Archipelago Penang – a hidden bar serving fabulous cocktails to soothe the soul
Cocktails were initially inspired by British punches, which contained spirits, fruit juices and spices in big bowls. The term “cocktail”, known to be an alcoholic beverage, appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository (Hudson, New York) 13 May 1806. Editor Harry Croswell answered the question, "What is a cocktail?" as “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water and bitters".
However nowadays, the beloved mixed concoctions cover a wide range of spirits, wines, champagnes and tonics blended with a host of ingredients including spices, herbs and fruits.
Before we dive in further, let us pause and look at one very important ingredient in cocktails – ice! Only in the late 1920s did refrigerators garner increased popularity in private homes. Prior to that, thanks to maritime trade and Penang being an important trading port for the British empire, ice managed to make its way to the Malay archipelago. The availability of ice eventually fuelled the rise of cocktails to this part of the world as well.
Fast forward to today, some classic cocktails like Tequila Sunrise, Margarita and Pina Colada are available at most bars and restaurants in Penang. Nevertheless, finding a good bar in Penang that specialises in quality cocktails is challenging because a good bar is far and few in between. Archipelago Penang, an intriguing quaint little bar hidden in the heart of George Town, is among my favourites. There is no huge signage or neon lights to exclaim its presence, yet many have mysteriously managed to find its backdoor entrance along Jalan Kampung Kolam with ease.
At Archipelago Penang, an experienced bartender is at hand to individually craft each cocktail to perfection, from taste to eye-candy presentations. Like a true master craftsman, it is a joy to see him in his element. The ingenious cocktail menu, designed by its globetrotting owner, offers classic recipes celebrating fresh local ingredients. These creative drinks have a unique edge like no other.
Here are some of my favourite cocktails to indulge, especially among good friends armed with a barrel of laughs.
Top on my list is "Oh My Toddy", a delicious local take, away from the usual classic cocktails. This cool highball glass of semi-opaque white concoction is made from freshly harvested toddy (palm tree sap wine) in small batches, locally sourced on the island. It is flavoured with an assam boi (salted dried plum) and garnished with attap chee (palm seeds). To prevent the toddy from fermenting further, it is kept frozen to preserve its sweet undertones. For those adventurous cocktail lovers from abroad, I would recommend that you add this unique cocktail to your list of must-try items at Archipelago Penang. Remember to stir the drink and allow ample time for the salty and sourish twist of the assam boi to shine through.
"Blessings", served in an old-fashioned crystal glass, is prepared with Roku Gin infused with premium sencha and Gyokuro from Uji, Kyoto Prefecture in Japan. The offering is perfumed with a fresh kaffir lime leaf and topped with a preserved calamansi lime encasing an assam boi (locally known as kau snar jee – 932 in Hokkien).
Roku (Japanese for the number six) is the name for the gin where inside each bottle, you will find flavours of six special botanicals that are sourced from the best growing areas in Japan. It is crafted by Japanese artisans with a centuries-old tradition under parent company Suntory.
"Blessings" is a refreshing sip of Japanese craft gin with a touch of delicate local flavours.
For a colourful cocktail, try "Magic" – a butterfly pea flower infused Roku Gin with yuzu syrup. The complementary-coloured drink of indigo and sun-kissed yellow is packed with delicious flavours and a punch. It is good to note that all the drinks served at Archipelago Penang are potent, not weak and watered-down like many elsewhere with ice and soda.
"Spices of the Archipelago", as the name would suggest, is a dark rum cocktail topped with soda and infused with spices from the Malay archipelago – homemade nutmeg syrup (Penang nutmeg double-boiled with rock sugar), freshly grated nutmeg, a cinnamon stick and star anise. This effervescent offering is packed with flavours and rekindles the glorious spice route of olde.
The "Dragon Sangria", a beautiful blend of brandy and red wine, is mixed with diced oranges. This refreshingly citrusy and boozy drink has a long and interesting origin story.
Early Greeks and Romans, for as far back as two centuries ago, at times mixed wine with sugar, spices and other ingredients at hand to make “hippocras". This could be the common birthplace of both sangria and mulled wine. Hippocras was much preferred as it was deemed safer than drinking water.
Most food historians agree that Spaniards introduced some version of sangria to the Americas in the early 1800s. However, its arrival in the U.S. at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York by the Spaniards propelled its popularity further. It is here that many American visitors began to associate the drink with Spain. "Sangre" which means "blood" in Spanish, is in reference to the red wine used in the cocktail.
"Jungle Bird of Paradise", a combo of dark rum, Campari and pineapple juice is an invigorating taste of the tropics. This sweet, fruity and tart highball glass cocktail is decorated with a pineapple leaf fan, a slice of pineapple and crowned with dried marigold.
The birthplace of the "Jungle Bird" is actually Kuala Lumpur! Creator Jeffrey Ong designed this classic tiki-style cocktail in the 1970s, serving it to guests as a welcome drink at the Hilton Kuala Lumpur.
"East India Company Planters Punch", although similar looking in colour as the "Jungle Bird of Paradise", is quite different in taste. The punch consists of dark rum, dry orange curacao, grenadine and bitters as well as pineapple and orange juices. The drink is garnished with a fresh orange slice and dried red lilies. It is a brilliant orangey combo that packs a boozy punch.
There are many other items to sample including "Sarawak Pepper Gin & Tonic", "Life is like Negroni", "No Time to Die", "East India VOC", "Georgetown Mule", "Kaya Toast Kopi O" and "Toddy Mojito". Besides cocktails, the bar also serves mocktails, liqueur, wines, beers, Borneo tuak, fresh juices, cold and hot drinks.
The naturally lit courtyard filled with plants is an ideal place for you to enjoy your cocktails. Surrounded with greenery and the sound of flowing water from the water feature, the courtyard exudes a relaxing vibe, beckoning patrons to slip away for a moment from the maddening rush of everyday routines. One could also sit at the vintage wooden bar and watch first hand how your drink is being prepared or at a rustic air conditioned lounge area for a more private setting.
Regardless of your choice of sitting preference, you can be rest assured that the refreshing cocktails that are well-crafted for the tropics can soothe your soul.
Backdoor, 114 Armenian Street (entrance from Jalan Kampung Kolam), George Town, Penang
Open: 5 pm – 12 midnight daily except Mondays
Price range from RM20+ to RM70+ per cocktail
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
9 May 2023