SINGAPORE -- Asia has developed a keen thirst for inventive cocktails, and Singapore is leading the way with lavishly designed bars that would rival any in New York or London. In mid-May, the Lion City hosted thousands of enthusiasts at the Singapore cocktail festival, the region's most popular festival of libations, while celebrity bartenders and the hottest bars were feted at the Asia's 50 Best Bars awards, the Oscars of the regional cocktails scene.
"Asia is really in the forefront of the industry, in the world," said Jericson Co, a bartender and co-owner of Manila's The Curator, named the top bar in the Philippines and Number 37 on the 50 Best list, which was announced at Singapore's Capital Theatre on May 9.
"There are bars here you won't see anywhere else," he added. "There is just more experimentation. In Asia, there are no rules."
Singapore also hosted the 50 Best 50 event last year, and remains the epicenter of a booming Asian bar scene. Mixologists (specialist cocktail-makers) from around the globe joined distillers and an estimated 8,000 cocktail aficionados at the Singapore Cocktail Festival from May 10-18. Launched in 2015 as Singapore Cocktail Week, the festival has grown into Asia's biggest cocktail extravaganza, with 45 bars participating and hosting events.
"People here are really interested in everything, knowing more about the drinks, the flavors, and how bartenders create the cocktails," said Indra Kantono, an Indonesian who quit the private equity industry to launch a group of bars in Singapore. Among them is the popular Jigger & Pony, which gained ninth place on the 50 Best List.
Singapore bars have been major winners in the annual competition, which was launched in 2016 by the U.K. group William Reed Business Media, with the top prize in 2017 and 2018 going to Manhattan at Regent Singapore, a bar that evokes the old-fashioned elegance of New York. This year, the top honor went to Old Man, a Hemingway-inspired bar in Hong Kong. Manhattan came in second with Singapore claiming five of the Top 12 bars. In a more global triumph, Manhattan took third place in the most recent World's 50 Best Bars awards last October.
China led Asia's 50 Best Bars awards overall, with a dozen listings topped by Shanghai's Speak Low at number seven, and eight in Hong Kong. Bangkok had seven winners, led by Bamboo Bar -- an opulent jazz bar at the historic Mandarin Oriental Hotel -- at number eight.
Tokyo claimed six awards, led by High Five at number six, and Taipei had four winners, including Indulge Experimental Bistro at number three. Bars in Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Jakarta also featured in the Best 50, which is judged by a panel of more than 200 bartenders, consultants, drinks writers and cocktail specialists from across Asia.
The awards highlighted a number of trends, including a growing number of speakeasy-style clubs -- throwbacks to the U.S. prohibition era, with hidden doorways and complex codes for entry. Discussions at the awards focused on hot issues such as gender equality, sustainability and local sourcing of ingredients. And there was an abundance of creative drinks in a city that is proudly promoting its stature as a global cocktail center.
"I think the scene here is more vibrant even than New York (which) has really gotten stagnant and predictable," said British bartender Andrew Loudon, who has spent a year at Singapore's Tippling Club (number 11 on the list). "The room for experimentation in Singapore is much greater."
Tippling, which moved from the Dempsey Hill district of art galleries and eateries to a trio of shop houses in the Tanjong Pagar area, is famed for its gastro-centric approach to cocktails, matched with fine dining in the restaurant and bar.
Tippling's cocktail menu changes regularly, and the latest revolves around fragrances that are custom-created for the establishment, Loudon said. A cocktail menu was devised to complement the fragrances, after months of experimentation. "We're always trying new things," said Loudon, who served three original cocktails created just for the festival. "People in Singapore really get it, and support this [experimentation]," he added.
Across Asian mixology, innovation is picking up, said Tatum Ancheta, who runs Drink Manila, an online publication about the beverage industry. "New bars open all the time. The cultural uniqueness of Asia shines through in the cocktails. Just like with food, they feature the unique flavors of the region," she said.
"Asia's probably the hungriest market in the world," added James Irvine, creative director at Four Pillars, an Australian distillery that has become one of the darlings of the gin world. He was carving ice and pouring gin specialties at Jigger & Pony while on a swing through Asia as a guest bartender in Tokyo, Hong Kong, China, Thailand and Vietnam. "People here are serious," he said. "They love cocktails, and want to learn."
Education is a large part of the cocktail revolution, which aims to shift public perception from pubs with beers, single spirits and wine to the bouquet of flavors and ingredients in the modern cocktail. "The best drinks are unique," said Mark Sansom, content editor at William Reed, the organizer of both Asia's 50 Best and the World's 50 Best bar rankings, as well as restaurant equivalents.
"The industry is moving in many of the same directions as top restaurants, with an emphasis not only on fantastic drinks, service and atmosphere, but also more attention to sustainability and local provenance in spirits and ingredients," Sansom said.
Gender equality was the focus of a panel featuring four women bartenders from top bars in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Many recounted tales of discrimination, but Bonnie Kang, head craftsman at Singapore's Anti:dote, said the issue had faded. "That was a few years ago; it's not much of a problem nowadays," she noted.
In April, Sophia Kang became head bartender at Manhattan. Formerly a cocktail waitress, she now oversees an all-male team of bartenders. "Everyone was supportive," Kang said, noting that she had faced more resistance from her Korean family members who viewed bars as places where women should not go. Their views changed when they saw Manhattan, which celebrates the 19th century with decor such as velvet armchairs and mahogany tables and a menu of historic New York libations.
Such lounges look like throwbacks among a tide of modernity in the industry, said David Jacobson, founding partner of Smalls in Bangkok, which ranked at number 42 on the Best 50 list. Formerly a photographer of movie and recording stars, Jacobson opened Q Bar in Vietnam in the early 1990s, followed by another Q Bar in Bangkok before opening Smalls, in a remodeled shop house. Each room in the three-level Smalls is decorated with art and furniture that reflects his unique style, and he presides as host every evening.
"I'm old school," Jacobson said with pride. "The trend in bars is mixology, but we'd rather not reinterpret the classics." Instead, Smalls seeks to offer the best alcohol in the world, including 150-year-old whiskeys. "Bars are about the drinks," he said, "but also the decor, the music, and especially the people." Smalls is well-known for its large following of regular customers who call it home.
In the modern bar world, however, even concepts of home are changing. This summer, Hong Kong's The Woods will become the world's first "nomadic bar," according to owner Victoria Chow. This is partly a response to high rents in Hong Kong, which are a constant threat to entrepreneurs. In response, she is planning a roaming future for the The Woods as a "pop up" bar in various locations.
"We are trying to break down the walls of traditional bars and business," Chow said. Call it "Amazon for the cocktail set." If it works, it will add further fizz to the thriving Asian bar scene.