Coley, one of Malaysia’s best bars today had the humblest of beginnings. It was a tiny space behind Dr.Inc cafe in Bangsar that consisted of a simple bar and some outdoor seats.  It was the place to head to for unpretentious drinks, unwind, and have a good time. That’s precisely what owner-bartender Kho Chee Keong (better known as CK) had in mind when he first started Coley. “I didn’t want to make drinking so serious, that everyone had to be uptight and try too hard,” he said.

As they weren’t allowed to serve beer and wine, Kho tried to think of an alternative to appeal to the beer-drinkers. Thanks to that, the “Koktel” section of the menu was created. The idea came from local and affordable beverages such as coconut water, bubble tea, and kedondong, then turning those into easy cocktails. The “Koktel” section became a hit, and the Gin & Coconut cocktail became synonymous with Coley.

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CK Kho named Coley after the godmother of bartending, Ada Coleman.

That was perhaps part of the reason that Coley became so popular. In fact, last year Coley won Best Hospitality Team and Best Cocktail Bar at The Bar Awards Kuala Lumpur and Kho himself won Bartender of the Year. This year, Coley snagged the 46th spot for Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2018 awards.

Two years later, Kho thought that it was finally time to move onwards to bigger things. By a stroke of luck, space opened up merely a few doors down, and the bar could now operate in a full-sized shop space. While the new Coley is bigger and better than its old pop-up space, it also adopted a completely new look. Leafy plants flank the entrance, and guests walk through a “tunnel” to enter a space that would enthral lovers of millennial pink. The walls are a dusty pink and the bar area takes on a dark wooden finish. “It’s different from the previous place…like a grown-up version of Coley,” said Kho.

If you sit at the bar, you may notice a further gap between guests and bartender, diminishing any interaction between the two. However, this is done intentionally. “The typical bar design consists of a standard steel workstation and a bar top in the front. Most of the time, we are bending over. If we’re working long hours, it’s not very ergonomic. With the new design, the bartenders work on an island kitchen height, hence they’re able to stand straight now,” Kho explained.

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Enter through the tunnel to a laid-back world of cocktails at Coley.

Despite the contemporary structure of the bar, he juxtaposed it with vintage furniture. This blend of old and new is also a reflection of Coley’s cocktail menu that features a mix of classic cocktails and their own house signature cocktails. The bar is planning to roll out a new menu soon, but Kho is still planning to maintain the same concept.

The crowd’s favourite “Koktel” section will still remain, as will the signatures, sparkling cocktails, and classics. “We have plans to make a seasonal menu utilising ingredients that aren’t always available all year round,” he explained. Kho also has plans on collaborating with other bartenders and feature their cocktails on the menu. He also has plans to conduct more experimental and technical cocktails that involve fermentation and clarification. “But it’s all still in the works,” he said mysteriously.

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The new bar design is spacious, but also has the bartender’s ergonomics in mind.

We got a chance to try Kho’s top three recommended cocktails: Gin & Coconut, Hanky Panky, and Peanut Butter Jelly. Regulars at Coley will already be familiar with the Gin & Coconut cocktail, an easy and light drink with simple gin and fresh coconut water.

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Coley’s signature drinks: Gin & Coconut and the Hanky Panky.

The Hanky Panky cocktail, on the other hand, is a tribute to Coley’s namesake, Ada Coleman. Coleman was the head bartender at the Savoy Hotel in London for 23 years, and one of two women who has held that position. Nicknamed “Coley” by her guests, she invented the Hanky Panky cocktail. The bar’s version consists of gin, Bol’s Genever, vermouth, and Amaro. It’s a sweet yet bitter cocktail that packs a whole lot of punch.

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For a simple-looking cocktail, the Peanut Butter Jelly has a surprising depth of flavour.

Our final cocktail was the Peanut Butter Jelly — a concoction made beforehand consisting of tequila, vermouth, blueberry liqueur, and roasted peanuts. Kho served it with a block of ice and some sea salt sprinkled on top. The cloudy liquid may look simple, but sip on it and you’ll taste an incredible depth of flavour: buttery, roasted peanut complemented with the tart sweetness of the blueberry liqueur. In fact, it tastes just like a boozy, liquid version of its namesake — peanut butter and jelly.

Despite the change in location and design, Coley still manages to retain its original laid-back vibe. That can only mean Kho has succeeded in creating an unpretentious space for people to enjoy cocktails without a stiff upper lip. After all, the joy is in the drinking.

Photography: NZP.

PohNee Chin
Editor, Kuala Lumpur
Poh Nee is the editor and writes about travel and drinks. When she's not living out her holiday dreams via Google Earth and sipping on an Old Fashioned down at the local bars, you can find her snug at home bingeing on Netflix and mystery fiction.