Singapore's Cocktail Scene Is on Fire
Bartenders in the island city-state are pushing boundaries and trying weird and wonderful things. You can get 110 different rums in one place. And nobody will groan when you order the most cliché drink Singapore has to offer.
All photos by the author.
I swear to God, I am not going to drink a Singapore Sling.
Or at least that's what I thought to myself when I landed at Singapore Changi Airport. I wanted to learn about the city's bar scene, more specifically its rapid transformation. When did Singapore go from Sling-slanging to hand-carving ice?
"In three years, it exploded," Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall co-owner Kevin Ngan explained to me. "Part of what happened was that casino over there."
Ngan motioned outside the bar's second-story window, across the river and toward Marina Bay Sands, Singapore's landmark casino, hotel, and lifestyle behemoth that opened in 2010. The $5.6 billion landmark houses a number of restaurants by celebrity chefs including Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, and Daniel Boulud.
"The whole food scene got changed. As a result, when expectations of food goes up, expectations of drinks goes up," Ngan said. "Everybody suddenly has a great palate. That's why the bar industry picked up."
Pre-Marina Bay Sands, the drinking scene was different.
"When we talk about bars back then, we are really talking about clubs," Ngan said.
At Sugarhall, an award-winning Singapore rum bar (with about 110 rums on hand), Stuart Danker reflected on what people were inclined to drink.
"When I was growing up, it was mostly Long Islands, Cosmopolitans, vodka cranberry," he said. "Especially in Malaysia. There's a culture if you have a bottle on the table it means status. But people are slowly getting to appreciate cocktails."
Danker credits the rise in appreciation to a number of factors, but mainly globalization. In addition to people traveling more, exploring bars around the world, more talent is coming to Southeast Asia.
"A lot of big names are coming to Singapore and making it their home, spreading their love of drinking spirits and cocktails."
New York's legendary cocktail bar Employees Only is one of those big names setting up shop in the city-state. Partner Igor Hadzismajlovic recently moved to Singapore for the project, a decision made both for business and pleasure.
"Our interest in doing a project in Singapore began selfishly," Hadzismajlovic said in an email. "I wanted to live somewhere with beautiful weather where I could play beach volleyball year-round.
"Luckily, this city also has a thriving food and beverage scene, and a growing craft cocktail community that we quickly knew we wanted to become a part of."
At the root of the growing craft cocktail scene is 28 Hongkong Street. Every single bar person I interviewed credited the speakeasy as the OG bar of the Singapore craft cocktail bar movement.
Creative director Joe Alessandroni agrees and disagrees on 28 Hongkong Street's impact.
"I think we just were at the beginning of a trend that would have happened anyway," he said. "Certainly when we opened, it was obvious that Singapore was ready for us moving in here."
Whether or not 28 Hongkong Street was the one true catalyst or not, the bar did change the game.
"There were certainly some other good cocktail bars here, but they were more of the Japanese style," the San Francisco native said. "We were one of the first places to bring back sort of the uniquely American focus on ingredients, attention to detail, but also pretty mellow, laid-back hospitality style."
But 28 Hongkong Street didn't jump into success immediately.
"In that first year, there were a lot of products you needed to run a cocktail bar that simply weren't available [in Singapore]," Alessandroni said. "Nice ice machines, all of the things you take for granted in the States—they just simply weren't available here."
In 2013, Proof & Company was the solution. According to its website, Proof was "Asia's first integrated luxury spirits company." They brought in goods to "help people run better bars," Alessandroni told me. Fast-forward to now, and the distribution company is supplying to many of Southeast Asia's top bars.
Fast-forward three years, and thanks to Proof or 28 Hongkong Street or expats or locals' palates, things are going really, really well in Singapore.
"It hasn't been a constant climb—it has been more like a rocket, so to speak," Danker said. "It's more progressive than Hong Kong now I think."
There were countless examples of the cocktail scene's progressive nature.
At Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall, head bartender Edwin Poh looks to his personal culinary background as well as his culinary lineage (he comes from three generations of Singaporean hawker chefs) to create the speakeasy's drinks.
His Singaporean street food-inspired drinks call for ingredients like gin infused with ginseng or Milo, or his homemade char siew marinade.
