Celebrating Malaysian Bartenders Abroad (MBA), an exclusive series with Coley Cocktail Bar

Coley Lumpur x Set The Tables Malaysian Bartenders Abroad (MBA) Series, supported by The House of Suntory. Part of the proceed will be donated to support the underprivileged community in Malaysia. The prices stated are inclusive of 6% SST. Order from Coley Lumpur here.

The Malaysian diaspora is a known and growing fact that’s caused mainly by economic reasons with the pull factor being the promise of more attractive job prospects, salaries, and lifestyle benefits – this is especially true in the Hospitality industry. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), one out of ten Malaysian graduates migrated in 2000. Today, more than 1.7 million Malaysians are working abroad.

In an exclusive partnership with Coley Cocktail Bar (Asia’s 50 Best Bars), the launch of the Malaysian Bartenders Abroad (MBA) series features these promising Malaysian bartenders of our time. Each one with their star shining brightly across Australia, Singapore, China and Taiwan, manifesting the “Malaysia Boleh!” spirit. 

While the success stories of Malaysians abroad do serve as a beacon of hope to their fellow comrades back home, most express their longings to return home at a later stage in life to make an impactful change in the local F&B scene, as Lucas of The Ego Group shared without hesitation, “My dream is to come back home to raise the bar in the Malaysian bar scene.” 

Kelvin Low, owner and operator of The Elysian Whisky Bar, Victoria, Australia
Kelvin Low of The Elysian Whisky Bar. Image credit: Chris Hopkins

My journey abroad started when I first came to Tasmania to pursue a degree in Biotechnology in 2003. I continued on to do an Honours year, spending a year doing research, hunting down genes that cause prostate cancer. After settling down in Melbourne in 2008, I landed myself my first Hospitality job. I was working at a cafe in the daytime, and in the evenings I would work at a fine dining restaurant. I loved it! It was great to meet so many people from different walks of life. 

I tasted my first whisky in the fine dining restaurant I worked in, given to me by my Manager at the time. After my intro to whiskies, I went on to try as many new whiskies every week as I could. That turned into a hobby and a passion, which then turned into a business.

The beginning of my whisky career started around 2014 when I started collecting Japanese whiskies for the restaurant bar and before I knew it, we had the largest range of Japanese whiskies in Australia. We had at least 85-90 different SKUs, amongst them Single Cask bottlings of Nikka Yoichi & Nikka Miyagikyo, Mars 25 +3, Mars 22yo Single Cask, and all the special releases from Suntory. It was an amazing time to be in, but that would all change in 2014 when the Japanese whisky boom happened. Anyway, as you can tell, I absolutely loved whiskies, and I just wanted to do more in this category, and finally, in December 2016, I opened up The Elysian Whisky Bar.

I absolutely love my job because I get to geek out and taste new whiskies. Every week, I open about 10 new bottles at the bar, and we normally do some “quality control”, just to make sure we know what we are selling. Regulars would often come with samples from bottles they have bought too. Being in this industry, I have met people from all levels and aspects of the whisky industry. From reps to brand ambassadors, to distillers and distillery owners. It’s great.

A downside of working in the hospitality industry is that I cannot have dinners with my two kids and family on a daily basis. It will be hard for me to help them with school homework too as they grow up, but we shall see, I will just have to work out a better way. At least I still get 2 days off in a week where we spend time together doing stuff.

It is very encouraging to see the bar scene has exploded back home, with so many amazing cocktail bars such as Coley, Omakase + Appreciate, Junglebird, Pahit, Bar Trigona, Three X Co etc. Even the whisky bar scene has changed a lot with 61 Monarchy and The Whisky Bar KL leading the way. 

I would tell my younger self to experience a little more of Malaysia working in the bars there. Maybe it’s not too late? I’m always open to new ideas and collaborations. Looking back, I probably would have taken the same decision and moved to Melbourne as it was a decision made for my family too. 

Malaysia brings back memories of my family, friends, and the food! Who knows what the future holds. I still hold my Malaysian passport. But for now, with the kids in school here and my whisky bar, I will probably stay here for a while longer. 

 Kelvin’s creation for MBA: Corny & Old Fashioned. Oolong Tea infused Chita Single Grain, Gula Melaka syrup, bitters. “I have a sweet tooth, and for me, Gula Melaka brings me back to Malaysia. It also adds richness and depth to the cocktail. And you can’t go wrong with old-fashions. For me, it’s my go-to cocktail if I want to taste the spirit character (in this case, the Chita Grain).”

Be sure to visit Kelvin and his bar, The Elysian Whisky Bar when you are in Melbourne next time. 

