Cover Photo: Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur

A good menu needs to tell the stories of the local communities, according to Bar Trigona's Marcus Kwok

Voted the best bar in Malaysia by Asia's 50 Best Bars for three years in a row, Bar Trigona was also recognised in 2022 for having the Best Cocktail Menu. The award recognises excellence in range of drinks, innovation, storytelling and how well the menu communicate the bar's identity. It's no small feat considering it's a relative newcomer in the scene. 

The pride of Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur, Bar Trigona champions indigenous produce and the farmers who cultivate them. For instance, it gets a small supply of raw trigona honey (hence the bar's name) from a bee farm in Negeri Sembilan. The hotel also sustains a small plot of land in Pahang for the cultivation of fruit trees, herbs and spices for its own use. 

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While its award-winning 2021 menu puts the spotlight on four common Malaysian herbs—pandan, lemongrass, pegaga and bunga kantan—its latest menu celebrates the five local farms it works closely with. Dubbed the Five Farms menu, apart from its own farm and Dino Kelutut Organic Farm for the honey, the other farms are cocoa cultivator Chocolate Concierge, Mutiara Figs and Boom Grow herbs. 

Drink highlights include Red Bird that showcases the sour notes of kedondong (amberella) rum, homemade oolong wine and trigona honey. Then there is Terroir that mixes asam boi-infused tequila with kedondong, lime and cacao honey. Speaking of which, honey remains the leading star at this cocktail bar with three varieties of honey including trigona. 

"Fascinatingly, the character of honey changes through the year. Its taste, texture and colour depend of the flowers in bloom during each fruiting season. When honey is in its pure, unadulterated form, it is possible to taste these subtle differences," noted assistant bar manager Julian Brigget.

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At Bar Trigona, it's clear that sustainability and provenance are key considerations when crafting cocktail menu. Tatler catches up with bartender Marcus Kwok to gain more insight on this subject. 

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Working closely with the local communities when it comes to crafting your cocktail menu has obviously worked out well for you. Can you tell us more about this?

The main thing is to raise awareness about Malaysian ingredients. It's true that other bars here are adopting local ingredients as well but we take it to the next level by making it more fun and sustainable. We demonstrate hat you can use these ingredients to make your own cordial or syrup, and even ferment them. So there are different ways of using the ingredients. 

What are the challenges?

Sometimes the ingredient itself poses a challenge. For instance, in our last menu we focused on four herbs. It was easy to work with pandan and lemongrass as they are quite common, but pegaga herb was more unusual. The first time we tasted it, it was bitter and grassy, and it took some time for us to figure out how to incorporate it in a cocktail because we really wanted to highlight it. So we tried a lot of different ways. We couldn't make it into a syrup because it's too bitter. We ended up fermenting and turn it into kombucha. Then we added sugar. The pegaga kombucha was sweet and sour. 

So you literally transformed its flavour profile?

Yes, we masked the bitterness. Whenever we work with an unfamiliar ingredient, the first thing we do is understand its DNA, understand its flavours. After that it becomes easier.

How do you decide what to focus on when it comes to creating a new menu?

First, the supply (of ingredients) from the farm must be consistent. It won't do to have supply this week and none the next week. Second, I always make sure that the drinks can be understood by our guests—I won't do something crazy. At the same time, I want to do something local that showcases Malaysian culture.

Tell us more about the claypot-aged cocktails you have here.

We approached different Four Seasons bartenders around the world and asked them if they wanted their cocktails to be featured here.

Any highlights?

Seelbach by Ashish Sharma (Bar Trigona's former beverage manager). I wanted to highlight him because he was part of the opening team. And he created this cocktail specifically for this bar and for this claypot. 

How does ageing a cocktail affect its flavours?

We usually age it up to 10 days to make the cocktail more rounder, smoother and cleaner. If I serve you two Old-Fashioned, one freshly made and one aged in claypot, you'll find the latter to be smoother and mellower.

Are classic cocktails still important to have on the menu?

They are a must. They are important because all cocktails came from classic cocktails. We get a lot of our inspiration from classic cocktails. 

What makes a good cocktail menu?

When it's more than just about the drinks. The drink breaks the ice to inspire someone to find out more about it. We like to share stories with them and for them to learn something. We have something called honey tasting, so if the guest expresses an interest to learn more we will bring out some honeys for them to try. 

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