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.
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.
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).