It’s commonplace to see English gin, Mexican tequila, Scotch whisky and Italian bitters sit shoulder-to-shoulder on just about any backbar in the world. Vijay Mudaliar, however, stocks his bar from much closer to home. The bottles that line the shelves of his Singapore bar, Native, reflect what the city-state and surrounding Southeast Asian region have to offer: Thai gin, Cambodian rum, Balinese arak. There is no Johnnie Walker in sight.
“We wanted to sell something other than flavor,” says Mudaliar. “Local produce, a keen connection to distillers, craftsmanship and tradition are what excites us.” Native’s drink menu highlights foraged turmeric and cinnamon alongside Filipino rum and housemade lemongrass gin, while forgoing fresh citrus in favor of more sustainable citric and lactic acids fermented in-house. The same sustainable ethos extends to the bar’s locally made ceramics and repurposed lotus leaf coasters.
But sustainability is only part of the equation. The selection of local ingredients and spirits—many of which are not yet available worldwide—and the playlists featuring Singaporean and Southeast Asian musicians are both a reflection and a celebration of the multiculturalism inherent to Singaporean identity. “We’d like to think of our approach towards bartending as identity-based and honest. We’re not selling an ambiance, or fancy techniques. We’re connecting with people based on our mutually interwoven stories,” says Mudaliar.
When it comes to building drinks, Mudaliar cites “tradition, culture, produce and fermentation” as the foundation of his menu. In an homage to the local Peranakan culture, his drink of the same name sees each ingredient used to the fullest extent. A base of rum is accompanied by quintessential Peranakan ingredients like laksa leaves, candlenut, palm sugar and pandan; the resulting mixture is clarified with local goat’s milk and jackfruit. The curds from that process are used to create a jelly to mimic the dessert kueh salat, flavored with coconut and pandan and tinted with blue butterfly pea flower, a traditional Peranakan food dye. The remaining jackfruit seeds are poached in a simple brine, a callback to childhood memories of jackfruit seeds often poached, grilled or incorporated into curry.
Though Mudaliar’s mission of collaborating with small makers on a sustainable scale is rooted in Singapore, he sees the concept as capable of thriving in countless other communities. “Native is an idea,” he says, “and that seed could be planted anywhere.”
Here, Mudaliar tackles our questionnaire, sharing his favorite bar, the worst thing he’s ever drank and what he wants to be when he grows up.
Bartender/co-owner at Native.
Current mission statement:
To be a platform for local and regional produce through creativity.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Have my own ice cream parlor.
Describe your daily routine in one sentence:
Lots of coffee, work X 2, spend time with loved ones.
Your greatest accomplishment to date?
Building a solid team.
The No. 1 thing you want to eradicate from drink culture?
That everything has to be a twist on a classic.
The one adjective you’d use to describe yourself:
Best thing you ever drank:
Homemade Suze & Tonic in Bar Benfiddich.
Worst thing you ever drank:
The one wine/beer/cocktail that best reflects you/your interests/tastes:
Wild fermented beer/wine.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Business knowledge, tools and skills.
Your favorite bar, and why:
Bar Ben Fiddich, Tokyo. Every cocktail is so satisfyingly confusing on the taste buds.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
The last text message you sent:
Want to forage for some ants?