Singapore's mixology standards are rising and gaining global attention

Louis Tan. -- PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Louis Tan. -- PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Kino Soh. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Kino Soh. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Naz Arjuna. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Naz Arjuna. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Fancy tipple made with ginseng or mushroom? -- PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Fancy tipple made with ginseng or mushroom? -- PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Consumers these days are keen to try new things, says barman Ethan Leslie Leong, with his creation Liang Teh. -- PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Consumers these days are keen to try new things, says barman Ethan Leslie Leong, with his creation Liang Teh. -- PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
The vibrant bar scene here boasts barmen from around the world, including (from left) Singaporean Peter Chua, Taiwanese Kae Yin and Czech Kamil Foltan. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
The vibrant bar scene here boasts barmen from around the world, including (from left) Singaporean Peter Chua, Taiwanese Kae Yin and Czech Kamil Foltan. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Singapore's mixology standards are rising and gaining global attention

The Singapore Sling is no longer the only thing that the Republic is known for in the global bartending arena. The island is shaping up to be the new cocktail capital of South-east Asia, with a vibrant bar scene that can easily rival those of London and New York.

Local barmen such as Peter Chua of 28 Hong Kong Street are flying the flag high for Singapore, having emerged as one of the world's top six bartenders at the Diageo Reserve World Class global finals earlier this month in Edinburgh and London.

It was the best result yet for a Singaporean in the prestigious annual international bartending competition.

Chua, 26, tells SundayLife!: "The competition gave exposure not just to myself but also to the country. I was surprised to meet bartenders and people in the industry who said to me, 'Hey, I hear there are good bars in Singapore'."

The bar he works for also took the title of Best International Cocktail Bar in New Orleans last month at the annual Tales Of The Cocktail Spirited Awards, considered the Oscars of the global cocktail scene.

Mr Colin Chia, 35, Diageo Reserve's regional commercial manager for South-east Asia, says: "Five years ago, many would've said Japan was the cocktail capital of Asia and they wouldn't be wrong because of its traditions, high level of technique and outstanding service etiquette.

"However, Singapore now offers a diverse collection of bars, making it more interesting for consumers and a melting pot for innovation."

Chua says: "In the past two years, the scene has blossomed. You can find every kind of bar here - the speakeasy, the local bar, the European kind, the American kind, whisky bars - we have them all."

Indeed, Singapore has come a long way since the first bespoke cocktail bar - the now-defunct Klee at Portsdown Road - opened in 2008. The bar, of which nightlife operator Timbre Group was the majority shareholder, was a speciality cocktail bar that offered no menu. Drinks were tailored to the customer's fancy, using only premium spirits and fresh fruit.

Its arrival was a breath of fresh air in a scene dominated by nightclubs and pubs, which offered mainly basic housepours using common spirits.

Klee closed in late 2010 when the Timbre Group decided to focus on its live music venues, which include Timbre@The Substation and Timbre@The Arts House.

There are now more than 20 bespoke cocktail bars here, where bartenders shake, muddle and mix up ingredients to create a drink to suit your fancy. Fresh herbs, fruits and homemade syrups are used, and artisanal spirits are the choice du jour.

Even hotels are jumping on the bandwagon, with Regent Singapore and Four Seasons Hotel Singapore among those spending at least $1 million each to revamp their bars. This includes roping in renowned foreign bartenders, such as from Spain and the United States, to consult on their bar offerings.

No surprise then that the global bartending community has taken notice of what is brewing here.

More bartenders from places such as Taiwan, the US and the Czech Republic are moving here for work, or choosing Singapore as a stopover for a guest stint.

With the job of a bartender fast gaining a level of prestige and sophistication on a par with celebrity chefs, more Singaporeans are game to learn the craft.

SundayLife! finds out how Singapore's bar scene became world class in just five years.

melk@sph.com.sg


INCREASING GLOBAL CLOUT

When Taiwanese bartender Kae Yin did a guest bartending stint at cocktail bar Jigger & Pony in Amoy Street about two years ago, he enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to return to work here full-time.

The 28-year-old had been working at famed whisky and jazz bar Marsalis Home in Taipei before taking up a position at Nutmeg & Clove in Ann Siang Road in June.

"Singaporeans are excited to try new things and the range of spirits here is very wide compared to that in Taiwan," he says about his decision to move here.

At Nutmeg & Clove, he creates drinks that use Asian-inspired ingredients such as ginseng spirit, spiced barley water and red jujube shrub.

Like him, many bartenders from countries such as France, the United States and the Czech Republic are drawn to working or doing guest bartending stints here. They bring with them different styles and techniques that people in the local scene can learn from, say bar owners.

Czech bartender Kamil Foltan came here from London in June last year during a three-month break, where he backpacked around Asia.

He ended up working at The Black Swan restaurant-bar in Cecil Street. Two months ago, he took up the position of head bartender at upscale restaurant-bar Tippling Club in Tanjong Pagar Road.