Then there was Operation Dagger. The bar sounds so gimmicky on paper, I figured there was no way any self-respecting drinker could like the place.
A relatively unmarked doorway led me to some descending stairs to the literally underground bar. I probably would have missed the place if it weren't for the Instagram research I had done earlier in the day, introducing me to the bar's logo.
OK, it's a speakeasy, I thought as I grabbed a seat at the small bar and opened the menu. I began reading the bar's manifesto.
"Operation Dagger is our own blitz against the world of all the 'Speakeasy' fad bars of today / All rehashing the same, classic recipes that have been drunk time and time again."
Noted. If it's not a speakeasy, what is it?
"The main reason we don't have a sign and are off the beaten track is we accept that we aren't for everyone," Operation Dagger's Australian owner Luke Whearty told me in an email. "The last thing we want to do is attract people that we know aren't going to enjoy themselves because they are wanting something specific.
"If you want to experience something new then come down and let us show you a good time," he said. "But if not, that's OK, too! Each to their own."
The bar certainly felt new, so new that my brain struggled to find a way to neatly categorize it.
The minimalist wooden furniture felt Scandinavian. The bonsai and rustic, ceramic mugs seemed Japanese. Then there were the modern light fixtures, like the massive ones made of glommed-together lightbulbs.
Operation Dagger spanned genres, and it said so in the manifesto. "We want to give you something new / Something you haven't thought of before / Something that makes you think of new horizons."
The cocktail list (rather, the "Dangerous Drinking Water" list) didn't seem to follow any rules either.
I watched Yijun, Whearty's sous bartender, pluck a ceramic pear from a shelf. It was the Fallen Fruit cocktail, which on the menu read "Poached Pear, Vanilla, Burnt Sugar."
I ordered a Salty Dog with "Muscat, kelp, yuzu, and seabuckthorn," whatever the hell that meant. It's hard to know what you're getting into, considering that Whearty doesn't list any spirits on the menu or display any bottles on the shelves of the back bar.
I asked him about where that decision came from. "It came from the basic idea of trying to get customers to think a little more about the flavors of the drink rather than the brand or type of spirits, just to open people up to new flavors and experiences," Whearty said.
"We often fall back to our comfort zones and, as a result, miss out trying something new."
Then I sipped my Salty Dog from its beautiful ceramic mug. I didn't know exactly what I was drinking, but it was amazing. Operation Dagger shouldn't work, but it totally does. It is its own unique breed of awesome.
"In the other mature markets, something that can be very limiting is that everyone kind of has an idea of what good looks like and there's a real sort of pressure to conform," Alessandroni said.
In a new and thoroughly international market like Singapore, that's not the case.
"You have a lot of the formally trained Eastern European and London-style bartenders. You have that real Japanese sort of ritualistic, formal, super-attention-to-detail service. You have a good amount of Aussie kids who are a bit sort of West Coast, laid-back, don't-take-it-too-seriously. A couple ingredients-driven American bartenders here," Alessandroni explained.
"Mixing them all together, it's one of the few markets where I haven't seen one idea of what good looks like."
All of the innovation aside, the incredible care and passion of the industry's leaders was also apparent in Singapore's best bars.
The Sugarhall goes through the extremely taxing process of making just about everything in their drinks (minus the rum) from the ginger beer (using Champagne yeast) to the grenadine.
The bartenders at 28 Hongkong Street are given a salary, health insurance, business cards, and work email addresses.
Because I am a tourist and cannot help myself, I ask Poh about the Singapore Sling and am surprised that he doesn't even roll his eyes when I bring it up.
"There's a lot of variations of Singapore Sling—there's no right or wrong," Poh told me. "The original recipe was lost, so no one knows what was the actual recipe. Some add soda, some don't add soda."
Poh has reconstructed the whole drink using fresh, high-quality ingredients. Cherry brandy has been replaced with Amareno cherry, bitters for fresh ginger and orange peel. He says it makes a difference, and when I taste his rendition, I agree.
Is Singapore a cocktail-lover's paradise? Bartenders are pushing boundaries and trying weird and wonderful things. You can get 110 different rums in one place. To top it off, the bartenders won't even groan when you order the most cliché drink their country has to offer.