Zachary Luther

Interview with Zachary Luther, Bar Manager at Ril’s Bangsar

What do you do and how did you get into the industry?
I’m a bar manager. I started working in the restaurant industry when I was 14 years old bussing tables. The restaurant catered primarily to older people who drank classics like Manhattans, Rob Roys, Rusty Nails, and Old Fashioneds, so my cocktail education started there, with the classics. I was always asking the bartender questions, like what’s the difference between scotch and bourbon, or what makes gin gin, or which kinds of grains are used to make which kinds of alcohol. My interest in beer began primarily with my trip to Belgium when I was 18. They have some of the best beer in the world, so I guess my standards for beer were set pretty high from the beginning. I worked at a couple of different restaurants during high school and college, and eventually I landed a job at Volt in Frederick, Maryland. I started as a server but I was always more interested in the bar. I often came in early and stayed late to learn from the bartenders. I was promoted to bartender after a year, then after another year, head bartender. Then we hired Jenna Bredesen who had worked at a bar called Pegu Club in NYC. It was a very important bar in the renaissance of classic cocktails, during the early 2000s, and at one point was considered the best bar in the world. She taught me more than anyone else about the craft of making cocktails. I was intensely fascinated by both the science and art of it: I started reading all of the cocktail books I could find and made drinks for my friends when I went to their houses. As I was getting comfortable with the basics, I started working with Owen Thompson, a key figure in the Washington D.C. cocktail scene. He had a really different style from Jenna. His creative process was looser and more organic. Like, sometimes we would start on one drink and end up going in a completely different direction than he’d anticipated. That approach opened my mind to a whole new realm of creative possibilities, which has helped me so much in my career.
What’s the best part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is changing people’s minds about what liquors they like. I like when people come in and tell me that they like, for example, drinks with Tequila and rum but not gin or whiskey. So, first I’ll make them a drink with Tequila or rum and then once they have a little bit of faith in my abilities, I like to challenge them that I can make them a drink with gin or whiskey that they’ll enjoy. I usually ask them questions, like if they want a drink that’s fruity or tart or herbaceous, just to get an idea of the kinds of flavors they like. I ask them what drinks they’ve had with the liquors they don’t like. I ask them, for example, why they don’t like whiskey. Maybe they’ve had a bad experience just from drinking too much of it in college. It’s really fun to see someone change their mind.
What’s your personal favourite meal/ drink at Ril’s?
My favorite meal is the Big Boy Mac and Cheese. I had their regular mac and cheese first, and I already thought it was the best mac and cheese I’d ever had. But then they added braised beef short ribs and beef jus to it, and it made the best even better. I didn’t know mac and cheese could be so good, and trust me, that really means a lot coming from an American.
My favorite drink is Kid Creole and the Cococampari. It’s dark rum, Campari infused with cocoa nibs and coconut, and chili infused gula Melaka. It’s a really rich, complex, slightly bitter, and interesting take on a Negroni, which is one of my favorite classic cocktails. Plus it has a great name.
What’s one of the wildest things you’ve seen behind the scenes?
Anytime Jesus, our bar back, dances is always the highlight of my night.
The perfect day off would be…
… hanging out with my girlfriend at the beach or scuba diving, and generally consuming a lot of delicious food, beer, and maybe a daiquiri or two.
What do you do for fun?
Read, scuba dive, check out different restaurants with my girlfriend or try our hand at cooking something new. Sometimes we like low-key activities like museums and parks, but we also drink and party on occasion. I like to dance if I’m drunk enough.
What’s something you’d like guests to know about Ril’s?
First of all, the live music on Fridays and Saturdays is always amazing. It’s not uncommon that we’re filled to the brim when a popular band plays. The music is usually jazzy or soulful, which I think really suits the cozy but vibrant feel of the bar. Weekdays are fun in a different way. We get so many interesting guests from so many corners of the world, and the bar’s atmosphere is very conducive to long, animated conversations with new friends. It’s a very classy and sophisticated place that still manages to feel comfortable and unpretentious. The bartenders have even been known to get a bit silly now and then.
What’s your favourite food and wine pairing?
Champagne and French fries! At Volt we had some talented sommeliers who gave us a wine class on our off days. We tried various wines with simple foods just to see how wine pairings work. I didn’t expect Champagne and fries to be good, but the acidity and carbonation of the Champagne actually really complements the oily, crispy, saltiness of the fries.
What’s your view on the Kuala Lumpur food scene?
It’s really awesome! I’m overwhelmed by all the different types of food Malaysia has. No matter how much food I try, every time I talk to a Malaysian they tell me about something I haven’t tried yet and I feel like I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t tried many of the fancier sit-down restaurants just because I enjoy the street food so much.
What’s in store for you in the upcoming months?
We’re working on a new drink menu that should be out within the next few months. We’re also going to host a Tiki Night every Wednesday night along with Ladies Night. It will have discounted tiki drinks and special deals for ladies, plus a more upbeat vibe and decorations. We’ve been working on a few different ideas for it; it looks like it’s going to be really fun. We’re excited!
Where do you get inspiration for your drinks?
It can happen in a few different ways. Sometimes, if I find a new ingredient in the market that intrigues me I’ll bring it to the bar and the other bartender and I will bounce ideas back and forth about how to use it. Sometimes we come up with a drink for a specific guest, keeping in mind what flavors they like and what drinks they’ve liked in the past. Sometimes that drives you to come up with new flavor combinations you would never have thought about before. And sometimes I’m inspired by interesting flavor combinations from food. I try to find a way to translate those combinations into a drink. Recently I’ve tried to come up with even more abstract creative processes. For example, one time I tried to make a drink based on a character in a book, keeping in mind what his personality was like, what environment he lived in, even his motives. That definitely got me thinking about drinks in a new and exciting way, and the result wasn’t half bad!
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  1. Thank God young Zack Luther is behind a bar and not let loose in the kitchens!
    Favourite Meal??? Big Boy Mac and Cheese!!!!!!!!!!!
    Pairings???? Champagne and French Fries.
    Oh my "cotton pickin' taste buds" – ruined at the sight of Zack's delights.

    Maybe he was " having you on????".
    Michelin chefs must be having fits looking at Zack's epicurean intakes.

    Good to know that El Cordobes, the junior, as I read between your lines,
    is practicing as expected with cape and sword in Malaysia.
    El Colin Cordobes who partakes of champagne with finer "fares".

    • I could afterall tell you that my favorite food and wine pairings that I had ever had was a Macan Baron de rothschild/Vega Sicilia compilation they did in rioja with tempranillo, and a prime aged wgyu striploin and accompanyments which I very honestly do not remember. Or a Chenin blanc from vouvray with a very decadent dish of ravioli stuffed with egg yolk, a touch of white chocolate, and butternut squash, and topped with an emulsification of butternut squash and foie gras…But very few people would be able to actually seek out and enjoy these complicated pairings. I like french fries and champagne as an example of showing how wonderful food pairings can work to a skeptic. These kinds of reactions (WOW! who would have thought champagne and french fries; Oh wow i really hate Gin and peas but this pea-infused gin cocktail is wonderful!) are part of the reason why I work in this exciting industry.

      Next time you're in Bangsar, come by for a cocktail or a glass of bubbly and french fries on me 😉

  2. I loved this article, read it some time ago "Ril's, creative cocktails… " The detailed description of cocktails, has seduced me – I am dying to taste "Thyme to Get Lucky". Very inspiring cocktails and talented bartender.

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