The Unique Evolution of Singapore’s Cocktail Scene

[Text by Sihan Lee]

Singapore might ping on global radars as one of the most important cocktail cities in the world, but a decade ago, the scene was austere. About this time three years ago, I was on the verge of pushing the panic button as we approached the inaugural Singapore Cocktail Festival (SGCF) Village. My first time on the organising committee was best described as a pile of nerves as I witnessed the mammoth logistics it took to set up shop at the old Beach Road Police Station. The learning curve was steep and I have Ivy Woo, founder of Singapore Cocktail Week, to thank for the opportunity to participate in an industry that I’ve grown quite fond of (this can be partially attributed to my hedonistic quest for the perfect sour).

Fast-forward to 2020, and I’m knocking back an espresso martini by the lovely chaps of Seoul’s Bar Cham and rubbing shoulders with a massive turnout at Gibson Bar on a taciturn Thursday night. Here I was, reaping the rewards of the burgeoning Singapore cocktail scene, swigging cocktails boasting eye-catching presentations – but wait, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

Cast your mind back to 2010. We’re obsessed with The Walking Dead; two larger-than-life integrated resorts have just washed ashore; and you’re probably still diluting your Chivas Regal Scotch with green tea in the clubs. Your secret is safe.

Zachary Connor de Git, Monkey 47's APAC brand ambassador
Zachary Connor de Git, Monkey 47's APAC brand ambassador

Tippling Club and Klee had set the stage in 2008. The former opened by Ryan Clift was an avant-garde bar and restaurant concept originally set against the picturesque Dempsey Hills. “At Tippling Club, we were fairly focused on our own concoctions and we were known for our unique serves and fun flavours,” recalls Zachary de Git, alumni and Head Bartender of Tippling from 2010 to 2014. Klee, opened by Ken Loon, also initiated the cocktail scene with their aggressive ‘no menu’ stance that championed the theatrics of craft cocktail making. Alumni Aubrey Sim, current brand development manager for Diageo, honed her craft at the 21-seater bar after clinching the championship in the Asian leg for Diageo World Class in 2009.

By the turn of the decade, the guests were primed and thirsty for changes. Then in a series of fortunate events came Bar Stories, which made “cocktail-ordering approachable by eschewing a menu altogether and doing bespoke drinks based on guest’s preferences,” recounts Indra Kantano of Jigger and Pony group, who went on to open namesake bar in 2012 with then-girlfriend, now wife and business partner Guoyi Gan. Antecedent to that, Michael Callahan (of Barbary Coast) – spurred on by a three-prong impulse from travel inspirations, a penchant for drinking and an opportunity to fill a gap in the supply chain – decided to embark on project 28HKS. “My partners had been stationed here for a few years and realised that everyone, themselves included, missed the establishments that they have been to in NYC and London.” This gave rise to 28 HongKong Street, a speakeasy that championed the American West Coast-style of cocktail bartending.

Indra Kantano and Guoyi Gan, co-founders of the Jigger & Pony Group, whose eponymous concept recently clinched the top spot on Asia's 50 Best Bars 2020
Indra Kantano and Guoyi Gan, co-founders of the Jigger & Pony Group, whose eponymous concept recently clinched the top spot on Asia's 50 Best Bars 2020

Despite the deluge of new bars suddenly made available to still ‘clueless’ consumers, it was never a competition. The goal was simple – to evoke curiosity, encourage better drinking and educate guests about what goes into their glass.

And perched on the high stools of the nonchalant, 1940s-style cocktail bar The Spiffy Dapper in the year 2014 and being schooled by owner Abishek Cherian George about the perfect ratio of negroni and its capacity for modification, I knew there was much to learn, not superseding the bonus fact that lessons were pretty tasty.

Shaking Things Up

The early success of the pioneers was a sheer indicator of the hunger of the market for elevated beverage offerings. And with people’s interest piqued, passion projects that operated on outrageously high goods costs before made way for more ‘mainstream’ lucrative watering holes that diversified the drinking demographics. Suddenly, the bar options across town increased ten-fold overnight. Joints such as The Cufflink Club and The Library drew in admirable volumes that deemed squirrelling a seat at the bar highly impossible on a Friday night. I’m singing along to Backstreet boys at the top of my lungs in the shady depths of Bitters and Love, kaya toast cocktail in tow. “Manhattan helped redefine what a hotel bar (outside of London or NYC) can, and should be – later becoming a global gold standard for hotel bar success,” reflects Michael Callahan.

Indra Kantano calls it the “perfect cocktail of factors” that propelled our scene onto the global stage. Beginning with the deep and diverse pool of talent (both imported and home-grown) that pushed each other competitively, yet in a positive and supportive way, to create and provide the best hospitality experiences. Also, it helped that more guests were better travelled and open-minded to the breach of new concepts. Finally, there was Singapore Cocktail Festival, which first started in 2015 – the final catalyst that hightailed the chemical reaction. This was followed swiftly by Asia’s 50 Best Bars list which established itself in 2016. Making the list that debut year were nine bars in Singapore, a tie with veteran nightlife purveyor Hong Kong.

