it would be when you're known. So I think hospitality is going to become one of the biggest game changers in the future.

88B: If you could only drink one drink at the bar for the rest of your life, what drink would it? 

Rohan: It’s gotta be an Americano. A cocktail made from Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water. Very easy to make, but I’ll happily drink it for the rest of my life.

 


 

88 Bamboo would like to thank Rohan for taking the time to speak with us! If you'd like to try the new cocktails from the Colour Me Curious menu, they are now available for ordering at Bar Trigona, located at 145, Jln Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, 50450 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Open 7 days a week, 5pm - 1am). 

 

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