Against All Odds: Award-Winning Bartenders in Jakarta Share Their Stories
· 30 August 2023
Amid numerous hurdles, four award-winning bartenders in Jakarta are demonstrating unwavering confidence in the city’s bar scene.
When choosing a city for bar hopping, Jakarta may not be the first destination that springs to mind. Various factors contribute to this perception, including Indonesia’s relatively high taxes on alcohol, religious influences, and policies that deliberately restrict alcohol distribution. On the surface, it may seem like the odds are stacked against the city’s bar scene flourishing at all.
However, when meeting award-winning bartenders in Jakarta, their unwavering confidence in the scene’s potential is strikingly evident. epicure spoke with four of its leading figures for a deeper insight into the significant challenges hindering bar expansion in the capital, as well as the thrilling developments galvanizing the scene.
Group Head Bar Manager, Union Group Jakarta
Whenever bars in Jakarta are discussed, there’s one name that frequently comes up: Kiki Moka. As Group Head Bar Manager of Union Group Jakarta, his most recent bar, The Cocktail Club, earned the notable ranking of #19 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023. But Kiki is more than a bartender; he’s a former musician who sees each night at The Cocktail Bar as a captivating show. To say that Kiki is the life of the party would be an understatement: he is the party.
According to Kiki, Jakarta primarily caters for a market of enthusiastic spenders, setting it apart from other regional cities. “In fact, our local guests exhibit a level of consumption that surpasses even that of expatriates. While expatriates often gravitate towards classic choices like beer, wine or G&Ts, local guests demonstrate an affinity for indulging in the finer things in life, such as expensive whiskies and expertly crafted cocktails,” says Kiki.
“Our commitment to exceptional service and creating a joyous atmosphere sets us apart. While Jakarta boasts remarkable bar concepts, our staff bring unmatched exuberance and energy.” For first-timers, he recommends Cha Guavara, Miso Miss You, and Eh High.
In terms of product innovation, mixology has made surprising strides, possibly even surpassing advancements in the coffee and restaurant industries. Kiki recognises the significance of modern techniques such as sous vide and use of a rotary evaporator, which enables swift extraction of flavours. However, he emphasises that the effectiveness of these techniques depends on the skills and expertise of the bartenders themselves.
Kiki holds steadfast to The Cocktail Club’s standard of utilising local ingredients and liquors. “We embrace the rich heritage of authentic Indonesian liquors, each of which has its own distinct character. Our selection includes renowned spirits like Sopi, Cap Tikus, and Ciu, truly capturing the essence of Indonesia. As for herbs and fruits, although they’ve been used for a long time, their potential remains largely untapped,” explains one of the award-winning bartenders in Jakarta.
The Cocktail Club, Jl. Senopati No.39. Tel: +62 813 18882068
Co-founder & Owner, Pantja Group
Since its establishment in October 2019, Pantja has rapidly gained popularity and earned a spot at #29 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023, thanks in part to the mastermind behind the bar, Kabir Suharan, who is well-versed in the art of hospitality.
To illustrate this, Kabir points at his bar manager across the room who is taking orders from guests by respectfully lowering himself to their eye level. Kabir asks, “How would you feel if I took your order while towering over you? As a tall person, you wouldn’t feel comfortable with me looking down on you, would you?” These small yet thoughtful gestures epitomise Pantja’s approach to hospitality.
When asked about the main issue in Jakarta’s mixology scene, Kabir provides interesting insights. A hint? It’s not about prices. It is true that bottles of spirits from renowned brands in Indonesia can cost up to 50-60 percent more than in Singapore, but for the end consumer, Indonesia is still one of the cheapest countries in which to drink cocktails. Take, for example, the average price of a classic Negroni in Jakarta. “In Singapore, you’d be hard-pressed to find Negroni for less than $25. While the cost of alcohol is considerably lower in Singapore, the cost of labour is significantly higher. Microeconomics is involved here,” notes Kabir.
He also believes that the nature of Jakarta’s market restricts entry to only a select few with substantial capital. It is common for a five-year rental contract to be paid upfront, in addition to the costs associated with interior design and multiple licensing fees. “If you’re a bartender earning Rp5-15 million a month, there’s no way you’re going to be able to save enough money to cover five years’ rent. It’s extremely difficult for bartenders and chefs to open up their own spaces here,” says Kabir. As a result, most of Jakarta’s bars are owned by large F&B groups.
While it may not seem significant to end consumers, Kabir emphasises the importance of business ownership. “With owner-operated spaces, there is more freedom of expression. It’s certainly a different approach that takes the growth of the city in a different direction; it may even change the fabric of the city,” adds Kabir.
When it comes to drinks, Pantja’s dedication to classic cocktails is outstanding. “I am all for innovation and utilising the best quality ingredients, but not every single drink needs to have sous vide or centrifuged ingredients. Sometimes bartenders are eager to use certain techniques just for the sake of using them, without considering the ingredient and how it is best treated.” Kabir shares the story of crafting Pantja’s beloved cocktail, the invigorating Kaffir Lime Gimlet (Bombay dry gin, kaffir lime, lime cordial, lime juice).
