The Perfect Negroni Is Made with Blood and Tears
Singapore bartender Anthony Zhong became a cocktail master only through grueling training in Japan. “I had been in the army for two years, but this was more suffering," he says. "Every day there’s pain.”
All photos by the author.
There's a lot more to Anthony Zhong's negroni than equal parts gin, Campari, and vermouth. I watch the Singapore native set up his behind the bar he leads and co-owns, Shin Gi Tai.
Zhong did not casually learn the craft of bartending.
Ten years ago, he was working at a Japanese restaurant in Singapore when construction began on a Japanese bar next door. When the bar finally opened, Zhong made it a point to be a good neighbor and stop by for a drink after his shifts. At 21 years old, he didn't know the first thing about cocktails.
"Cocktail bars were not really an 'in' thing at the time," he said. "I would sit there for a half an hour and order a Baileys on the rocks."
The bartenders didn't chastise him for the order. They kept a straight face and hand-carved an ice sphere for his drink, just like they would for any other cocktail.
About three months later, they invited him to join their staff. The manager said they would send him to Tokyo for a three-month training with no strings attached. If he hated the job, he could consider it a free trip to Japan.
He took the offer and got off to a rough start.
"I had a thought in my mind," Zhong said, "."
The Japanese bar world was completely different from what Zhong had previously experienced. Scolding was fierce, and it was common to be humiliated in front of your colleagues and customers for mistakes. He worked 16-hour days. Those days started with a lot of citrus squeezing.
"The acid gets into your skin and you skin gets really dry and it cracks every night," Zhong said. "Every morning, I woke up and there would be blood stains all over my pillows.
"Every day you squeeze the juice, the juice goes into the wounds. Then do you know what the Japanese say? That is a wakeup call for you. You can focus more on your job.
"I had been in the army for two years, but this was more suffering. Every day there's pain."
He was on the cusp of quitting when he had a change of heart. If his sensei and coworkers could do this for 13 years, why couldn't he do it for a month? He embraced the suffering and continued to train in Ginza for about two years.
Today, Zhong crafts cocktails using the techniques he painfully learned in Japan.
"It's very different from the European or American styles," he said. "The technique involved in Shin Gi Tai, we move very elegantly, like a ballet dancer."
He doesn't rush the technique. Every movement is precise and thoughtful. If he runs out of glassware, he's not going to quickly wash more and serve you a drink in a warm tumbler. He was trained that there are no shortcuts, and no excuses.
"If you start to cheat on yourself, then you'll always cheat."
Zhong also doesn't think you need to hide behind the most expensive alcohol either. He witnessed this firsthand when his idol in Japan made him a dry martini that brought him enlightenment, and it was made with Gordon's. It's the method that makes a cocktail great.
"If you have very good technique, it doesn't matter what gin you use," Zhong said. "You can deliver a great cocktail. That is called technique."
After the interview, Zhong goes on to make me a negroni. I watch the culmination of his blood-stained training in Japan as he maneuvers behind the bar gracefully. The resulting drink is perfect.
"A negroni is just a negroni. You go to any bookstore and grab one book—it will say one part gin, one part vermouth, one part Campari, with slice of orange. So it's very simple."
Making the perfect negroni doesn't require the highest quality gin, the coldest glass, or the best-cut ice. The best negroni is made by Zhong because he gives a fuck. Recalling some of the influential bar masters he met in Japan actually moves him to tears.
It's not just Zhong's incredible devotion to the craft that makes the drink perfect. He has the technique to back up his passion and may work harder at it than anyone else in Singapore. He works for months straight with no days off. Sometimes he sleeps at the bar so he can prepare better for the next day. Don't forget the three-piece suit.
If you're looking for the perfect negroni, stop looking. It's hiding on the second floor of a pre-war shophouse in Singapore. And it's made by Anthony Zhong.