Friday, 1 August, 2014

 
Published March 28, 2014
Dining
Shaking it up
Is Singapore Asia's new cocktail capital? DEBBIE YONG looks at our booming cocktail bar scene, and how it got to where it is today
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Spirited up: Peter Chua (left), Bannie Kang and Tom Hogan, finalists of the Diageo Reserve World Class bartending competition who will represent Singapore at the South-east Asia finals in April; Eugene Chua of Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall, who always visits cocktail bars, even on personal holidays, to glean new ideas; along one of the walls of newly opened Manor Bar by industry stalwart Din Hassan, a corkboard for visitors is tellingly tacked with the namecards of the global Who's Who of the alcohol industry; army regular- turned-budding bartender Aloysius Chon says he was drawn to the industry for its wealth of learning possibilities

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AT 25, he drew a cushy $5,000 monthly salary as an army regular, owned a car and an HDB maisonette, but Aloysius Chon was itching for a little more. So he signed off from the army after a seven-year stint, and three months ago, signed up as The Library's newest bartender-in-training.

Though his new job comes with a more than 50 per cent paycut and work hours that often stretch till early morning, Mr Chon says it is a decision made without regret: "When I came for the job interview and saw these huge shelves of alcohol, I realised that there is plenty to learn in this craft."

Across the island, stories of new-found fascination echoing his play out in the lives of former Goldman Sachs bankers, air stewardesses and commercial photographers. Regardless of background, the new faces to the local bar scene are all magnetised by one thing: our city's voracious thirst for well-crafted cocktails.

Boomtown Singapore

There are no official statistics specific to cocktail bars, but more than 20 bars specialise in cocktails in Singapore today - up from what industry veterans estimate to be just two or three bars five years ago. Around 10 new cocktail destinations have sprouted up in the last six months, with at least five more set to join the fray in the coming six months.

"The cocktail scene has exploded in the last decade in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, and with the mix of people in Singapore that travel frequently between these countries; it's no surprise that the awareness and interest in cocktail bars are rising here too," notes Howard Lo of month-old cocktail bar, The Secret Mermaid.

Local bartender Eugene Chua of Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall adds, however, that "the West may be driving the cocktail agenda, but Asia is quickly riding the wave".

Despite a traditional Asian inclination towards karaoke bars and ostentatious nightclubs as affluent Singaporeans develop a palate for the finer things in life, they too are favouring cocktail bars for their heightened intimacy and focus on fine spirits in thoughtfully themed environments, he says.

"In food-obsessed Singapore, it's an easy jump to getting interested in learning about wine. And then cocktails. And then spirits themselves," adds Spencer Forhart of American spirits-focused bar, 28 Hong Kong Street (28HKS). More than just seeking and spending on quality tipple, the region's excess of wealth has pushed many to want a bar to call their own too.

Former Hollywood French photographer-turned-bar owner Pierre Emmanuael Plassart of two-month-old Neil Road bar L'Aiglon, says: "For my first business venture, I wanted to open somewhere corruption-free and vibrant, and Singapore fit the bill perfectly. Hong Kong is too competitive, and upcoming cities like Bangkok and Jakarta are less safe."

In fact, where cities such as Tokyo and Hong Kong once stood at the vanguard of Asia's cocktail culture, the tables are slowly shifting, with much of the region also turning to Singapore for innovations on the cocktail front.

While previously overlooked for our limited market size relative to Asian neighbours such as Taiwan, South Korea or Vietnam, Singapore is now an obligatory pitstop pencilled into the Asia itineraries of alcohol ambassadors from major alcohol companies such as Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, Diageo, Moet-Hennessy and William Grants and Sons as well as visiting bar owners of leading overseas bars.

Tanquery Ten Gin's global ambassador Angus Winchester recalls his first trip to Singapore 15 years ago, when "the scene was non-existent". "I was teaching people how to make simple mixed drinks. Now I have to field questions about modernist bartending techniques and trends to keep them interested."

The cocktail boom is fuelling growth in tangential businesses too. From initially importing hard-to-get craft liquors for 28HKS, Mr Forhart and his partners later spun off import and distribution business Proof & Company Spirits to plug what they found to be an overall industry gap. They now distribute over 30 American craft spirit labels and offer consultancy services in staff-training constructing and stocking new bars.

Jonathan Liu of independent spirits importer, Rockustar Spirits, and The Secret Mermaid's Mr Lo, who also runs American craft liquor import business, Liberty Spirits Asia, cite Singapore's status as a major trading port and trend driver in the region and its clear customs laws as reasons for starting up here before fanning operations across Asia, says Mr Lo.

