For a place that's known to be quite conservative, Singapore offers cocktails that have a tendency to make your heart race.
In just one recent week of drinking across town, I sipped a rum-yogurt cocktail that included two kinds of Southeast Asian ants; ordered off a "menu" that was a bag of gummy bears custom-flavoured to mimic each drink; and tasted a flight of "natural wines" fermented from fig and pear, tomato, and cabbage. And that's not to mention the tall drink with "performance-enhancing drugs," which turned out to be a rose aperitif with pink dragon fruit, basil seeds and a Malaysian virility bark called tongkat ali.
To call this bar world creative would be a wild understatement. Shaking off its reputation as a staid, workaholic city-state, Singapore has exploded onto the cocktail scene as one of the world's premiere bar cities. In October it took six spots in this year's "World's 50 Best Bars" list, third only to perennial cocktail capitals London (with eight ) and New York (seven).
Ranked the highest in Singapore is the opulent hotel bar Manhattan (No. 7 on the list), with what must be the world's most ambitious barrel-ageing system; then there's Atlas (No. 15), a soaring, art deco-inspired space with exquisite martinis and a 1,000-bottle gin tower. They represent only a sliver of the remarkably diverse cocktail culture that's sprung up within a three-mile radius in the unlikeliest of places.
Cocktails from Scratch
Just five or six years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to say Singapore had a cocktail culture at all. Sure, there was the Singapore Sling, invented at the famously peanut-strewn Long Bar at the Raffles-but that was it. Modern mixology? That required a trip abroad.
Husband-and-wife team Indra Kantono and Gan Guoyi remember being met with raised eyebrows when they opened one of the city's original craft cocktail bars, Jigger & Pony, in 2012. "Is this really safe at night?" Guoyi remembers her parents asking, referring not only to the bar business but also her choice of neighbourhood. Amoy Street, on the outskirts of Chinatown, is now home to four of the most highly regarded bars in the city-Jigger & Pony included.
Kantono says Singapore's rise as a cocktail capital is a direct result of nothing being there before. He describes the city as an empty canvas. "We don't have a century-old love affair with wines, or with whiskies, or anything at all," says Kantono, who, with Guoyi, now runs five establishments, with another on the way. "In New York there are expectations for what a cocktail bar is. Here it's kind of a blank slate."
Steven Mason, general manager at the double-Michelin-starred Odette, echoed the notion. "Nothing is produced here, which means you have no ties with anyone," he said. "That can be a wonderful thing."
Thinking Outside the Box
Singapore is a truly international city, with a constant influx of foreigners as well as locals who tend to work or study abroad. Having picked up a taste for craft cocktails abroad, they now seek them back at home. "People really like new experiences in Singapore," Kantono says. "They expect something they haven't tried before."
Of course, wealth is the underpinning to all this. A world capital of finance and trade, Singapore is home to residents and expats with money to spend and more and more tourists ready to do the same.
Enter Employees Only, one of New York's most highly regarded cocktail bars, which opened a Singapore branch in 2016. Co-founder Igor Hadzismajlovic says the city's "diverse expat community of people who love to eat and drink" is what sold him on the destination. "We were confident we would have an audience there," he explains.
A sense of energy and experimentation underpins the whole of Singapore's drinking scene. At Gibson, perhaps my favorite bar of the Jigger & Pony group, I sipped a gin-honey-lemon concoction I was told would make me feel like a hummingbird-it arrived suspended in a glass bulb with a profusion of flora and an abnormally short straw, such that I had to bury my nose into the drink. (Birdlike, indeed!) At the recklessly creative Operation Dagger, a rum and salted egg yolk cocktail is smoked in hay; at Native, there's an unrivalled dedication to Southeast Asian spirits and ingredients, including the aforementioned ants. And these bars are just the beginning.
Even wine bars are pushing international boundaries. At RVLT, with its artfully unfinished look and exploratory wine selection, you can drink cult favourites such as the sparkling wines of the Loire's Domaine Mosse or a light, dynamic red Poulsard from the Jura-a list that would be a sommelier favorite anywhere in New York or Los Angeles.
Crackerjack is the newest venue from Proof & Co., a group that runs several Singapore bars and consults on other ambitious ventures in town. More significant, it acts as an importer for a remarkable array of boozy products and also trains bartenders on how to use them.
Case in point: One Saturday night, Kantono, the pioneer barman, led me to the group's latest project. In a space they call Junior-an unmarked, 10-seat bar tucked behind Crackerjack-they've opened a six-month pop-up dubbed Norma. (Each pop-up at Junior has a different name.) Norma is an ode to agave, with drinks that focus on tequila, mezcal, and even lesser-known bottlings of raicilla, an herbaceous and earthy cousin to mezcal that rarely makes it out of Oaxaca.
"No one in Singapore was asking for an agave bar," says Kantono, sipping a mezcal cocktail from a skull mug, surrounded by a crowd of restaurant industry drinkers. "No one here goes to Mexico, no one knows what mezcal is. But there's a sense of screw it, let's try it. This is supply-led. It's not demand-led."
• Jigger & Pony: The pioneer is still a thriving, friendly scene. What to order: Try any of the legendary punch bowls.
• Sugarhall: This upbeat rum bar is next door to Jigger. What to order: The Sugarhall Daiquiri, made with 15-year Trinidad rum, is garnished with a caviar-topped banana chip.
• Manhattan at the Regent Singapore: Sophisticated and innovative, it has a room dedicated to ageing drinks that includes more than 100 barrels. What to order: Do as locals do. Get the Solera-aged Negroni for yourself and a bowl of punch to share.
• Atlas: A breathtaking place to sip a martini, this soaring art deco atrium has unparalleled gin and Champagne lists. What to order: What else? James Bond's drink of choice.
• Tippling Club: One of the oldest yet most experimental bars on the Singapore scene, it currently has a gummy bear menu. What to order: Success is made with red wine, amaro, Cognac, and whiskey. (Now you know.)
• Operation Dagger: Through a barely marked door and down an industrial staircase, you'll find a wildly experimental cocktail den with boundless creative energy. What to order: The Egg is a profoundly rich rum-salted egg yolk concoction, or try one of their house-fermented "natural wines."
• Gibson: An effortlessly classy establishment, it has charismatic bartenders to boot. What to order: The Botanic Gardens will legitimately make you feel like a hummingbird.
• RVLT: A stripped-down modern wine bar, it features a wall display of wines rather than a more traditional list. What to oder: Ask anyone on staff for an offbeat recommendation.
• Native: This bar is deeply devoted to sustainability and Southeast Asian ingredients. What to order: The Antz is both the must-order novelty and a beautifully composed cocktail.
• Employees Only: Features pulled from the New York original include charming bartenders, expertly made cocktails, and chicken soup served at last call. What to order: The Ready, Fire, Aim-it's mezcal-based.
• Crackerjack: The all-day cafe-bar-restaurant is remarkably friendly and affordable. What to order: The Ballgame is inspired by American baseball and tastes like bourbon and caramel corn, with a little beer back.
• Norma: This 10-seat bar behind Crackerjack carries a phenomenal tequila and mezcal selection. What to order: Try whatever the bartenders offer you.
• Skinny's Lounge: The charmingly dive-y bar on Boat Quay is best avoided if you have morning plans. What to order: Go for anything but the Shitty American Beer, unless that's your thing.