Singapore, Beyond the Sling

A port nation that has always welcomed the trends and products that wash to shore, Singapore has been criticized for having a difficult time expressing homegrown innovation. Echo Thomas explores how the recent cocktail bar boom has helped Singapore define its national identity.

Three years ago, Tiger Beer was still unchallenged as Singapore’s drink of choice. But the easy-drinking lager and complacent drinking scene has since faced competition from a serious cocktail boom that is disrupting the balmy island’s status quo. The tiny nation, known for its enterprising spirit and lightning-speed development, is finally carving a place for itself in cocktail consciousness beyond the Singapore Sling. But how much of the innovation is authentic to Singapore, a city often criticized as having no real culture of its own?

Like many young nations, immigration and commerce have defined Singapore. The country has seen continual financial growth since the 19th century, when merchants first recognized its prime location as a Southeast Asian port. Ever in the midst of some new influence, Singapore’s diverse population (made up of a Chinese majority with Malay and Indian minorities) seems forever welcoming to the new ideas and products that wash ashore, from Parisian Ladurée macarons to Japanese Takashimaya home goods. Yet, apart from its exceptional street food, Singapore has had a difficult time expressing homegrown innovation. The common criticism is that it’s a contrived environment where foreign influence caters to fickle cosmopolitans who chase one trend after another.

At first glance, it seems cocktails may be the latest victims of that treatment. Recall any cocktail-related fad from the past decade and you can find it represented somewhere in Singapore right now. Indra Kantono, a native Indonesian who came to Singapore in 1995 and co-founded two leading cocktail bars, Sugarhall and Jigger & Pony, explains, “Singapore has password-protected speakeasies, barrel-aged cocktails, rarer than rare craft spirits, and molecular, redistilled bottled cocktails.” The movement started slowly in 2010, when 18-seat bar Klee opened, and for two years the now-shuttered venue was Singapore’s sole craft cocktail experience. In 2012, the scene burst open, and in 2014, awareness of drinks has become so mainstream that bottled Singapore Slings are sold at gift shops.

At present day, the choices are robust. Behind the discrete front door of 28 Hong Kong Street, operated by Hawaiian native Michael Callahan, customers select from a menu that reads like the greatest hits of the current international cocktail scene, including drinks from Sam Ross of Attaboy in New York and Peter Chua, Singapore’s most decorated bartender. Another major destination, Bar Stories, offers a friendly, café-like vibe that belies its dedication to the craft. There, bartenders create only bespoke cocktails guided by guest cravings. And for those who prefer a bit more structure, the first page of the menu at Tippling Club offers a grid entitled “Target Practice,” which places all its specialty drinks somewhere on a matrix between sweet, dry, sour and spice.

Some of this trailblazing is aimed at the reinvention of the Singapore Sling, the cooling and ever-shifting mix of gin, cherry brandy, lime, pineapple and whatever else is of the moment that originated at Singapore’s Raffles Hotel in 1915. The drink’s unfixed identity, recent progression and subsequent revival offer clues about the true nature of Singapore’s cocktail culture and the depth of its reach.

While all of these practices have become common in New York or London, it’s astonishing to think how quickly Singaporean bars have implemented them. In lieu of organic development, the past four years have seen a purposeful and easy adaptation that speaks to Singapore’s identity as a truly hybrid nation quick to embrace other cultures’ practices as its own.

Dave Koh, Bar Stories’ head bartender, notes that where bartenders once relied on the internet to learn of groundbreaking work elsewhere, they’re now increasingly discovering their own voices and drawing inspiration from closer to home. A drink at Bitters & Love riffs on kaya toast (a typical breakfast of rich coconut jam on toasted white bread) while Sugarhall’s San Juan Cooler plays on the sweet and sour flavors of kiwi soursop juice found at Maxwell Street Food Center (a famous chicken and rice joint) even though it contains none of the same ingredients; in place of kiwi there is rum, passionfruit syrup and green grapes. Even bak kut teh, a savory, herbaceous pork soup, has been translated into drink form by bartender Steve Leong. “These are cocktails that are anchored by a specific time and place,” says Koh. “Singaporean bartenders aren’t just looking at what the rest of the world is doing. Instead, they’re blazing their own trail.”

Some of this trailblazing is aimed at the reinvention of the Singapore Sling, the cooling and ever-shifting mix of gin, cherry brandy, lime, pineapple (and whatever else is of the moment) that originated at Singapore’s Raffles Hotel in 1915. The drink’s unfixed identity, recent progression and subsequent revival offer clues about the true nature of Singapore’s cocktail culture and the depth of its reach. “We’ve hit a critical mass. It’s gotten to a point that even hotel bars, which have traditionally been slow to adopt trends, are opening their own craft cocktail bars,” says Koh. Even the Raffles Hotel, which has coasted on pre-mixed Slings for decades, has stepped up its game, toning down the grenadine and restoring balance to its claim to fame.

Already an expensive pursuit in Singapore, drinking cocktails has also become a recent divider in the country’s social strata. At $18-25 per drink, it seems improbable that cocktails could ever match the ubiquitous Tiger Beer—a great equalizer amongst people who value a foil to the high-end nature of much of Singapore’s offerings. Regular drunks at hawker centers (open-air food complexes), plow through piles of barbequed wings as quickly as they do large bottles of Tiger, which typically cost about $5. But Tiger also graces the tables of upscale business meetings at Imperial Treasure Teochew Cuisine and new wave bartenders frequently play with the ingredient. Peter Chua’s Tiger-infused Four Corners Colonial Sour nods to the “uncles” (old men) loafing about on void decks (the decks beneath apartment buildings) drinking beer and eating peanuts. Tiger’s presence in cocktail bars around the country reminds drinkers where they are while integrating the new drinking culture into the old. Through simultaneous assimilation and attachment, the cocktail scene is making a statement that it’s here for the long haul.

The high-low that this represents is rooted in self-awareness. At The Library, this irony manifests in a parody of the cocktail world’s excesses. Guests step inside a men’s tailor and, after providing a password (obtained from a restaurant down the street), they are temporarily transferred to a red-lit mirrored room before entering the boisterous bar. The goofy theatrics go on. Drinks are heavily propped; bowties garnish Milo-inspired mixes (derived from the chocolate malt drink of childhood) and rubber ducks float in miniature bathtubs of gin punch. The gimmick is the appeal, and knowing that allows a deeper understanding of Singapore’s character. Rather than disavow their capricious consumerism, Singaporeans are learning to embrace it as an integral, authentic part of their culture. The cocktail is just helping them drink their way there.