Kuala Lumpur’s Bar Trigona – set in a gilded space within the Four Seasons hotel – was named The Best Bar in Malaysia, sponsored by Rémy Martin, for the third consecutive year at Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021. As the bar welcomes in new bar manager Julian Brigget after the departure of Ashish Sharma, Nick Coldicott speaks to the team, who are as interested in raising the profile of Malaysian bars on the whole as they are their own
There was never a doubt that Julian Brigget would end up in the hospitality industry. He spent a good chunk of his childhood inside hotels watching people make other people smile. His mother was instrumental in opening many of Kuala Lumpur’s earliest luxury hotels — the Shangri-La, the JW Marriott and the Hotel Istana among them — and she would take her young son to work. “I probably did about 200 nights a year in a hotel,” he says. “And I fell in love with it.”
Now he earns a living in one, managing Kuala Lumpur’s Bar Trigona, the dazzling, opulent and progressive drinking spot that won the title of The Best Bar in Malaysia, sponsored by Rémy Martin, at Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021. That’s the latest in a string of accolades for the three-year-old bar, and though Brigget says all the acclaim has shocked and delighted them, he’s not one to wallow in victory.
The interior of Bar Trigona, located in Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia
“It’s a win for all Malaysian bars,” he says.
Well, technically it is not.
“It gives us a chance to say ‘Hey, we don't have that many bars, but we have quality bars, and you should visit Malaysia’.”
And Bar Trigona first?
“We want to put Malaysia in the spotlight.”
Fair enough. That has always been part of the Bar Trigona mission statement. They celebrate all local flavours, local producers and local bars with equal emphasis. Their latest menu is divided not by spirit, but by indigenous herb. There’s a page devoted to pandan, the fragrant leaf used in nasi lemak and a host of Malaysian desserts which is also seen in cocktails across the region. There’s a page for the bittering herb pegaga, one for lemongrass and another for bunga kantan (torch ginger). Each finds a fresh expression at the hand of Brigget and his team of talented, passionate bartenders.
For each herb they make a twist on a classic, an innovative cocktail — often using the waste generated from the classic — and something alcohol-free. That twist can be a big one, too. Their Sazerac has pineapple rum and a bunga kantan spritz; their Bee’s Knees is milk-washed and sprayed with the essence of bak kut teh (South East Asian pork rib broth).
“Ah, yes, that was [bartender] Marcus [Kwok]’s idea. He always has the wildest of wild ideas,” says Brigget. “We take the drink and the spray to the table and ask the guest to try it before the spritz and then after. It really tastes exactly like bak kut teh.”
One of Bar Trigona's cocktails, entitled 'Drink Your Greens'
Trigona’s most famous ingredient is the one the bar is named for. “Trigonas are stingless bees, tiny things that look like flies, and they produce one of the best honeys in the world. Sweet and sour. Imagine something like an apple cider vinegar, but thick and sweet.”
That’s the star of the bar’s signature drink, the Trigona Old Fashioned, where it stands in for the sugar; it’s also in their Daiquiris, that porky Bee’s Knees; and a playful take on the Mojito that Brigget has created for their next menu, due February 2022.
The next drink list will showcase their favourite local producers. It will involve plenty of figs, courtesy of the Mutiara fig farm. “Not many people know that you can grow figs in Malaysia, but it’s actually an ideal temperature,” says Brigget. “So we found this family-run business; they were architects and engineers who decided to leave their jobs and set up a farm about 45 minutes from here. They dropped everything to start growing figs."
Ong Ning-Gen has a similar story. He majored in computer science but chose to grow and ferment cacao in Malaysia. His Chocolate Concierge will have a section on the next menu, as will the Dino Kelulut farm that supplies their honey, the ultra-natural GK Farm, and the bar’s own plantation — the result of a you-drink-a-cocktail, we-plant-a-tree project they launched last year that has already started to literally bear fruit.
Before the recent departure of head bartender Ashish Sharma, who left to take over the Champagne Bar at the Miami Four Seasons outpost in September, he and Brigget went touring the provinces looking for new farms to work with. “We want to create an awareness that you don't have to look outside of your country to get great products,” says Brigget. “Try to source locally first.” Whenever something caught their eye, they would take some back to the hotel to play with and reach for in those inevitable moments when a guest says “make me something different”.
Trigona's team behind the bar
They haven’t been able to do that much recently, with even interstate travel banned and Bar Trigona closed for more than half of 2021. But the doors are now open again, the restrictions eased, and the bartenders are welcoming people back to The Best Bar in Malaysia.
“When people come to us and say ‘we’re going to the best bar in Malaysia!’ I like to recommend they visit some other favourites of mine,” he says.
OK, so Brigget isn’t going to take his victory lap. He wants to share the glory with the producers, his team, even the neighbours, but in the context of Malaysian bar culture it makes sense. Just a few short years ago, he says, there was no quality drinking scene. The word ‘bar’ conjured up images of dive joints where you go to sink a beer and a shit. Now, it’s got world-class cocktail bars aplenty.
“It’s booming,” he says. “You’ve got [Tiki-style] JungleBird which is a personal favourite because I’m a sucker for rums. You go to Coley for something intimate; they have a lot of innovations and very carefully thought cocktails. There’s Three X Co, and Frank’s, and if I want a highball I’ll go to Mizukami, a bar opened by Shawn Chong, who owned Omakase + Appreciate. The scene is really growing and it’s not just KL. Go north to Penang, or south to Malacca or Johor and there are a lot of bars popping up.”
So perhaps the real victory is that a Best Bar in Malaysia award, inconceivable a decade ago, is something to brag about now. Not that Julian Brigget will.
Missed the live event? Catch up on the virtual ceremony and check out the full results for Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, sponsored by Perrier. To stay up to date with all the latest bar news from around the globe, follow us on Instagram, like on Facebook and subscribe to 50 Best Bars TV YouTube channel.