Lucas Wong, owner and operator of The Ego Company, Shenzhen, China 
Lucas Wong, The Ego Company

Malaysia brings back memories of family and Hyde at 53, where I first learnt bartending. I will always visit my family and Hyde at 53 whenever I come back home. 

I got my first job abroad between 2017 to 2018. When I was bartending in Hyde at 53, friends from Singapore frequently commented I should consider moving out of Malaysia. It was very tempting, especially with the currency exchange. Out of curiosity, I sent out my CV to a few bars. I didn’t expect any replies but was pleasantly surprised when one of Singapore’s best bars, Jigger and Pony offered me a job. I left for Singapore and worked at Jigger & Pony for about 6 months. I was still relatively young and yearned for more creative outlets. I moved to Nutmeg & Clove shortly afterwards as they needed a bartender. 

My progression grew  exponentially fast at Nutmeg & Clove. I gained so much experience in my one year stint there. Gradually, I was given the confidence to do menu development and also assist Colin, the owner, for overseas guest shifts. One of them was a guest shift in Hope and Sesame, which contributed to where I am now. 

That night, coincidentally, Collin fell ill and l took over the guest shift. I have an easy-going persona and can converse in Chinese and English. Shortly after that, I was offered a PR and Beverage Director role in The Funnel Group, with outlets in Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, and Xi An. With that position, I got to know different clients, brands and stakeholders during my 1.5 years with them. In July 2021, after gaining the experience and building up the investment I needed, I launched The Ego Group on 1st July 2021. 

The highlight of being a bartender is being able to talk to people of diverse backgrounds. I am an extrovert and it is such an exhilarating experience to see the world through other people’s lenses. Today, I might get to know a designer, yesterday a lawyer, and who knows, tomorrow could be an IT guy. I can’t imagine being boxed at a 9 to 5 corporate job. And also, I love drinking in the sense of exploring tastes and spirit profiles! 

Bartending may look cool, but it is one of the most challenging jobs. An excellent senior bartender does not only make drinks behind the bar, but s/he also needs to have great interpersonal skills with customers and colleagues alike. As a leader, you need to have people management skills. You need to have empathy. Don’t deduce someone’s character based on his day-to-day performance, but spend time understanding his background because everyone is different. Identify their strengths and weaknesses to harness their potential. 

What I would like to tell younger upcoming bartenders is to master your basics, master how to make excellent classics before creating your signatures. Don’t be in a hurry. The younger generation needs to understand that it is a very competitive industry. Given the choice again to tell my younger self whether I will work abroad, I will still leave the decision to him. I don’t think I will let someone’s advice limit my opportunities. There is no right or wrong, we make our own opportunities. 

For me, working abroad was a good decision. I might not have pushed myself as hard if I had stayed at home. There is the comfort of family, friends, I won’t worry about rent, bills, and savings. I am glad to have made this choice. 

However, I will definitely come back home to Malaysia. In every job stint, whether it was in Singapore or China, I want to push myself and the industry to the next level. I hope to raise the bar for the Malaysian bar scene. 

Lucas’s creation for MBA: Meet Unexpected. Kaffir lime leaves infused with Haku Vodka, Dry Vermouth, Maraschino Cherry, Green Chartreuse, Saline Solution. “This spirit-forward cocktail is a combination of two gin-based classic cocktails – Dry Martini and Last Word. During my time at Nutmeg & Clove, Dry Martini was a significant cocktail to me. It took me nearly eight tries to master making it. Last Word is a well-balanced cocktail, which reflects my life now. Combining these two, I am constantly reminiscing about home even though I am progressing ahead in my career in China.”

Visit his bar the next time you are in Shenzhen, located at 4001 Shennan Avenue, Futian Fu’an District, Futian District, Shenzhen Time Financial Center 109, The Ego Company

Joshua Pang, Head Bartender,  Nutmeg & Clove, Singapore
Joshua Pang, Nutmeg & Clove

My journey abroad started when I had a job opportunity with a reputable company freshly coming out of Hotel Management school in Spain. I first started out in Hong Kong with the Excelsior Hotel as an F&B Management Trainee in 2015, then in 2016, I was transferred to Singapore to operate in Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where I was employed in a few of the F&B outlets.

I got my start in bartending in 2018 when I had the opportunity to be part of the opening team for MO Bar. It was a turning point in my life and I’ve never looked back ever since. I eventually left MO Bar after 2 years to join Nutmeg & Clove in January 2021, where I am currently the Head bartender.

