Long Sheng Jiu Zhuang, an old liquor shop on Jalan Sultan. Photo: Anne Fernando.

The patrons at Long Sheng Jiu Zhuang, a crumbling liquor shop on Jalan Sultan, did not look very pleased to see us walk in at 2pm on a hot Saturday afternoon. They could tell we were just there out of curiosity and not to sample any of the sebatian bandy Cap Kapak or Chinese rice wine the shop had to offer.

Maybe the drinks made them hostile or maybe they were just protective over their hangout joint, which attracts a fair amount of tourist, keen to “experience the real Malaysia”, but they wanted to know what my intentions were.

“Are you really Malaysian?”

“If you grew up in KL, how come you’ve never heard of this shop?”

When I told meekly told them that only tourists and photographers wander around this part of KL, they chuckled.

“That’s true. Even tourists prefer to go to Reggae bar. This shop is for old uncles like us.”

It’s easy to understand why. The shop is the epitome of no frills, with just three foldable tables, ten plastic chairs, a display counter and a cash register.  The walls are lined with a variety of domestic spirits with alcohol content of more 40%. Many of the blended whiskey bottles contain caramel concentrate and colouring, perhaps to make them look the way we think whiskey should look.

At RM7-15 for a small bottle the size of a hip flask, this is one place where drinking will not burn a hole in your pockets, although it may corrode your liver.

Photo: Anne Fernando.

Mrs. Mah, the shop owner, chatted with us in between hustling her customers to pay up and move along. “Cocktails? Mixers? Haha. We are not a fancy bar la, people just drink the liquor straight from the bottle, or dilute it a bit with water.  It’s good for health. Makes you stronger after working the whole day. One of our popular bottles is the Chinese rice wine, which is locally made and a must-have for new mothers undergoing confinement. The sweeter the wine, the better and it is cooked with chicken or eggs with lots of ginger to keep the mothers warm.”

And by locally made, did she really mean moonshine? This was a bit harder to deduce. Mrs. Mah indignantly said nobody was in her backyard pressing down on the fermented rice with spoons, and that these bottles were purchased wholesale from a factory in Perak. But without stringent quality control, what you get can be left to chance.

So what really makes a bottle of alcohol local? Most of us can agree that tuak, tapai and even toddy are considered traditional local liquor, primarily because they made from local ingredients in someone’s house and drunk out of old mineral bottles. But what about alcohol which is bottled in Malaysia and legitimately sold in bars?

Mrs. Mah. Photo: Anne Fernando.

Mr. Liu Tai Shin is the owner of Vintage Brands, a business in Shah Alam that bottles various brands of alcohol. The process which involves buying concentrated alcohol (whisky from Scotland, brandy from France, Rum from the Philippines), blending it with water and alcohol to concentrate and then bottling and selling it under his various local brands.

But there is nothing overtly Malaysian about these brands. There are no pictures of hibiscus, wau or pretty maidens in traditional costumes. In fact, if you saw the one of the bottles behind a counter in an upscale bar, you could easily assume that these are imported drinks.

According to Mr Liu, the process of bottling liquor is neither complicated nor does it require a great amount of know-how. The difficult and delicate process is the distilling and aging of the alcohol, especially whisky, where even the type of cask or barrel that has been used during maturation makes a difference to the taste and quality. Since Vintage Brands buys the concentrated alcohol from the distillers, the rest of their process is relatively fuss free because the bottling process is not dependent on weather, humidity and storage.

Photo: Anne Fernando.

Although Vintage Brands was only incorporated in 2002, it is a successor of a series of companies involved in the plantation trade from as early as the 1950s.  “Back in the day, most Malaysian plantation companies used to have liquor bottling businesses because the British owners saw a demand from their workers and others for locally bottled alcohol.” Mr Liu bought over one of these businesses over ten years ago, continuing with the same vendors and retailers.

For domestic whisky brands like Sahip, the colonial history is captured in its label, which shows a Punjabi soldier dressed in British military regalia. It’s all rather Rudyard Kipling: even the word Sahip is commonly used in British India as a courteous term for “Mister”. These bottles come in three different sizes, retailing from RM7 to RM30. When it is payday, the larger bottles are the best sellers. In the middle of the month, the smaller bottles are sought after.

Today, however, the customer base has increased to business enterprises.  Calypso rum, for example, is commonly supplied to the food industry to make everything from rum infused fruitcake to rum and raisin ice cream. Meanwhile, a few local gin and vodka brands have made their way into bars around the city. Chances are, Balaika vodka was one part of the vodka lime or screwdriver cocktails you ordered last Friday – and you did not even realise that you were drinking a local spirit.

Shopping List:

Chinese rice wine – RM15

Calypso rum (700ml) – RM25-RM30

Watson’s dry gin (700ml) – RM25-RM30

Long Sheng Jiu Zhuang, Jalan Sultan, 50000 KL.

Vintage Brands, Vinspirit, Lot 6, Jalan Delima 1/1, Subang Hi-Tech Industrial Park, 40150 Shah Alam.