Proof & Company opened its Hong Kong office last year, while Liberty Spirits has plans to expand to Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Even hotel bars have had to up their game to keep pace. Fairmont Hotel's new Antidote bar has a heavy cocktail focus, the upcoming Manhattan bar at the Regent Hotel will barrel-age their own concoctions, while the Four Seasons Singapore has roped in renowned Spanish mixologist Javier de las Muelas to add star power to their One-Ninety bar.

But just how did Singapore - once little known on the cocktail front except for being the birthplace of the legendary Singapore Sling - nudge its way towards pole position?

Some trace the cocktail scene back to the 1990s, where flair bartenders - barmen - who not only make drinks but flip bottles and tools as part of the show - in now-defunct nightspots such as China Jump, Centro and Devils Bar defined bars as more than just destinations for fast-paced guzzling.

Then came along players such as Klee, followed by Bar Stories and Nektar, where an emphasis on making cocktails from fresh tropical fruits and herbs catalysed a new movement in pushing local mixology beyond classic Western recipes. The former also groomed a generation of local bartenders such as Ethan Leslie Leong, Jeff Ho and Din Hassan, who now work in bolder, uniquely Singaporean flavours such as chilli crab, kaya and tau huay into their concoctions, while playing mentors to the next generation of local bar talents.

Today, almost every school of bartending recognised globally is represented in the splay of cocktail bars here: the Tippling Club popularised cocktail-pairing menus with its molecular tipple; Coffeebar K and Jigger and Pony - the latter with award-winning frontman Aki Eguchi - fly the flag for Japanese techniques; The Cufflink Club and House of Dandy push the British-inspired envelope; The Horse's Mouth and The Library take a leaf from the speakeasy trend; and Bitters and Love and The Spiffy Dapper are your friendly neighbourhood bars.

Veteran flair bartenders Jeremie Tan, Shahmil Lin and Mamat Suali reckon the surge of global competitions and educational classes by foreign bartenders have helped the scene stride forward - something they wished they had in their time. But with increased media and social media coverage of the beverage industry, plenty of learning is now self-driven too: The Library's Mr Chon watches videos of bartending competitions on YouTube to glean ideas while Mr Chua always makes research visits bars in other cities to pick up tips for his own bar, even when on personal holidays.

Klee founder Tan Ken Loon, who now runs The Naked Finn, additionally credits the growing prestige of the job as a push for the industry's growth. A few years ago, a bar manager would draw a monthly salary of $2,200, but one can make double that today. Bartender salaries now typically start at $2,000.

"Bartending is now seen as a viable career," adds Colin Chia, Asia Pacific manager for the Diageo Reserve World Class, a global bartending competition that has sent top bartenders to apprentice at top bars and attend cocktail conferences in Europe. Other initiatives such as the Diageo Bar Academy and Ketel One Bartender Fraternity aim to band a community of upcoming bartenders together for collective innovation.

"Back then you'd never be able to go near another bartender's notebook," recalls Din Hassan. These days, they pool together resources to order bar tools from overseas websites and lend each other their books on bartending, he says.

28HKS hosted its inaugural The Bartender's Allowance, a friendly monthly competition organised by bartenders for bartenders this Monday, while the Singapore Bar Industry Accord Awards, an industry-voted bar rankings was launched by bar manager Tron Young last Sunday.

But even as the road ahead is paved with good intentions, bar operators warn of potential potholes.

As F&B groups large and small eye the cocktail bar niche, there is a limit to how much talent the industry can produce, notes Jeff Ho, now head barman at Jekyll and Hyde. Local culinary schools have few bartending courses, and even so, they may not equip bartenders with practical know-how that only time spent on the job can hone.

With the glamorisation of the profession, "many are in a hurry to learn enough of the basics to then skip straight to being a 'star-tender'", cautions bar consultant Richard Gillam of Liquid Playground. Laments are also rife over the price tags of the liquid libations as they become more trendy. Prices range from $18 to $36 per cocktail.

Global cocktail map

The question remains then: will Singapore ultimately catch up with London and New York to claim its place on the global cocktail map one day?

Though Maison Ikkoku's Ethan Leslie Leong predicts that the market has space for another 20 more cocktail bars, his veteran bartending peer Anthony Zhong believes that given Singapore's small population and limited customer range, "it'll be very hard to grow a market like that of New York and London's".

But what we lack in sheer numbers, we can make up for with what Singapore has always does best: melding a range of cultures to form our own identity, say bartenders.

So what will the recipe for version 2.0 of the Singapore Sling look like?

A jigger of American confidence, a pony of British sophistication blended with Japanese techniques and a flare of Singapore flavour?

We'll drink to that.

debyong@sph.com.sg