A seasoned barman, the 29-year-old was formerly head barman at Zetter Townhouse in London, which earned accolades including World's Best New Cocktail Bar in the prestigious Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards 2012.

He says there is a difference in mentality and culture here, such as in the type of cocktails people like and their openness to trying new things.

"But there are a lot of interesting products available here, such as Korean raspberry wine, and I try to explore how to use them."

Japanese bartender Aki Eguchi, 33, head bartender at Jigger & Pony in Amoy Street, who moved here in 2007 from Yokohama to chalk up overseas bartending experience, says the arrival of the annual Diageo Reserve World Class bartending competition in 2009 helped raise the profile of Singapore's bar scene and spark international interest.

Besides organising the international competition, alcohol giant Diageo also flies in renowned bartenders and alcohol brand ambassadors to host seminars and workshops or do guest bartending stints in bars here.

These have included British bartenders Angus Winchester, Tanqueray 10 Gin's global ambassador; Gaz Regan of award-winning cocktail bar The Dead Rabbit in New York City; and American bartender Jeff Bell of Please Don't Tell New York.

The recent Diageo Reserve World Class South East Asia Bar Show, held in May, saw 25 seminars held here, some of which were conducted by industry heavyweights such as Bob Nolet, master distiller of Ketel One Vodka, and Hidetsugu Ueno, head bartender of Bar High Five Tokyo.

These events raise awareness of the growing bar scene in Singapore, says Eguchi.

He adds: "I know of bartenders from Italy and the United States who want to work here. It's definitely one of the best cocktail destinations in Asia."


MORE NEW JOINTS

In just five years, more than 20 speciality cocktail bars have popped up islandwide.

The number excludes the numerous restaurant-bars such as The Black Swan in Cecil Street, Spanish restaurant Catalunya in Collyer Quay and Waku Ghin and CUT in Marina Bay Sands, which also offer speciality cocktails by bartenders trained in the art of mixology.

Bartenders and bar operators contacted by SundayLife! say the trend took off when Klee, Singapore's first stand-alone bespoke cocktail bar, opened in 2008 in Portsdown Road.

In the two to three years that followed, several cocktail bars offering tipple concocted with fresh fruits and premium spirits opened: Bar Stories in Haji Lane, Orgo at the Esplanade, Nektar in Scotts Road and Drink Culture in Kreta Ayer Road.

By the time American-inspired speakeasy joint 28 Hong Kong Street opened in 2011, the bar scene had taken off, with at least one new cocktail bar opening every few months.

Among them are Maison Ikkoku in Kandahar Street, The Cufflink Club in Jiak Chuan Road, The Horse's Mouth in Forum The Shopping Mall, Bitters & Love in North Canal Road and Jekyll & Hyde in Tras Street.

Some hotels, such as Fairmont Singapore, Regent Singapore and Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, have relaunched their bars with a heavy focus on craft mixology.

For example, Regent Singapore is now home to the world's first in-hotel rickhouse, a space where head bartender Ricky Paiva ages spirits in American oak barrels.

More new joints are gunning for a share of the pie. Last month, Asian-inspired cocktail bar Nutmeg & Clove opened in Ann Siang Road.

Next month, former Bar Stories bartender Kino Soh, 27, along with three partners, will set up a new pop-up bar at the Red Dot Musuem named Hopscotch.

Ethan Leslie Leong, 38, head of bar operations and resident mixologist of Maison Ikkoku, says the trend has been fuelled by two factors.

"Operators take it as a business opportunity to offer something different from the local bar down the road. More consumers are also educated about cocktail culture now and everyone is eager to try new things," he says.

Mr Howard Lo, 38, who owns six-month-old cocktail bar The Secret Mermaid in Collyer Quay, says Singapore has what it takes to dominate the regional bar scene.

"The variety of spirits available, the talent of the bartenders, the access to a host of ingredients for garnishing and mixing, as well as a population that seeks out experiences that cocktail bars provide - they all combine to make Singapore the cocktail capital of Asia," he says.


DEMAND FOR ARTISANAL SPIRITS

Five years ago, one would have been hard pressed to find a cocktail bar that stocked more than a handful of gin, vodka or whisky brands.

Now, however, it is easy to find watering holes that carry more than, say, 30 varieties of gin alone. Some, such as Regent Singapore hotel's Manhattan bar, boast more than 300 types of spirits, the bulk of which are small-batch production labels.

At least three new alcohol distribution companies specialising in craft spirits have sprung up in the past two years, making previously hard-to-find spirits more easily available now.

Leading the charge is Proof & Company, which started importing artisanal spirits, such as Death's Door Gin from the United States and G'Vine Gin from France, in 2012.

Artisanal spirits, produced in limited batches by boutique distilleries, are usually pricier than mainstream brands. For instance, a 700ml bottle of artisanal gin can cost $100, compared to $60 to $70 for a common label.