After experimenting with sous vide, he deliberately chose to abandon the technique, believing that the enduring appeal of classic cocktails lies in their simplicity. While patrons may venture into contemporary concoctions, they often gravitate back to familiar favourites. “There’s something about enjoying a well-made classic drink that allows the drinker to hit the ‘reset’ button. I don’t wish to engage my taste buds or critically appreciate a bespoke cocktail all the time. Sometimes, I simply want to savour a good whiskey in a well-crafted Old Fashioned, and enjoy the drink and conversations with my friends. Classics offer just that!”
Pantja, Jl. Senopati no. 37, Senayan. Tel: +62 21 521 3010
Henry “Ale” Maraben
Head Mixologist, Barong Bar
Renowned for his innovative use of locally sourced ingredients, Ale has recently assumed the role of head mixologist at Barong Bar (spelled Bar on G) at Fairmont Jakarta.
Selling alcoholic beverages in Indonesia involves navigating a complex tax structure. Ale highlighted that alcohol is taxed during importation, when purchased from suppliers, and again when sold to consumers. “We get taxed at least three times!” he exclaims.
Despite this, demand and curiosity within Jakarta’s market have reached unprecedented levels. Ale identifies two significant challenges that must be addressed for the scene to continue its expansion: profit-oriented owners and inexperienced bartenders.
The first scenario is a quintessential Indonesian tale. Armed with capital, entrepreneurs from various sectors are drawn to the allure of opening a bar due to the perceived fun and profitability. However, expectations are often shattered when they fail to achieve a return on investment within a year. “While some owners prioritise profit without understanding what makes their place stand out, most lack a comprehensive understanding of the industry itself.”
Another significant challenge confronting the capital’s mixology scene is inadequate knowledge and training among bartenders, which restricts their ability to meet guests’ curiosity. Ale is concerned that many bartenders settle for mediocrity, without truly grasping the art of mixology. “The best way to learn mixology is through practical experience in a proper bar. However, don’t expect to master everything in three months. To truly grasp the fundamentals of the classics, for example, one needs at least a year,” Ale explains.
As a self-proclaimed fan of classic cocktails, he prefers to give a local twist to regional variations. Taprobana, Bengkulu-inspired tipple is a twist on the Gin Sour, featuring andaliman-infused East Indies gin, house-made passion fruit liqueur, kalamansi, tamarillo, and cinnamon.
“I always encourage my staff to communicate with guests. It’s one of the best things about working in a hotel bar. It’s not as busy as regular bars, and we have much more time for interaction,” says Ale. The interaction may also serve as an education, both for bartenders and guests.”
Barong Bar, Fairmont Jakarta, Jl. Asia Afrika no. 8, Gelora, Tanah Abang. Tel: +62 21 2970 3333
Head of Research and Development, Caspar
Contrary to the prevailing belief that drinking alcohol is not part of Indonesian culture, Kalondalam Renalto, also known as Alto, reveals an intriguing truth: “Indonesia has been renowned for its Batavia Arrack since colonial times.”
This assertion is supported by the book “Indigenous Fermented Foods of Southeast Asia,” edited by J. David Owens, which states that Batavia Arrack was first produced in the 17th century. Its popularity quickly spread across Southeast Asia and even reached Europe and other parts of the world. The versatility of Batavia Arrack shines through as it was used in an array of cocktails, other beverages, and even food. “It was proudly claimed as a product of Java, featuring an intricately detailed map of the island on the label, but the bitter irony lies in its unavailability in the local market. I find that truly disheartening,” he says.
Alto has made it his mission to ensure Caspar incorporates Indonesian influences into its signature cocktails, offering guests a unique blend of intensity and familiarity. Among their notable creations are Es Teler and Say Cheese, which feature local ingredients such as Serundeng (dry-roasted grated coconut), while Caspar’s popular Negroni uses the bark of the mesoyi tree, adding a distinct touch to the classic cocktail.
“I have had the pleasure of knowing mesoyi since 2017. What makes it special is it belongs to the same genus as cinnamon, but thrives exclusively in the captivating landscapes of Papua,” says Alto. While cinnamon evokes sweet and spicy warmth, mesoyi offers a unique flavour profile, embracing a similar sweetness level but coupled with fruitiness, woody undertones, and subtle hints of coconut.
“We use popular techniques to incorporate flavours, such as sous vide, fat wash, maceration, rotavap [rotary evaporator], and Sonicprep [an ultrasonic processor] that work wonders with aging cocktails. While Caspar is known as an experimental bar, I believe in simplifying our workflow. Although we tone down the use of rotavap, sous vide takes the spotlight, contributing to nearly 70% of our cocktail repertoire,” he explains.
It can’t be denied that Indonesian bartenders face limited options compared to their global counterparts. “To overcome this challenge and invent new flavours on a larger scale, I rely heavily on sous vide, especially for infusing dried ingredients,” Alto reveals. This technique enables him to push the boundaries of flavour creation, ensuring Caspar remains a haven for innovative cocktails.
Caspar, Jl. Jenderal Sudirman No.36. Tel: +62 822 1781 7880
“Against All Odds” first appeared in the June/July 2023 print edition of epicure.