BYRON Tan, 24, has never had green fingers. While his gardening-obsessed mother pottered about in nurseries and garden centres, he would sit outside, tapping his feet impatiently.
But as he tells that anecdote today as he casually weaves through the brand-new herb garden of the W Hotel - twirling a calamansi lime here, sniffing at a Thai basil leaf there - you probably will not buy it.
He delivers a sermon on the benefits of sprinkling fertiliser spiked with coffee grounds on his seedlings and the effects of the low tide on the sweetness of underground fruit but will admit, with candour: "I'm really not a fan of farming, but I have to learn this. It's a growing part of mixology in the world right now, and you have to learn and constantly evolve with the industry."
Farm-to-table menus are now a staple in restaurants globally, but the farm-to-bar phenomenon is hot on its tail within the craft-cocktail circuit.
The concept is premised on the notion that drinks can be more personalised and taste best when made with ingredients freshly harvested from one's own backyard. As the theory goes, bartenders also take greater pride and use produce with more care if they have had a hand in fruiting it, hence producing better drinks.
The reduction of the carbon footprint of each cocktail should endear this practice to environmentalists too.
The movement took root in the US 3-4 years ago, but sprouted here only recently.
Woobar has a two-week-old herb garden. Speakeasy bar 28 Hong Kong Street (28HKS) recently studded a vacant rooftop of its shophouse with pots of rosemary, thyme, basil and herbs. Dempsey Hill watering hole The Green Room has carved out space for an edible garden, while week-old Ann Siang Hill British gastropub Oxwell and Co is seeding its rooftop terrace with greens - and, potentially, a bee farm.
For 28HKS's general manager Joe Alessandroni, going green was "a natural extension" of the bar's constant search for premium products.
Cooler-climate herbs taken for granted and widely used among bartenders in his native California were hard to come by here; even rarer still were herbs grown in an organic, pesticide-free way.
So in June, the bar tied up with one of America's leading consultant mixologists, Adam Seger, to plant a sustainable edible herb garden at the back of the bar.
"Just as a chef is only as great as his ingredients, a bartender is limited in the ability to make truly exceptional cocktails without exceptional ingredients," says Seger, who helped to seed the gardens at 28 HKS and Woobar over two visits here in the last two months.
With Singapore's tropical climate and fast-growing craft-cocktail scene, bar gardens will soon be a common sight here, he predicts: "Things grow three times as fast, there are minimal pests and the weather is very predictable. Singapore is a gardener's dream."
Despite Seger's optimism, local bartenders-turned-gardeners say the path ahead is a thorny one, largely because it is still untrodden.
Singapore-born, California- trained local chefs Petrina Loh and Bryan Chia of Little India restaurant- bar Morsels have had their plants stolen twice since they began experimenting with a herb garden earlier this year. But they have persevered, because they see having their own garden as a necessity. Loh, who moved home from San Francisco last year, says: "We were getting increasingly frustrated with the quality of herbs we got from suppliers.
"Either the herbs looked dead by the time they arrived, or we wouldn't know how long ago they were harvested and how long more we could keep them - and this is especially critical when you want to use them as garnishes. They have to look and taste fresh."
Now, the duo have roped in professional help from Edible Garden City Project's Bjorn Low, a leading urban farming consultant here, to harvest herbs as and when needed from the two-month-old planters of herbs fronting their restaurant. Freshly plucked dill peps up a rillette of smoked snapper, or gets muddled into a gin-and-tonic cocktail for a summery lift. Rosemary sprigs are used as aromatic cocktail stirrers, or dehydrated and used for rum or vodka-based liqueur infusions.
At The Green Door, the farm-to- bar movement is an extension of owner Yuan Oeij's personal lifestyle. The restaurateur behind The Prive Group - who already grows his own herbs such as chilli and coriander at home - decided to set aside 2,000 square feet of his Dempsey Hill bar for the herb garden. He knows he has more space than many other bars here, and so intends to fully use it by experimenting with papaya and banana trees.
