Inside the Bar That's Setting Bali's Craft Cocktail Scene on Fire

The Balinese village of Ubud—made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert's navel-gazing memoir—has become a magnet for tourists looking to find themselves. Luckily, the Night Rooster offers enlightenment through complex cocktails layered with local ingredients.

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Feb 9 2017, 7:00pm

"Ashes" with blowtorched dehydrated fruit, Ketel One vodka, Bulleit rye whiskey, sweet and sour, homemade fortified wine, palm sugar syrup, burned cassia bark, molasses cracker, served on a 'rock,' with pine forest mist. All photos by the author.
nightroosterbali_IMG_8168 Inside The Night Rooster in Ubud, Bali. All photos by the author.

"I call it 'Ashes,'" Raka Ambarawan tells me. Before I can ask why, he pulls out a blowtorch and ignites a slender piece of cassia bark, the brasher cousin of demure Ceylon cinnamon, so that it smolders like a cigar. He plunks it into a rocks glass next to a shard of caramel that looks like an amber-hued fragment of a stained glass window, but he's not done. A moment later, he twirls a pinecone in the cool, blue flame until it ignites. The final concoction tastes like a campfire—in a good way. "You know, most people don't even notice these pinecones. They're just lying there and I wanted to see if there was some way I could incorporate them."

Sitting across from him over the bar cluttered with house-made bitters, a gleaming copper silo, a few tomes on mixology, and a pair of taxidermied birds, I can't help but feel like I'm somewhere else. With its suave aesthetic—all polished upcycled wood, dim lighting, and artfully arrayed bric-a-brac—The Night Rooster would feel right at home in London or Manhattan, were it not for the fact that the concise cocktail menu draws deeply on the fruits and flavors of Indonesia. Certainly, it doesn't match my stereotypical image of Ubud. In the decade-plus since Elizabeth Gilbert made a mint off her memoir, this once sleepy Balinese village has mushroomed into a full-blown magnet for other tourists looking to find themselves in pseudo-scientific healing practices. Wander down the main drags of Jalan Monkey Forest and Jalan Hanoman and you'll find more signs advertising cold-pressed juices, chia seed-and-goji berry-spiked smoothies, and raw, vegan food than you can shake a yoga mat at. After a few days, the whole vibe begins to smack of the kind of bland sanctimoniousness that made Eat, Pray, Love so grating.

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The "Loloh 2.0" with kencur, ginger, turmeric, mint leaves, high-grade rice, fresh lime, spiced palm syrup, Havana Club 3 Años rum, cachaça, and pickled ginger.

Which is why the arrival of this unassuming spot devoted purely to pleasure feels like a relief. Like Locavore, its sibling up the street and the only Indonesian eatery to make the World's 50 Best Restaurants, The Night Rooster is all about using regional ingredients in inventive ways for things that taste unapologetically delicious. That means that the bar food menu includes house-cured charcuterie made from local lamb and Balinese black pig, an increasingly rare heritage breed. It also means that the drinks list rotates constantly as ingredients like rambutan, jackfruit, and kintamani strawberries go in and out of season. To call it a rarity in this place with no previously existing cocktail scene would be an understatement.

Both Raka and chefs Ray Adriansyah and Eelke Plasmeijer were well-aware of the risk when they opened it. Though they initially contemplated a speakeasy-style hidden entrance, they quickly changed tactics for fear that no one would go looking for it. "We don't have this kind of culture in Bali. The locals don't drink every day or know what a mixologist is. Most think bartending is just about partying," says Raka. In the past, cocktails on the island mostly consisted of slushy margaritas and watery mojitos doled out by the dozen at happy hours across the beaches of Kuta. "Before we opened, even my mother and father thought that being a bartender meant being a bad boy. We really want to change that mindset."

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Local fruits often find their way into the cocktail menu.

