What is it about bars being incapable of serving their signature cocktail (or the one they were key in popularising) to an acceptable standard? Mojitos at Hemingway haunt, La Bodeguita? Old measly mint and mean rum portions. Daiquiris at Florodita ‘Cradle of the Daiquiri’, in Havana? Blended slush. Old Fashioned’s at the Pendennis Club in Louisville? Over-sweet and insipid. Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe, San Fransisco? Dull and unceremonious.
It is with this in mind I creep with trepidation, up the stairs of Raffles Hotel in Singapore to enter their colonial Long Bar. This is the throne to the classic Singapore Sling. The room certainly looks the part; all wood panelling, slowly swaying fans and the reassuring crunch of peanut shells underfoot. The joint is almost full to capacity, so I tuck myself into the bar to soak up the scene. Everybody here is slurping Singapore Slings, not least a blond child who could not be more than a day over nine, looked upon by his doting parents. The kid has clearly got a heads up from his schoolyard chums, because when my frothy pink Sling arrives, it tastes like an unholy union of Hubba Bubba, Tizer and Irn Bru.
No surprises there then. Two key lessons we can take away from that underwhelming experience: if a bar is serving over one thousand of any given cocktail a day, bartenders will get bored, management will get greedy and complacent, and the drink will suffer from vicious corner cutting. If you put enough sickly sweet powdered premix (imported from Australia in this case, strangely enough) into a drink, that drink will inevitably end up tasting like a Justin Bieber concert.
Fortunately for me – being a professional imbiber – my Bar-dar is permanently switched on and it was pointing me just a cherrystone’s throw across the road, albeit seventy floors up. Once I’d cleansed my over-saturated palette with my own body weight in peanuts at the Long Bar, I marched straight over to imposingly tall hotel Swissôtel The Stamford, a perfectly bustling five-star business hotel, run with clockwork-like Swiss efficiency.
An ear-popping lift ride later, and I was lounging in a bucket seat overlooking the Central Business District of Singapore, not to mention the Marina, Esplanade and Grand Prix racing track. My host was award-winning Richard Gilliam, English boy-done-good who has been shaping up the South-East Asian cocktail scene for the past three years. When he arrived at The Stamford and took control of City Space they were still stuck in the Eighties, serving buckets of over-sweet Sex On The Beaches and various Blue Curaçao-led concoctions. Now the menu features molecular-mixology inspired treats featuring foams, airs, hand cuts and dry ice, balanced with a healthy dose of vintage classics and juices squeezed fresh daily on location. Food is provided by the ‘Raw Bar’, carved ham and oysters chucked by the attentive and pretty barkeeps.
I wasted no time and ordered the two variants on the Singapore Sling: a Straights Sling, the father of the Singapore Sling, a dry and sophisticated version featuring kirsch and ginger ale, alongside the usual gin and Benedictine. Then the Finest Sling, Richard’s delightfully playful take on Raffles disappointing classic, featuring pureed pineapple, a berry and Pink Flamingo tea espuma, freshened up by Millers gin and cucumber. I finished off with a ‘Bubble Tea’ – not a plastic cup of the latest Asian craze: milky fruit tea with an oversized straw to suck up tapioca pearls – but a pleasing combination of tea-infused Tanqueray 10, grapefruit juice, cranberry and grenadine, served theatrically with a tea ball containing a dry ice pellet, causing the concoction to bubble away as I swiftly consumed it.
Such is the imagination and creativity that Richard has brought to the Singaporean cocktail scene that Swissôtel have got him busy working on a few other projects. He is in the process of updating the drink offering of the even-higher-up New Asia bar, a more clubby alternative to City Space with a Latin Asian theme, and his other successful brainchild is the popular champagne breakfast on steroids, ‘Pink Brunch’: think smoked salmon and rose champagne, accompanied by bespoke bellinis, Bloody Marys and even a ‘cocktail’ bar set up for the kids to play with.
By all means, visit Raffles to soak up the scene, buy a nice watch, chill out in the sexy Billiard Room and slurp on a syrupy drink, but once that gets old, head up to City Space, where a veritable proper cocktail experience awaits.
Julian de Féral is an award-winning bartender-turned international drinks consultant and occasional raconteur.