Cover Koh Yung Shen

Tatler Dining speaks to the founder of one of Penang's most talked-about speakeasies on making it into Asia's 50 Best Bars 2022: 51-100 List for the first time

Three Malaysian bars made Asia's 50 Best Bars 51-100 list for 2022, one of them for the first time ever–Backdoor Bodega. While Malaysia’s Pearl of the Orient’s food scene is legendary, in recent years, its bar scene has been peaking, from themed bars lining its beaches to trendy watering holes in the Unesco World Heritage Site of George Town, where this innovative speakeasy is located.

Read more: 3 Bars in Malaysia Made Asia's 50 Best Bars' 51-100 2022 List

Backdoor Bodega was established in 2016, right at a time when speakeasy bars were mushrooming and trending all over the country. Tucked away in unsuspecting alleys or in the back of a shop, part of the fun is navigating access to these bars that often feature hidden doors and secret passwords.

To locate Backdoor Bodega, look out for a clothing store named The Swagger Salon, enter and go right to the back. Boasting an expansive menu of over 40 interesting choices of cocktails and mocktails, it's one of the buzziest venues on the island and a poster child for speakeasy bars, loved by both locals and foreigners.

Founder Koh Yung Shen, who also owns the shop in the front, shares what it's like to be recognised by the prestigious Asia's 50 Best Bars.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

You can call me Shen. I usually tell people I sell clothes by day and make drinks by night. I was an advertising copywriter by profession until I started Lansi and The Swagger Salon, my clothing brand and retail store respectively, back in 2009. I ventured into the cocktail and bar industry in 2016 with Backdoor Bodega.

See also: Asia’s 50 Best Bars Reveals the 51-100 Ranking for 2022

What made you decide to venture into F&B?

My first experience with F&B happened in 2015 when I was a branding and design consultant for a couple of cafes in Penang. I really had to learn about what goes on behind the scenes in running (and setting up) an F&B business in order to work with the teams to create brand identities for the outlets. My venture into the cocktail industry was really just out of fun—I noticed a lack of proper cocktail bars in my hometown of Penang in 2014/15, with the exception of Mish Mash, something I took for granted when I was living in Kuala Lumpur.

I had extra space at the back of The Swagger Salon which needed some renovation, so I decided to also build a small bar while fixing the leaking roofs and upgrading the toilets. Because the space is only accessible through the back door, I felt it was cool to build it as Penang’s first so-called 'speakeasy' bar, despite not planning for it to be an actual business initially. The plan was just to build a small 'staff pantry' that was well-stocked with bottles of spirits so I could fix drinks up just for myself and my friends. Then friends started bringing their friends, and before I knew it, strangers started showing up at this 'speakeasy' asking for cocktails and that’s when I realised I had to take this whole cocktail bar thing a bit more seriously (laughs).

Tell us about the inspiration behind Backdoor Bodega.

The essence of a speakeasy is all about the experience of indulging in alcoholic beverages in a secret location, hidden from the public eye. So being a branding guy as well as an idealist at heart, even though I built Backdoor Bodega initially for fun, I still wanted it to be a 'real' speakeasy, especially knowing that there were no other speakeasy bars in Penang then.

I branded Backdoor Bodega as an 'overpriced pin shop' to make it an extension of the clothing store in front, where you can purchase a cute lapel pin and receive a complimentary glass of cocktail in return, as, in a true speakeasy spirit, I didn’t have a license to run a bar back then.

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Can you share an anecdote about making cocktails at Backdoor Bodega?

Although I’ve always been a fan of cocktails—by the way, I don’t drink beer—I’ve never really made any proper cocktails prior to starting a cocktail bar. When I first started creating the initial menu for Backdoor Bodega, I wanted to avoid being judged for how bad I would’ve been at serving classic cocktails which I had no experience in making so I decided to just look up different flavour infusion methods and syrup-making processes to 'design' my cocktails, as opposed to starting by making riffs or twists of classic cocktails.

That was how drinks like our signature Kelapa Hotak came about. I infused fresh desiccated coconut and pandan in rum for days, strained the rum along with the coconut milk and added a bar spoon of kaya to it, and my very first Backdoor Bodega cocktail was born. Fortunately, my first few cocktails were well-received and many of them have remained on the menu or are still being requested until today.

Just as Penang’s bar scene reached its peak, the pandemic hit. What were some of your challenges?

Twenty-nineteen was a really fruitful year for Backdoor Bodega and the initial plan was to do a major renovation in April 2020 as we needed a better bar setup to work more efficiently and to give customers a better experience.

When the lockdown started in March 2020, it messed up the renovation plans and when it was semi-lifted in July, most bars went straight back to operations with food and all. However, for us, we could only start our renovation then as it wasn’t allowed during the lockdown. We finally reopen in December 2020. Barely two months later, the second and third lockdowns hit. It was excruciating as we barely had the chance to operate for more than four months in total out of the 18 months of lockdown we had to endure.

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What were some strategies and mindsets that helped you get through the pandemic?

I'm grateful that I was able to 'move' the bar online in just a matter of days when I realised that the lockdown was gonna take longer than we anticipated. As I had all the resources for building an online store, the packing and packaging, and courier and logistic services at my fingertips due to my background in running an online clothing store, I was able to replicate the whole platform for Backdoor Bodega and bring our 'pin shop' online, along with other merchandise and, of course, bottled cocktails.

Thankfully, we were able to push our bottled cocktail deliveries pretty efficiently, with a very easy ordering process through our online store, and we managed to deliver cocktails all over the country, which helped tremendously in bringing in precious revenue during the lockdown. I'm also very grateful to CK of Coley for being so generous with his resources and recommending glass bottles to use for our cocktail deliveries.

The vaccine-inspired cocktail series was genius. How did you/your team come up with the idea?

During the second lockdown over the Lunar New Year, we actually released a set of Chinese New Year-themed bottled cocktails that came in bird’s nest and essence of chicken type of bottles and it did really well. Then the third and longest lockdown started in May 2021; this time, it really felt like it could’ve been the final nail in the coffin for our little bar business so I told the team that we urgently needed to come up with another bottled cocktail gimmick just like our Chinese New Year-themed one. This was during the peak of Covid-19 cases in Malaysia when most people still haven’t gotten their vaccines and were very impatient about it.

So we decided to do a vaccine-themed bottled cocktail series inspired by the three different vaccines available in Malaysia at that time: Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, and Sinovac. Coincidentally, the bottles that we were already using for our cocktail deliveries, also happened to be actual injection vials that were used in the medical field for vaccines. So I designed the labels to mimic the vaccine labels and created a parody series of the brand names for the cocktails—Pfizermeister, Extra-Gineca, and Sinosour—and they took off almost immediately as everyone found them to be great novelty items to be shared with friends while waiting for their actual vaccines.

See also: Mixologists to Watch in Kuala Lumpur

Congratulations on making it to Asia's 50 Best Bars 2022: 51-100 List. What was your reaction when you heard the news? 

It's incredibly humbling to be even considered to be on the same list as many of these other bars that we admire and look up to on a daily basis. Coming out from an almost two-year lockdown when we had to work extra hard to keep the lights on, I’m extremely grateful for this recognition as it gave the whole team a huge morale boost and something to celebrate. More importantly, I’m grateful that the Penang cocktail scene is finally given a spotlight.

What would you like people to know about a night out at Backdoor Bodega?

Well, it's hard to describe in words because it’s definitely something to be experienced in person! (laughs)

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