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Singapore mixes unique cocktail culture

Dried octopus sours take on Singapore Slings as island state searches for identity

Elex Ng, head bartender at cocktail bar Nanyang Club, uses identifiably Singaporean and Asian ingredients and flavors to build uniquely local drinks. (Photo by Peter Guest)

SINGAPORE -- When Elex Ng was developing the menu for his new cocktail bar, Nanyang Club, he sought inspiration in a nearby Chinese medicine store. His early experiments with dried mushrooms and herbs were underwhelming. "Then I saw this whole dried-out octopus. I was like: 'Okay, why not?'" he said.

The result is the Fisherman's Wife, a very local twist on the classic whisky sour that cuts the flavors of dried octopus and oysters with ginger and citrus. It is the kind of idiosyncratic drink that Ng, who fell into bartending after leaving the army, thinks may come to define the cocktail scene in Singapore, which remains heavily influenced by western and Japanese bar culture.

New York still has its atmospheric "speakeasies," where complex, often spirit-heavy cocktails are served in dimly-lit rooms styled like Prohibition-era drinking dens. London's bars have drifted toward "molecular gastronomy," deconstructing drinks into their component flavors and rebuilding them.

Tokyo has an obsession with classics and technique -- from ice carving to mathematically precise shaking -- that has made it a place of pilgrimage for mixologists around the world. Singapore, though, is still searching for its own unique identity -- in cocktails as well as in society at large.

What constitutes the Singaporean identity is complex. Its officially protected multiculturalism is stretched and strained by the realities of its demographics. And its dramatic economic growth over the past few decades, coupled with its openness to global capital and cultural influences, have created a landscape -- both physical and cultural -- that is superficially bland, dominated by shopping malls and global brands.

"People keep saying: 'What is Singaporean culture?' It's everything that's hot in Korea, Taiwan, the [United] States," Ng said. "We take a bit here, a bit there."

Vijay Mudaliar, head bartender at Native, uses foraged and forgotten ingredients along with regionally produced spirits. (Photo by Peter Guest)

Nanyang Club leans on history and nostalgia. The bar is styled with red plastic chairs and the straightforward decor evokes the city's famous hawker centers, the proletarian food courts-cum-wet markets that are a central part of the Singaporean experience.

It is reached by a narrow stairwell beside a dive bar on Boat Quay. The area is now an uninspiring stretch of beer bars and fish restaurants catering to tourists and expats working in the nearby financial district. But for most of Singapore's modern history it was a crowded commercial dock where immigrants pitched up along with goods from across the region and beyond.

"This was the center of trade for a couple of hundred years. This is an old shophouse. We decided to do something location-specific. Something unique to us. Something that we can all identify with," Ng said.

Booze may seem an unlikely path on this kind of journey of national discovery, but if there is anything that unifies Singaporeans it is an obsession with food and drink.

Earlier this year Singapore's National Heritage Board polled citizens to gauge their views on what the country should put forward as its first entry on UNESCO's list of "intangible cultural heritage." The result is that Singapore will be submitting Hainanese chicken rice, elevating it to the same status as Chinese Kun Qu opera, Indonesian batik and Japanese kabuki theater.

"In our culture and how it formed, how we merged together all the different races was ... connecting through food and drink. That's a stronger message here than in many parts of the world," said Vijay Mudaliar, owner and head bartender at Native. "I think we're proud of our food."

Ethan Leslie Leong, chef and mixologist at Maison Ikkoku, said that Singapore's cocktail scene is increasingly focused on using culinary ingredients. (Photo by Peter Guest)

Mudaliar has been in the business for more than a decade, and set up Native on Amoy Street, the epicenter of Singapore's cocktail scene, in 2016. In contrast to his neighbors -- which include a local branch of the legendary New York bar Employees Only, the Australian-owned and influenced Operation Dagger, and the Ginza-style D.Bespoke -- Native is an extremely local affair.

The bar almost exclusively stocks spirits from Southeast Asia, from Thai gin to Sri Lankan arrack, which are coupled with foraged ingredients like turmeric leaves, pink jasmine, jackfruit and even weaver ants, picked from around the city. In a room above the main bar, jars and bottles are filled with dozens of infusions and fermentations.

"We've tried to dig deeper into foods that have been forgotten," he said. "My grandparents used to go out into the market to source things like tempeh, small star fruit ... People don't really realize that we're forgetting this stuff."

Mudaliar insists that the diversity of cocktail bars -- from speakeasies and global brands to the hyper-local experiences like Native -- is in itself part of the city's pitch as a world-class cocktail destination. But the marketplace has become increasingly crowded, and new entrants need to find a distinct identity to be able to compete with the dozens of copycat speakeasies that have been launched in recent years.

"It's become a very challenging market. I would say the strongest survive. There are a few [bars] that open for two or three months then shut," said Ethan Leslie Leong, a 20-year veteran of Singapore's bar and club scene who now combines the roles of chef and mixologist at Maison Ikkoku in Kampong Glam. "People see that this is a good business opportunity. But cocktails are about craftsmanship. There is a labor-intensive job behind every cocktail being crafted."

Leong is also working on culinary-inspired drinks, using seasonal ingredients. "Singapore is a city that focuses a lot on ingredients," he said. "What we do is very much like a culinary cocktail, using techniques such as smoke, heat, nitrogen to extract the flavor and the essence from the botanical ingredients to get the flavor into the drinks. I think more and more cocktail bars in Singapore are doing this. I guess it's becoming very ingredient-focused."

At Amrith, which opened in January in an idyllic greenhouse held up by hardwood pillars in the grounds of Song of India restaurant on Scotts Road, mixologist Edwin Poh has taken this to its logical conclusion and turned chicken rice into a drink.

At Amrith, Edwin Poh is using hawker food, such as chicken rice, ice kachang and katong laksa to make culinary­inspired cocktails. (Photo by Peter Guest)

"There's no way I can replicate the chicken side in the cocktail, but ... I can make the rest into a cocktail," he said. His drink, part of a Singaporean-themed section of the bar's menu, uses a rye that has been fat-washed with sesame oil, garlic and ginger to create the basic flavors of the seasoned rice. He then adds chili, calamansi, pandan and soya sauce syrup to mimic the sauces that usually go with the dish.

"I like to create food-inspired cocktails because my whole family is from hawker [centers]. When I was young, I played with these ingredients. I learned cooking from my mum, my grandfather, my grandmother."

Poh consulted his mother on how to refine the nostalgic flavors of favorite hawker center fare katong laksa soup and ice kachang in his drinks, he said.

He has also included in Amrith's menu a nod to the Singapore Sling, the "national" drink that still looms over the country's bar culture.

Created, according to legend, by Hainanese barman Ngiam Tong Boon at Raffles Hotel in the early 20th century, it is available in dozens of configurations across the city, from lurid saccharine premixes outside sports bars in Boat Quay, to the more refined, but no less sweet, versions on sale in Raffles' Long Bar. Ordering a Singapore Sling anywhere in the city is to mark oneself out as a tourist, but Poh has decided to embrace it -- sort of.

"For now, it's one of the international cocktails for Singapore. Maybe down the road we'll have something different," he said.

Rather than the traditional mixture of grenadine, Benedictine, lime, pineapple and gin, Poh's version uses pandan, ginger and pomegranate. "I wanted to create something that's really 'Singapore', in terms of the ingredients, in terms of the flavors," he said. "So what I did was, I changed all of the ingredients except for the gin."

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