With a bar programme headed by one of KL’s most senior bartenders, Sakura Den holds much promise as a lair of creative cocktails.

The first thing you will notice about Sakura Den is its unusual location in Kampung Pasir. This little area with nothing but two rows of shophouses, a KTM station, and an Indian kuil (temple) is the last place you’d expect to find a decent cocktail bar. Yet, that’s where we found ourselves while hunting for Sakura Den.

Brought to you by the owners behind The Attic Bar in Petaling Street, this new cocktail bar in town is also helmed by one of the industry’s best and most senior: Arsenio Mariano Jr., better known as Ash. The theme in place? Concoctions of health tonics using traditional Chinese herbal ingredients with a dash of spirits. Think Chinese apothecary, but an inebriated one.

The ambience

Despite its seemingly foreign location, Sakura Den’s placement is actually just off the street of Jalan Klang Lama. A quick turn and you’ll find yourself on the main road itself. Head up the staircase beside the clinic towards the first floor: there’s your prize.

Sakura Den boasts a Chinese-inspired interior, but it’s not ostentatiously decked in bright red and lanterns. Instead, it takes on a darker mood with deep greens and black, latticed display cabinets, and the bar itself reflects a traditional Chinese apothecary with multiple wooden drawers.

Embracing herbal ingredients

The signature cocktails menu focuses on using east Asian ingredients that are mainly regarded as health tonics. In the bar, you’ll see jars of these including peach gum – resin from the peach tree that has a consistency like maple syrup – bird’s nest, Tongkat Ali-infused coffee, jujubes, and more. Although commonly found in our everyday foods and drinks, these Asian ingredients are rarely championed the same way Western ingredients are.

It’s unfortunate, remarked Ash, that we sometimes need the Westerners to validate our local ingredients before we actually sit up and take more notice of them. This is partly the reason why he took on the challenge of using these ingredients in his signature cocktails, creating an alcoholic health tonic of sorts.

Arsenio Maranio Jr. (Ash) is a known figure in the local bartending industry. (Image credit: Sakura Den)

But of course, when it comes to using herbal ingredients, there’s always the age-old caveat that it shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol for fear of creating a toxic concoction. Ash is mindful of this, which is why he uses ingredients that are not medicinal, and in small doses. Even for potent items such as Tongkat Ali (famously used as a traditional Viagra of sorts), he is careful to use an infusion instead of the entire root. As for ginseng, he swaps it out with ginseng flower rather than its root for the aroma.

The drinks

The Birds Nest. (Image credit: Sakura Den)

We try out a popular signature drink – the Birds Nest (RM48) – made with Kinsey Gin, bird’s nest, peach gum-infused longan jujube syrup and umeshu. The drink is surely a winner with the social media fanatics with its pretty design but doesn’t fare too badly in the flavour department too. Texturally, the cocktail is reminiscent of the Chinese dessert lin chee kang (sweet lotus seed soup). The flavours of the bird’s nest, jujubes, and dried longan are delicate, but the addition of umeshu in the cocktail ties all the flavours together beautifully, creating a concoction that’s sweet without being too saccharine.

The Sakura Negroni. (Image credit: Sakura Den)

For something a little stronger in flavour, we opt for the Jack In The Box (RM45) something like a labour of love by Ash. The cocktail has rye whiskey, umeshu, jackfruit pit orgeat, and a rich jackfruit cheesecake foam. The cheesecake foam is dense – almost like eating a cheesecake itself – and a surprisingly delicious pairing with umeshu and rye whiskey.

Afterwards, we go back to the classics with a Sakura Negroni (RM48) made with Sakurao Gin Original, umeshu, and Chartreuse Gentiane, a distilled gentian root liqueur that’s not much different from our dong quai (Angelica root). With the Chartreuse substituting the Campari, you have instead a white Negroni. If you’re not generally a fan of the bold spirit-on-spirit a classic Negroni has, you might prefer this version instead. The gentian root liqueur provides the same herbaceous flavour, but adding the umeshu into the mix gives the cocktail a more palatable flavour.

Our verdict

Don’t make the location a reason for you to not visit Sakura Den. Trust us, the journey will be worth it. The drinks are impeccable – unsurprising when you consider who makes it – and the service top-notch. There’s even a new restaurant above the bar (Sarang), which means that you can get a meal first and then adjourn downstairs for drinks after.

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. Reach out to Poh Nee via email at pohnee@lifestyleasia.com.