When I first came across Gin Pahit, a classic Malaysian cocktail served in a delicate Nick & Nora glass, it took me by surprise. Not because of the combination of ingredients, which bears a striking resemblance to Pink Gin—and, by some accounts, is a variation of the drink—but because it’s exceedingly rare to encounter tropical-born cocktails in America that share no DNA with tiki.
After all, the most popular Malaysia-born cocktail stateside is the Jungle Bird. With its blend of pineapple and lime juice, paired with bittersweet Campari, the “aperitiki” mashup is a crowd-pleaser that matches Western expectations of what a tropical cocktail ought to look like. Comparatively, the Gin Pahit has a sparse build—gin, bitters and sometimes absinthe—and a name that doesn’t conjure “exotic” imagery of any kind.
Of course, Gin Pahit has not magically evaded empire. The classic comes from colonial Malaya and was created at the 19th-century, colonial-style Raffles Hotel. It appears repeatedly in the works of English writer W. Somerset Maugham, who spent half a year in Malaya and whose descriptions painted Southeast Asia at the time as “colonial society in its heyday.” The inclusion of bitters in the recipe is likely influenced by the British Royal Navy’s use of the ingredient as a cure-all. And in Malaysia today, Gin Pahit is hardly the most popular drink.
But at Sling Bar, located in the New York food hall Urban Hawker, where almost every vendor comes from Singapore, the Gin Pahit is one of the most ordered cocktails. The bar’s version is made with licorice-accented Tanglin Orchid gin from Singapore, plus simple syrup and Angostura bitters. “When it comes out of the shaker, you are hit with a cloud of aromatics,” says Pamela Friedl, vice president of operations at Urbanspace, the hospitality firm that partners with founder KF Seetoh on Urban Hawker. Compared to the bar’s other bestseller, a take on the Singapore Sling, “it’s a clean, really straightforward cocktail.”
The drink is the perfect vehicle for a gin like Tanglin, which is part of a growing number of global gins made with local botanicals, like jasmine-scented Vietnamese gin or Indian gin distilled with Darjeeling tea. It’s a welcome change in a cocktail landscape where homegrown flavors from Asia (and any region where colonists planted their spirits industries) have historically been cast aside or made to star as caricatures of themselves, with cultural legacies diminished to punny cocktail names on American menus.
I hope to see Gin Pahit served more, not because I believe that all cocktails need to be “serious,” or that recognizably tropical flavors belie seriousness, but because it doesn’t do anyone any good when entire cultures are flattened into a single flavor or style. Amorphously Asian cocktails in the States are commonly thrown into two camps: tiki, a fantasy, or Japanese, which is often understood only through the same fetishizing gaze that followed Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Gin Pahit isn’t constrained to either camp, and it’s particularly exciting because of its replicability. To the average home bartender, a “tropical” or “tiki” drink is still often seen as out of reach thanks to exhaustive ingredient lists. But if we’re to move forward with the idea that everyone can, and should, make food and drinks from cultures other than their own, then it’s especially helpful to have a canvas that’s so easily approachable. And a three-ingredient drink composed of home-bar staples? That’s just the kind of cocktail to bridge that gap.
At Pahit, a Kuala Lumpur gin bar, the drink sits on the menu alongside other cocktails that have traveled the world, from Negronis to Clover Clubs. There, the classic is turned modern with housemade falernum to cater to actual local tastes, which, according to founder Chye, tend to prefer “commercial beer, wines and whiskeys” over cocktails. “We find this concoction meaningful,” Chye says of the drink and his bar’s namesake, noting that Gin Pahit has managed to retain its Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language) name over the years.
Pahit spotlights spirits from around the world, including more than 150 gins, some of which Chye infuses with local fruits and herbs. The backbar calls to mind the same “more is more” mentality often ascribed to tiki and its elaborate garnishes. But it’s also an apt description of the way I feel about drinks like the Gin Pahit. The more examples there are of homegrown classics, the more our understanding of the tropical canon can expand beyond tiki.