SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Foraged herbs, TCM brews and fruit infusions are coming out of the kitchen and into a cocktail bar near you.
Did you know that 100 years ago, many of the spirits and liqueurs we see behind a bar display now were used for their medicinal value? Keeping with that spirit, the recently re-launched The Library has incorporated Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) into five of its cocktails.
The bar entered into a collaboration last month with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) institution Eu Yan Sang. The latter has a pop-up shop within The Library designed to look like a traditional Chinese medicine shop, but with modern features such as a drinking personality quiz and a periodic chart-inspired medical chest showcasing 49 types of herbs.
But not all those herbs made it into the cocktails. Adam Bursik, its general manager and bartender, laughs: "We really don't know enough about these, and it can be quite a long process to figure out how best to blend the flavours together. Some herbs can be infused over three hours while others take a few days. Some end up being too bitter and others, too bland."
The collaboration with Eu Yan Sang extends to sessions with TCM experts to help the mixologists figure out the best way to use each herb.
Where to go
47-49 Keong Saik Road
T: 6221 8338
52A Amoy Street
T: 8139 6433
Alchemist Beer Lab
South Beach Avenue, 26 Beach Road #B1-16
T: 6386 4365
The most popular cocktail is one he was originally concerned about. The Rice and Shine (S$24) incorporates gin, ginseng, ginger-rice shrub, bay leaf, chrysanthemum, and lime. "It's such an earthy flavour," says Mr Bursik. "We can't use too much of the ginseng lest it overpowers the other flavours, but it still turned out to be the most popular of the five TCM cocktails."
You don't think about putting your life on the line at work as a bartender, but Vijay Mudaliar has courted death more than once. The 27-year-old had developed a keen interest in foraging, but when he first started, "I wasn't quite sure what I was doing," he says. "My perspective was that I should chew on what looked edible to see if it really was, but ended up with breathing difficulties or feeling faint a few times."
The founder of two-week-old cocktail bar Native has learned his lesson. "Now, when
I chew on a plant, I spit it out immediately so my body doesn't digest it," he laughs. "Then
I wait a couple of days to make sure there's no adverse reaction. There are indications though - when you see ants around the plant, or bees pollinating it, it's a good bet they're safe."
The Singaporean was first drawn to foraging after reading about top restaurants like Noma doing it. But he was initially discouraged by chef friends "who said there wasn't anything much to forage here."
But he persevered, and now his favourite spots are Labrador Park, Pulau Ubin and "Tanjong Pagar, because the whole area used to be a plantation".
The drinks menu at Native is limited until its official launch in February, but currently features seven cocktails, ranging in price from S$19 to S$23.
Don't expect the old classics though. Mr Mudaliar, whose past experience includes experimental cocktail bar Operation Dagger, says: "When I started, it was all about Western cocktails and I'd be serving drinks like the French Quarter, which I'd never been to. I wanted to create drinks that would fit in with my own childhood experience. We have the Mango Lassi (S$22), for example, which I've grown up drinking. It has Indian rum, yoghurt whey, mango, key lime, turmeric, pistachio, pomegranate molasses and beet jelly. The flavours are much closer to home."
Alchemist Beer Lab
So you're not the biggest fan of beer, and would rather linger over a glass of red or even a fruity cocktail than be dragged to a brewery. Just make sure you're taken to Alchemist Beer Lab (ABL). Conceived by the same team behind Little Island Brewing Co., ABL touts itself as Asia's first and only infusion bar lab.
Head bartender Barnaby Murdoch, explains: "The possibilities are immense - we can infuse any type of ingredient from fruits and nuts to coffee and chocolate into our draft beer to create fresh and unique taste profiles."
Launched in September 2016, the beer lab offers 16 beer infusion towers with flavours such as marshmallow, vanilla and mint leaves, grilled pineapple and anise, and rosemary, all priced at S$12 before 7pm and S$15 after.
Ingredients used are based on what's fresh and in season, says ABL's managing director Francis Khoo.
He says: "Finding fresh ingredients and products that are in season is important to us. We don't want to use processed, oily or old ingredients because that affects the quality and taste of our beer."
Traditionally, the process of brewing beer entails heating hops and malted barley to a high temperature to extract the sugars from the barley and oils and flavours from the hops. But the extreme heat can cause some flavours to be lost. The infusion towers are the solution, according to ABL. Ingredients are placed into the fusion chamber, which is filled with compressed gas before the beer is injected into the tower, which helps to maximize flavour extraction.
The process of figuring out which flavours work well together can sometimes be a long process. Mr Khoo says: "We test out recipes in small batches in a soda charger to gauge whether the fused ingredients are complementary, if the proportions are correct, and then estimate if it'll sell well."
ABL seems to have landed on a winning concept, as it is in preliminary talks to expand its concept into Japan, Hong Kong and China.