It all started three years ago with the arrival of Locavore, which was enough of a maverick to raise a few eyebrows before it even opened. A restaurant in Ubud serving elaborate tasting menus, where 95 percent of the ingredients come from Indonesia, was unheard of at the time. Curing charcuterie, baking bread, making cheese, and doing just about everything from scratch? Sheer madness. And while the restaurant also produces vegetarian tasting dégustations of the highest order, there's nothing dull, drab, or even faintly virtuous to be found on these meat-free menus. As Raka says, "When I showed up, they hadn't even opened yet, but they were blasting Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit and I thought, now this is a place I could work."

Raka's role at the restaurant escalated when they chose to offer cocktail pairings with the tasting menus. It helped that, like the dishes, the tipples revolved heavily around Balinese fruits, vegetables, and spices. "In our drinks, the ingredients tend to come first and then the spirits. I cannot talk like Americans talk about their whiskey. I cannot talk the way people from the Netherlands talk about their vodka," he tells me while muddling a mangosteen. "But I can talk about my fruit better than people from America or the Netherlands."

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The "Pigshare" with aged Nusa Cana rum, electric orange infused Nusa Cana, Pimm's Cup No. 1, Angostura bitters, tree-ripened mango, passion fruit, mango blossom, raw honey, and homemade ginger beer.
nightroosterbali_IMG_8215 Raka Ambarawan.

He's right. Despite living in Southeast Asia on and off for five years, there are ingredients like white mango and boni berries on the menu that I don't recognize, plus a whole host of things I don't know. As an example, Raka holds up a second mangosteen for my drink and asks, "Do you know why they say this is the most honest fruit?" Not a clue. He points to the raised bumps clustered around the bottom. "If you count these, you can tell how many pods are inside." We count five, and sure enough, when he splits the eggplant-colored shell open, five opal-white pieces of flesh are waiting. They join their brethren in the shaker with a generous glug of rum.

"One year ago, Eelke and I sat down over beers and I said, 'I think we should build a real cocktail bar, like a really proper cocktail bar.' We knew there was a chance people wouldn't be ready," he says, while garnishing a ceramic tiki mug with a fuschia orchid. "Pigshare," the potion he hands me, is fruity, yet not too sweet, and more complex than anything topped with a paper umbrella has the right to be. As if there were any reason to doubt his commitment, he shows me the tattoo of The Night Rooster's logo inked on his forearm. "I believe in this, though, and I never want to stop doing it. We want to be the first in Ubud to introduce people to this kind of culture."

He's quick to point out, however, that he's not looking to launch the kind of party scene that's turned other tourist towns into dens of debauchery. "We have one or two guests coming occasionally asking, 'Hey dude, where's the club?' and I'm like, 'Sorry, man, you've come to the wrong place,'" he says with a laugh. And while he wants his customers to enjoy his creations, he's not out to get anyone smashed. "I want to make drinks customers actually remember the next day. For me, a mixologist is more like a chef. It's not just you wearing a nice suit with a bowtie and looking cool. It's about talking to all kinds of people and making a connection. It's about going out and meeting the farmers to source the best ingredients."

It's a task he still mostly does himself and one he takes seriously. Whenever he has the chance, he heads out to different parts of the island to track down new suppliers. If he hasn't personally tried a farmer's produce, he won't order from it, and even then he's constantly adjusting the ratios of his cocktails to match variations in sweetness, sourness, or bitterness in the ingredients.

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A server holds a "Loloh 2.0" (left) and a "The Passion Just Flew Away" with passion fruit syrup infused with thyme, mint, Captain Morgan spiced rum, St-Remy VSOP, sparkling wine, and passion fruit seeds.

At the end of the day, he believes there's no reason a serious cocktail bar has to be depraved, or even at odds with the Ubud's holistic. After all, a detox doesn't have to be an exercise in masochism.

"Hey, these are vegan!" he says with a wink. Apparently I'm not the first one to think he's making a lot of sense. A few weeks before, a crew of 25 yogis stopped by after their retreat and ended up swinging by the bar and striking poses. They liked the experience so much the workshop leaders decided to make it a monthly thing. "They were really having fun and that's not wrong. It's about balance. You spend a whole week doing yoga and detoxing, then on only one day, you release everything. Even yogis need a drink."

Having your green juice and a whiskey too? I have no idea what Ms. Gilbert would say, but that's a philosophy I can get behind.