What's Your Spirit Drink - Davide Boncimino
Surprisingly, Davide’s love affair with bartending began only six years ago, at the age of 24. As a university student, he wanted a job to bring in the dough. Bartending fit the criteria – it looked fun, allowed him to meet people, and would give him a good income. After his very first bartending shift, Davide was hooked.
Over the next few years, his bartending journey would see him travel from Milan to London, then to Singapore, the Philippines, and finally, back to our little red dot. Along the way, he honed his expertise in spirits, service and hospitality. His philosophy evolved and he developed a signature style that set his cocktails apart, earning him notable distinctions in numerous cocktail competitions across London and Singapore. Some of these include: UK champion of the Don Papa rum competition in 2015, winner of the Singapore leg of the Bacardi Legacy global cocktail competition in 2017, and Singapore champion of the Roku Takumi match-up held earlier this year.
With his career on a rapid rise, the acclaimed mixologist has also been invited as a judge for international cocktail competitions and has had his creations published.
Not bad for a bright-eyed bartender from Sandigliano (a small town in Biella, Italy), who could barely speak a word of English when he first started. Davide has come a long way – both figuratively and literally.
Flavour is King
Davide’s success as a mixologist lies in his philosophy of the craft. Adopting a flavour-driven approach, he believes in creating tipples that are “good enough to eat”.
“Each of my cocktails starts with a single ingredient, like a strawberry, an olive or honey. I especially enjoy working with fresh, local ingredients. I think of how to use it; how to best preserve the flavour of the ingredient and mellow it around the alcohol.
I’ve found that these days, while people enjoy alcohol, they don’t want it to overpower the rest of the cocktail. In my mixes, I preserve the flavours of the alcohol while balancing it with an extra touch of fruits, herbs or dry spice. For me, the key is simplicity. I start with that single ingredient, that one flavour, then add layers on top of it.”
One of Madame Fan Bar’s most popular cocktails, the O&O, embodies this philosophy perfectly. Its basic flavours are olives and osmanthus, chosen because of their tantalising contrast of savoury and fruity notes. Rounded off with Star of Bombay gin and vermouth, the tipple is suave, smooth, sophisticated, what Davide imagines would be “James Bond’s signature drink, if martinis didn’t exist”.
By blending cocktail mastery with culinary tradition, Davide’s flavour palette encompasses a fascinating list of ingredients more commonly associated with a restaurant than a bar. These include kumquats, shiso, lotus root, peanut butter, marinated olives and even a delectable ice cream made from coconut and gula melaka.
Davide’s favourite spirit is rum. After all, it is the spirit that brought him to Asia. “I absolutely love working with rum,” he says. “I also like combining dark and rich spirits with white spirits, like gin or vodka.”
Every bartender has a “spirit drink”, a cocktail that speaks to the bartender’s soul, and for Davide, his spirit drink of choice is – clichéd as it sounds – the classic negroni.
“I know it’s a cliché; I’m Italian, and negroni is the drink for excellence in Italy,” he admits with a laugh. However, his choice isn’t swayed solely by nationalistic pride. He genuinely appreciates how the negroni demonstrates “simplicity to create a unique complexity”. Made very simply of equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari, the Italian classic showcases a unique complexity that has stood the test of time.
“Negroni is known as an aperitif, but it’s also something that drinks well any time of the day,” explains Davide. “There’s an interesting story behind it. It is said to have been invented in Florence, when an Italian count demanded for the bartender to replace the club soda in his Americano with gin.”
Pausing thoughtfully, Davide adds, “That’s how I see myself. The negroni reflects my philosophy of focusing on simplicity and creating cocktails that are simple, distinctive and memorable.”
East Meets West
Although he hails from Italy, Davide’s ancestry is a blend of east and west – his father is Sicilian, while his mother is Filipino. He credits his parentage, along with “valuable learning experiences” in bar scenes across various countries, for shaping his bartending style and innovative approach to crafting cocktails.
Perhaps it was fate, then, that brought him to Madame Fan Bar, an extension of famed restauranteur Alan Yau’s Cantonese restaurant Madame Fan. Unlike other Chinese restaurants that serve up tea pairings, Madame Fan Bar mixes flavours from both eastern and western cultures, something that appeals intrinsically to Davide.
Here, he avoids the stereotypical trap of simply serving up ready-made liqueurs with an oriental twist, or creating a cocktail menu just to fall in line with the restaurant’s theme. Instead, Davide uses his extensive knowledge of Asian ingredients – picked up through his travels, guest bartending shifts and competitions – to create cocktails that are truly distinctive tipples, worthy of a place on any world-class cocktail menu.
In fact, the signature cocktail menu he created for Madame Fan Bar is so innovative that guests almost never request for bespoke cocktails. After all, why ask for a drink that’s less interesting than what’s already on the menu?
Building a Culture
In the past three-and-a-half years he has been in Singapore, Davide has found a greater appreciation for Asian hospitality and an admiration for the collaborative spirit and close bonds that bartenders in Singapore share.
“The Singapore bar scene is great. The variety of beverage programmes is fantastic, and standards are always getting higher. While it’s true that our market is small, which means having to take more time to build a base of regular customers, we’re also at the centre of Southeast Asia and people are inspired by what our bars are doing. Hotel bars in particular are thriving. At Madame Fan Bar, I’m enjoying the opportunity to build a nice beverage program within our hotel.”
With sustainability being a big buzzword in the bar scene these days, Davide is proud to say that they are moving towards an eco-friendly culture. “At our bar, we try to use the best ingredients, which results in better flavours and minimal wastage. Most of our cocktails are based on cordials and acids, not juices, so there’s less to throw out. We throw away very little, preferring to use leftovers to make garnishes and other ingredients.”
It also helps that JW Marriott, the home of Madame Fan Bar, is aligned in the same direction. Davide adds, “Marriott International has stopped using plastic straws, which is a huge step for an organisation that has over 7,000 properties across 131 countries. Everything starts with small steps.”
Pushing the Boundaries
At the conclusion of our interview, we ask the distinguished head bartender to dish advice for young mixologists who wish to follow in his footsteps. His response is a warm smile and an encouragement to stay curious.
“In life, never let things simply pass you by. Always try to understand what’s going on. Understand why things are being done a certain way, then look for a better way of doing it. Keep your eyes open. Question your style and techniques. Be inquisitive. To me, that’s the best way to learn, improve and grow. That’s what I learnt early in my bartending career, and that’s what I’ve applied to every other aspect of my life as well.”