Singapore Cocktail Festival 2015
Singapore Cocktail Festival 2015

The Rise of Bartending as an Art Form

[aesop_quote type="block" background="#ffffff" text="#000000" width="90%" align="center" size="1" quote="“Largely due to the media’s portrayal of a bartender’s life. The glamorisation of a career that lifted it up from high school dropout option to value-adding hospitality worker status.”
- Andrew Yap, The Old Man" parallax="off" direction="left" revealfx="off"]

[aesop_quote type="block" background="#ffffff" text="#000000" width="90%" align="center" size="1" quote="“Celebrity chefs were the early adopters to the TV format. It didn’t take long for bartenders – who are akin to pastry chefs in their creative use of balancing sweet and savoury along with acidity, salinity and of course, alcohol – to join the fray."
- Michael Callahan, Barbary Coast" parallax="off" direction="left" revealfx="off"]

Suddenly, the word “mixologist” appeared in all promotional media formats, portraying bartenders as 90% ‘mad-scientist’ creative whilst using the remaining 10% of his/her time devoted to passion, experience and whims. “The term helped give media something their editors could justify putting in print,” says Callahan, “a humble bartender is footnote at best, but a mixologist is a person of precision and skill – something worth writing about.”

And write they did.

The media broadcasting news of hotels and establishments spared no expense in bringing in world-class talents, and then the fresh young talents that thrived under their tutelage. New imbibers were drawn in by the allure of molecular mixology and brought with them a healthy dose of curiosity on the science behind glamorous cocktails.

A Cocktail Renaissance

This spawned the next phase where bars were shifting away from more conventional type menus to those that involve story-telling, progressive cocktails and multi-sensory drinks. Essentially drinks with a little snap, crackle, pop.

Callahan attributes the shift to two things: boredom and showmanship. Boredom spawning when basic techniques are mastered, and more importantly expected by the audience. Then, increasingly progressive techniques are necessary to stand out. Showmanship, on the other hand, is where bartenders “bring storytelling and accoutrements to aid them in further enveloping the guest with an experience that warrants a return visit.”

“The richness of the menu formats and designs add to the diversity that is a cornerstone of the Singapore cocktail scene,” says Kantano, highlighting the edible gummy bear menu at Tippling Club in 2017. Each cocktail was represented by a flavoured gummy bear named after commonplace dream and desires, for example power, happiness, and… a spiced truffles-tasting super car? Maybe not in Singapore.

Some of my favourites include 'The Illusion of Flavours’ menu at Smoke and Mirrors, the newish Indian conceptual bar The Elephant Room, and Jigger and Pony Group’s latest venture – Live Twice.

Head Bartender of Smoke & Mirrors, Jorge A. Conde
Head Bartender of Smoke & Mirrors, Jorge A. Conde

In the former, art is a consistent theme inspiring Head Bartender and ex-graphic designer Jorge A. Conde, who creates cocktails as a way of paying homage to renowned artists such as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. He even goes as far to associate the creation of a menu with creating a full brand as a designer. “When creating a brand identity, of course, you would need a logo, but it is also very important to maintain a consistent and harmonious relationship between the typography, the packaging, the corporate colours and textures, customer experience style and how to understand and connect with the company, in order to create a personality.”

The Elephant Room's Tekka cocktail
The Elephant Room's Tekka cocktail

The Elephant Room, opened by Yugnes Susela, pays tribute to the culture in our very own Little India. People, places and even businesses are personified into tasty tipples. He even avoids the use of mainstream or non-Indian related brands and spirits to concoct his tipples.

Finally, there’s Live Twice, which exemplifies Japanese bartending and shokunin, the spirit of craftsmanship. “The cocktails on the menu are minimalist with no more than four ingredients,” says principal bartender Yinying Leow. “I prefer things without frills and all the extras. In that way, the drinks are very much a reflection of me.” She talks about her strive for continual growth and an endless search for the perfect methodology as she had first-handedly experienced in Japan. “Our intimate 40-seater cocktail bar is specially designed for experienced drinkers seeking an authentic place where they can fully express themselves,” adds Kantano, who claims that the success of Live Twice is only possible because of the level of maturity of our cocktail scene.

Singapore might be the most important cocktail city in the world but about a decade ago, there was no cocktail scene to speak of. Now, there are world-class bars within a stone’s throw. Bartenders in our island city are pushing boundaries, drinkers are making more educated choices, and suppliers are flooding the markets with craft spirits that celebrate diversity and craftsmanship. I think it’s a great time to be drinking.

Sihan Lee is an official World’s 50 Best Tastehunter. Foodie by day, chronic imbiber by night. Follow her drinking escapades on Instagram @thedrinkseeker.