How Singapore Grew Asia’s Most Sophisticated Cocktail Scene

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Here’s a puzzle. When a world-famous New York City speakeasy was planning its second venue, where did the team choose? San Francisco? London? Paris? Tokyo? For Employees Only, a bar that’s long been an icon of sophisticated drinking in Manhattan, the choice proved easy: Singapore.

For decades the Singapore cocktail scene was defined by its eponymous national drink, the Singapore Sling, a pineapple-heavy mix that very well could have inspired the invention of the cocktail umbrella. Yet come 2016, says Igor Hadzismajlovic, co-owner of Employees Only, “Singapore as the first location for another Employees Only was a no-brainer to me.”

Employees Only

Singapore speakeasy Employees Only. Photo courtesy of Employees Only

Today, from sophisticated, Art Deco-style lobby bars like Atlas, a tribute to the drinks and elegance of the Gilded Age, to cutting-edge hostelries like Native, where mixes feature off-the-wall ingredients from green ants to pink jasmine, Singapore boasts all the mixological diversity of cities many times its size. On the well-regarded Asia’s 50 Best Bars list — not to mention the World’s 50 Best Bars list — Singapore occupies more spots than Tokyo, Hong Kong or Bangkok. And the range of bars keeps growing.

This is a country that loves to eat. Celebrated international chefs, from Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay to Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Joël Robuchon, have gained a foothold in the tiny city-state. Although the whole nation of Singapore is just half the size of London, Singaporeans — and the Lion City’s myriad expats — are phenomenally well-traveled, so trends and drinks cross continents with ease.

And Singapore’s obsession with food and travel translates well to the new generation of cocktail bars, be they children of the Anglo-American classic cocktail revival that began at the turn of the century or concepts that are more distinctively Asian. “Singapore is so open, so international,” enthuses Indra Kantono, a former Bain & Co consultant who owns several bars with his wife Gan Guoyi. “You can go to Tippling Club for a great meal, go to D.Bespoke and feel like you’re in Ginza, then feel you’re in New York City’s West Village once you get to Employees Only.”

All of this diversity has emerged in a scant few years. Coffee Bar K started flying the flag for Japanese-style drinking in 2006 — and still offers an impressive range of whiskies. A few years later, Tippling Club opened as a collaboration between Singapore celebrity chef Ryan Clift and cocktail artist Matt Bax, the man behind Melbourne’s well-regarded and now-defunct Der Raum. (Tippling Club remains very much worth a visit for progressive cocktails and elegant food.) The arrival of Bar Stories — Singapore’s first bar without a cocktail menu — proved formative for many of the island’s professional bartenders.

Yet the scene hit critical mass just five years ago when the Cufflink Club, Library, Jigger & Pony and 28 Hong Kong Street all opened. “They were all different concepts — 28 Hong Kong Street with Michael Callahan was very American; we were more Japanese and Asian,” Kantono recalls. “It made for a good and diverse scene with lots of different accents.”

Jigger & Pony bar, Singapore

The 19th-century-inspired bar at Jigger & Pony. Photo courtesy of Jigger & Pony

Moody, dimly lit and very adult, 28 Hong Kong Street still sits at the top of the Asia’s 50 Best list. Now under the supervision of Czech-born star bartender Zdenek Kastanek, this remains the place to head for a flawlessly curated mix of drinks both classic and contemporary.

For a round-the-world taste of the classics, InterContinental Singapore‘s heritage-inspired Lobby Lounge offers a sophisticated list of Worldly Classics cocktails curated by renowned mixologist Nick Braun. The landmark building is a fitting setting for sipping drinks inspired by the globe’s most iconic tipples, from an Italian Negroni to a Brazilian caipirinha.

The Lobby Lounge, InterContinental Singapore

The Lobby Lounge at InterContinental Singapore.

Those in search of liquids with a more closely delineated sense of place will also find much to savor. Nestled on Ann Siang Hill, Nutmeg and Clove is the standout among a handful of venues that inject uniquely Singaporean flavours into their drinks. The menu charts a course through the history of the island, merging local ingredients, progressive techniques and cocktail traditions to create drinks like the Barrel Aged Singapura Sling: woody, bittersweet and, thanks to hibiscus, a close cousin of the Negroni.

Kantono’s Gibson puts a lightly Singaporean spin on classically influenced drinks: The Botanic Gardens is an exuberant explosion of gin, bee pollen, fermented honey and apple juice served in a glass that literally drips orchids. Operation Dagger is the most contemporary of Singapore’s abundant crop of “secret” bars. It’s hard not to be enthused by drinks made of ingredients as diverse as seaweed and buckthorn and mixed in smoking bell jars or coffee percolators.

Or, for a touch of high-glam theater and a dose of Gilded Age European style, consider Atlas. Claiming to have the world’s largest gin collection, it boasts around 1,000 bottles, many on display on the towering, five-story back bar. Roman Foltan, formerly of Artesian London, repeatedly awarded the world’s best bar, ensures the drinks are as elegant as the opulent space.

“Singapore is very diverse, very developed in a way you’d compare to London, New York or Sydney,” observes Kastanek, another London veteran. Yet unlike any of these cities, it remains blissfully compact, meaning a sophisticated post-meeting drink is never out of reach.

To relax and unwind in Singapore, consider booking Club InterContinental at InterContinental Singapore for a new level of sophistication. Enjoy complimentary evening cocktails and canapes at the exclusive Club InterContinental lounge, with a dedicated Club InterContinental team and personalised service.

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