"Running a bar is not always about maximising your covers; it's about creating a space. Apart from supplying the bar, this garden is a place for people to wander. It's an additional pocket of excitement for the venue, and just one part of the whole experience."
Costs and benefits
Beyond an aesthetic boost, just how much practical sense does it make for bars to run their own gardens?
Woobar's Tan is the most optimistic. When the garden is mature, he hopes it will supply 80 per cent of the herbs the bar needs. "But we will never be fully independent of our suppliers; in case of crop failure or if we have a sudden big order, they will be the back-up."
Still, almost all bar operators agree that the initial set-up costs are high and financial savings - if any - will come only much further down the road.
Alessandroni of 28HKS estimates he spent $3,000. Edible Garden's Low, meanwhile, charges his clients between $1,000 and $10,000 to set up a functioning edible garden; for clients who are not so nature-inclined, he and his team can step in to maintain and replace the garden for an additional $300 to $5,000 monthly.
Then there are the intangible costs. Low says: "Herb gardens require eyeballing to check for pests and if the plants are stressed. So it is ultimately up to business owners to judge how much this additional time and effort will cost them, and whether the benefits that it brings outweigh that."
Oeij says: "You're never going to do it as efficiently as a commercial farm can produce herbs. Their supply chain is already efficient."
He puts in more than $1,000 a month to maintain his bar garden. A professional gardener pops in occasionally to maintain the plants and train the bartenders to care for them.
"With the current labour situation in the F&B industry, it's hard enough trying to hire a bartender. I'm not going to extend the requirements to include gardening skills. If my bartenders have that passion, then I will give them the responsibility," says Oeij.
And even when the heart is willing, the flesh may be weak - or simply inexperienced. Recalling an episode when a young bartender accidentally clipped off a whole stalk of thyme, Alessandroni says: "Singapore is a high-density city. There's not a huge farming culture; not everyone has had the background with gardens that we take for granted in California."
The quality and variety of seeds found locally are an issue, as most herbs and fruits here are bred more for ornamental than culinary purposes. 28HKS thus hopes to augment the local seed pool eventually, by bringing seeds from the US.
Low and Oeij agree that the best way for fledgling bartenders- turned-farmers to start is by going with the tried and tested.
"The last thing we want is for an enthusiastic budding gardener to fail, get completely disappointed and give up on the idea of keeping a herb garden," adds Low.
Plus, there's what he calls the chicken-and-egg problem: "When the herbs are fully grown, it's hard to get chefs or bartenders to harvest the crops, because they also add to the aesthetic of the outlet," he laughs. "We have to convince them that they have to use the crops, and that they eventually will grow back."
Another issue bar operators have to deal with is scepticism about whether the movement is just an exercise in "green-washing": does a bar with a pot of basil that it harvests only occasionally a farm-to-glass cocktail bar make?
"Farm-to-table restaurants in California are supported by acres of farms," says Loh. "But land is so expensive here that, even if you grow your own, you will still have to supplement with supplier-bought produce. That's just the reality of things."
Morsels' Chia says: "Even if it starts off as a trend - and Singapore is all about trends - if that gets young people to become more conscious that such a movement exists, and take it on as a personal lifestyle, then it can't be a bad thing."
And then there's the question of whether the consumers really care at all, or if they just want to knock back a drink without thinking too much about it.
"It's a pleasure for the bartenders who use it, but whether the customer realises it, I don't know - but never mind if they don't," says Oeij.
"People come here to enjoy the music, the drinks and the company. The garden is just a supplement to the experience. For me, it's not our selling point."
28HKS's Alessandroni says: "In California 7-10 years ago, the idea of being a locally sourced, farm-to-table restaurant or bar was a point of differentiation that made you special. Now, it has become the new industry standard.
"That's why we use cleaner, harder ice, or boutique spirits. The idea is not to trumpet these things, but to make sure that when it all comes together, what ends up in front of the customer is better.
"Customers may not always care where the ingredients came from, but ultimately, they do care when it tastes better."