“A lot of people don’t give the Singapore Sling its due,” says John deBary, a longtime fan of the misunderstood, cherry-hued gin drink. “There’s an element of mythology about it, a semitropical…transportive nature. It calls to mind a certain time and place.”
The time and place in question is turn-of-the-century Singapore at the Raffles Hotel, where the drink was invented by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon at the property’s fashionable Long Bar. A riff on a traditional Sling (a combination of sugar, water and spirit, which first appeared in print in 1897), Boon’s edit included the addition of citrus juice, and, depending on who you ask, cherry brandy, grenadine and pineapple juice. The hotel’s current iteration contains gin, Cherry Heering, Cointreau, Bénédictine, lime and pineapple juice, grenadine and Angostura bitters. In every rendition, the Singapore Sling has been shaken and served tall, retaining its traditional pineapple and cherry garnish.
When deBary, the former bar director of the Momofuku restaurant group and author of Drink What You Want, visited the Raffles Hotel in 2012, he noted that, made à la minute with call gin—his choice was Martin Miller’s—the Long Bar’s drink was impeccable. “I could discern the individual ingredients, but they gave rise to an emergent Singapore Sling-ness,” he said. “Which to me is a sign of a great recipe executed with flawless technique and ingredients.”
Over the years since, the Raffles’ Singapore Sling has evolved with changes in ownership and trends, resulting in an iconoclastic drink that lacks clear parameters, often yielding an overly cloying concoction. “It’s a very nebulous cocktail,” says deBary. “There’s a lot of shortcuts or substitution for hard-to-obtain ingredients, so there’s never a clear consensus on what it actually is.”
At PDT in New York, where deBary learned to make Singapore Slings in 2008, the bar approximated the modern Raffles build, reducing the quantity of pineapple juice by half, to two ounces. Four years later, at Ssäm Bar, the high-volume atmosphere led deBary to create a streamlined version to expedite execution, subbing pineapple syrup for juice and Plymouth gin—infused with orange peels—in lieu of Cointreau.
For the meticulously workshopped version that appears in his book, deBary channels the PDT recipe, further reducing the pineapple to one-and-a-half ounces to dial down the sweetness. For the juice itself, he prefers to make it himself or buy it fresh. “Canned juice tends to be lifeless,” he says.
Crucially, deBary uses a navy-strength gin to cut through the sweetness of Cherry Heering, Bénédictine and grenadine. “It makes for a lighter, less dense cocktail and also gives the drink space to breathe, rather than making a syrupy mess,” he says. Made properly, with lime juice and Angostura bitters delivering layers of acidity and spice, deBary notes that a Singapore Sling should be “juicy and invigorating.”
But perhaps more than any single ingredient, it’s the carefree essence of the Singapore Sling that can make or break it. “What I love about the Singapore Sling is its playfulness,” says deBary, “It’s not trying to be anything but what it is.”