Former Hyde at 53M Head Bartender turned Soma Cocktail Bar’s Co-Owner and Bar Director, Jason Julian, is a formidable name within the Malaysian bartending scene. Under his directive and bar management, Soma – stowed away within a row of commercial shop lots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – started off with a bang by clinching the 2019 New Bar of the Year award, shortly after commencing operations in late 2018. Soma’s simple, straightforward identity allows it to maintain a degree of flexibility, as a homage to its co-owner’s approach to curating his drinks: “I used overcomplicate drinks by mixing too many ingredients. One day, someone told me, ‘You can mix anything, but not everything.’ That advice really changed the way I mix my drinks.”
Kickstarting his career with kitchen work, the resultant skin issues caused by the nature of the job pushed Jason to take a leap of faith into a career rooted in bartending. Now, with six years’ worth of experience under his belt, he relishes in the creativity and lifestyle that comes with the art of bartending. “My favourite part is getting to play around with a lot of ingredients and flavours – there are infinite possibilities with these. I actually even enjoy the stress,” Jason admits, “Especially during weekends – I find it fun. Mixing all kinds of cocktails brings me a sense of satisfaction, and I also get to meet extremely interesting people at the bar.”
What is your proudest professional achievement so far?
It would be when I won The Rising Star award at the 2017 Bar Awards. I didn’t expect it, so it really caught me by surprise; I did feel proud of myself, as I felt all the hard work and effort I’d put into my journey at that time had been recognised. It also felt like I was paying respect to those who had taught and guided me in becoming a better bartender.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?
One of them is definitely coping with customers’ demands in an evolving bar scene. Consumers are always on the lookout for something new, so we need to constantly adapt and try new things for that ‘wow’ factor. Aside from that, minimising bar cost is also a big challenge, since everything is more expensive. We try to maximise efficiency and creativity by focusing on two to three core ingredients for a few drinks, while maintaining an interesting taste profile. It involves a lot of trial and error, and research and development on our end to do this.
What is your biggest priority as Soma’s co-owner and bar director?
Ensuring customer satisfaction is my biggest priority by far. It’s important to get customers who want to return for a unique experience, and this also ties back to attracting newcomers or businesses to our bar.
How did you feel when Soma won the 2019 New Bar of the Year award?
I felt really proud of my team because they’d worked so hard since day one – we were a small team back then, and we didn’t have a lot of things when we were starting out. I also feel really grateful to have so many people supporting us and guiding us during Soma’s first year. It really motivated us to work even harder and strive to be better in the future.
How is the menu created?
We add local twists to classic or contemporary cocktails. Most of Soma’s menu is actually created based on our customers’ preferences, since we always ask for feedback, or even what they’d like to have in their drinks.
What are some of your specialty offerings and customer favourites?
Our alcoholic dessert selection of tau fu fah – a soybean-based pudding and local favourite – and sago gula melaka – creamy sago pudding with palm sugar. These are all inspired by all-time favourite Malaysian desserts.
How do you feel about what’s happening in the industry now?
It’s a tough time for everyone. I feel sad seeing some establishments being either forced to close down or struggling to operate with the current circumstances, and I’m worried about how that affects the wellbeing of our industry peers. But I realise people aren’t giving up very easily, and they’re extremely willing to innovate and adapt to our new norm.
How did Soma adapt to the current situation and how do you think this affects the industry?
We reopened after local lockdown regulations eased up with limited seating. Our customers have to make reservations, plus we have proper sanitisation regulations for both customers and our staff during and after operating hours. I foresee more people adapting to drink deliveries or takeaways, and new players will come in with fresher ideas to succeed older establishments that have closed down. It’ll be interesting to watch out for new people and new opportunities during our recovery period, and to truly see how our local beverage scene can flourish within the local sphere as well due to outside travel restrictions.
Finally, what advice would you give to up-and-coming peers in the industry?
Make sure to plan ahead. Be brave and take risks. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, and always ask a lot of questions. And most importantly, always have a backup plan.