The perks of having my job now are working with a great team and having the freedom of creativity to create not just drinks but also in designing the guest experience as well. Being a small company, our challenge tends to be trying to distinguish ourselves from all the other big  bars in the region. Having come from a hotel bar environment where you had more resources and rigid frameworks in terms of operations. This current role is a bit more DIY in terms of ingredient procurement, setting of the team performance, and menu planning. It is a welcome challenge that allows us to be accountable for how we run the bar. We feel proud of the progress just as much as we feel the frustrations of failure. Also, we’re a tight unit in Nutmeg & Clove, and especially working with Colin and Shelley has been a really amazing experience.

I would tell my younger self to explore options abroad, however, I would probably jokingly tell my younger self not to pursue a career in hospitality or F&B and do something that is less tiring for your body and better for your back. 

 Malaysia is still very dear to me and I definitely plan on returning back home and maybe starting my own business there. However, there is so much more for me to learn out there and I feel that there is so much more I can bring back home once I feel that I am ready.

Malaysia brings back memories of food and the pace of life. Nothing really beats being able to fully reset yourself when you go back home. You really begin to appreciate the luxury of being able to take things at your own pace, especially having worked in faster-paced environments such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. Being close to nature also and lets your mind wander from the usual hustle and bustle of big city life.

Joshua’s creation for MBA: Smokin’ Aces. Roku Gin, Dark Chocolate Washed Mezcal, Peach vinegar, Saline Solution, chilli tincture. “Chilli has always been a good pairing with dark chocolate and mezcal, and as Malaysians, we can’t live without a bit of heat and spice in our lives.”

Visit Joshua at Nutmeg and Clove in Singapore next time! 

Alan Cheah, Assistant Manager, WA-SHU, Taipei, Taiwan
Alan Cheah, WA-SHU

Malaysia holds a very important place in my heart. I grew up in a time where technological advancement was still in its infancy. The beauty in that is it allowed me to experience all kinds of memories without the shackles of technology products such as smartphones or iPad, preserving the simplicity of my growth environment.

My journey abroad started in 2014 when I first came to Taiwan to study. Being in the hospitality industry never crossed my mind. I’ve always set my eyes on building a career in the Financial industry but somehow, I landed my first job at a catering business and started learning bartending at WA-SHU. I currently serve as the Assistant Manager at WA-SHU 

I participated in my first competition in the 2019 La Maison Cointreau Taiwan. I was very lucky to be shortlisted in the top ten. This competition means a lot to me as I learned a lot and gained so much experience. Because I know of my shortcomings, I decided not to compete for the time being and focus on gaining knowledge, and learn more about food and cocktail pairing.

When I first started out, I didn’t know anything about bartending. When I was a student, I loved drinking craft beer. Back in 2018, I had the idea to go into the beer industry but after checking the information related to the Malaysian Tobacco and Alcohol Law,I gave-up because I can’t brew beer by myself in Malaysia. So, I switched to bartending instead. I am grateful that WA-SHU gave me my first bartending job. WA-SHU is a very unique bar focused on single flavoured cocktails based on spirits produced in Japan creating a “single, simple, pure” cocktail. 

I would still let my younger self choose whether he would like to work abroad or not. There is no right or wrong path. All decisions are an accumulation of growth and learnings, whether in career or life. Taiwan is rich in culture and history, and moving here is definitely one of the greatest decisions I’ve made. 

My plans to come back home has changed due to the pandemic. During this time, I realized that I needed more time in Taiwan to progress my bartending career.  Until there is a suitable time to return to Malaysia for development, I will definitely return home. Bringing what I have learned in Taiwan back to Malaysia in hopes that I can contribute to the progression to Malaysia’s bartending industry.

Alan’s creation for MBA: [Life]. Roku Gin, White Bitter Melon, Dried Osmanthus, Honey Water, Umami Bitters. “The pandemic has taken a huge hit, and everyone is working hard to survive. I hope this cocktail serves as an encouragement, encapsulating perseverance from the bitterness of life (bitter gourd), luck from (osmanthus), sweetness and nutrient  (honey), and a taste of life (umami bitters).”

Visit Alan at WA-SHU the next time you are in Taipei!

Most Malaysians who left the home country for “greener pasture” would tell you the reasons they left: less attractive salary, low standard of living, lack of career opportunities and education prospects, especially for the non-Bumiputera. Malaysia’s economy was already struggling prior to Covid-19 and will only worsen. The Malaysian government must create sustainable structural systems, create more robust and accountable institutions, and ensure meritocratic practices in key areas of governance. Much work needs to be done to encourage Malaysians to come back so that they will continue to contribute positively to our society’s development and progress.

Project Credits:

Coley Lumpur for partnership, Lim Aileen for edits, Nat Andrea & @whoisravinp for the artwork and photo, Jim Beam SEA for sponsorship

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