Mr Spencer Forhart, Proof & Company's portfolio director, says the company represents about 40 independent brands from all over the world. They constitute 300 bottlings across all spirits categories.

"Great bartenders require a wider range of options, a bit like painters who need a broad spectrum of colours to paint with," he says.

"In 2008, artisanal spirits were few and far between in Singapore. Now they are becoming well-established, with a number of artisanally focused distributors coming up to complement the more traditional ones."

Even established home-grown distributors such as La Maison Du Whisky, which supplies to 200 bars, restaurants and retail outlets, have been bringing in more artisanal spirits in the past few years. These include Germany's Monkey 47 gin and English brand Williams Chase Gin.

Last year, the owners of cocktail bar Bitters & Love set up their own liquor distribution company called BYOB, which brings in a handful of artisanal brands, including Geranium London dry gin and Trapper's Hut Tasmanian whisky.

Wine distributor Mike Back of Equatorial Wines, noting the demand for craft spirits, has also started to expand his import business to include high quality artisanal spirits. He started with Australia's Four Pillars Gin, which was launched here on Tuesday.

Mr Back, 35, says: "The bar scene has definitely progressed since I came here in 2010. There are young bartenders who are good at their job and are always looking for something new to use in cocktails."

Liberty Spirits Asia, which was started last year by restaurateur and bar owner Howard Lo and his American business partner Tyler Hendrie, 36, now distributes 52 types of American craft spirits - including rum, vodka, gin and whisky - to more than 20 bars here.

Mr Lo, 38, who brings in spirits such as Greylock Gin by Berkshire Mountain Distillers from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and Kings County Bourbon from Brooklyn, New York, says: "There has been a huge interest in whisky and craft cocktails in Singapore. This is prompting people to think harder about what's going into their drink, especially the base spirit, so there's demand for spirits that aren't in the mainstream."


SURGING INTEREST

The thriving cocktail bar scene here has not only spawned a legion of discerning bargoers, but it has also made the job of a bartender more desirable, with those in the field earning the same level of respect as celebrity chefs.

Industry experts tell SundayLife! they are seeing more Singaporeans who are keen to learn the art of bartending. Bartenders earn between $1,600 and $2,500 a month on average, and the more experienced ones can command several thousand dollars more each month.

Mr Michael Cheng, 52, president of the Association of Bartenders & Sommeliers Singapore, notes that membership has grown by 10 to 20 per cent in the past few years. It has about 200 members, who can attend training courses and workshops for free. They can join the group as long as they are employed as a bartender.

Mr Cheng says: "The bartenders we see now are more creative and willing to try new things compared to those five years ago. With more trendy bars and mixology being the in thing now, customers, too, are more adventurous."

He notes that barmen such as Din Hassan, formerly of bars Klee and The White Rabbit Restaurant, and Ethan Leslie Leong of Maison Ikkoku, are role models for aspiring bartenders.

He says: "These guys are quite famous in the region, a lot of bartenders want to follow in their footsteps."

He adds that more bartenders in their 20s are taking part in bartending contests, noting that the association's annual national cocktail competition last year drew 70 competitors, up from about 40 two years ago.

Ms Margaret Heng, 53, Shatec's chief executive, notes that the hospitality school's bartending courses have expanded beyond basic cocktail-mixing techniques "to cater to more sophisticated consumers and changing trends" .

She explains: "Our programmes provide students with more than just essential knowledge. They also include giving students a key understanding of good harmonising flavours and creating interesting contrasts as well as textures using various ingredients."

She says the school's enrolment for bartending courses has increased by 10 per cent over the past three years, with an average of 200 students each year. The number of male and female students is usually evenly split.

Naz Arjuna, 31, a bartender at Bitters & Love, says: "There're more educated people in this line of work, such as university graduates who are seeing bartending as a career option."


ON A CREATIVE STREAK

Barflies can sip on innovative cocktails created by world-renowned bartenders, such as martinis by Spain's Javier de las Muelas or champagne cocktails by New York's Eben Freeman, right here in Singapore. They are in town every few months as consultants for bars here, coming up with new signature cocktails and training local staff.

But home-grown bartenders are pulling their weight in the creativity department too, working regional herbs, spices and fruit into their concoctions.

At Maison Ikkoku in Kandahar Street, patrons can try the "stress-relieving" Liang Teh ($24) by head bartender Ethan Leslie Leong. It is a blend of white spirits with chrysanthemum, luo han guo (Buddha fruit), xia gu chao (prunella plant), red dates and ginseng.

At Jekyll & Hyde in Tras Street, head bartender Jeff Ho's Mr. Bean cocktail ($23), which mixes the tau huay dessert with vodka, hazelnut frangelico and butterscotch liqueur, is a hit, with 120 to 150 orders every week. Over at Mars Bar by Mixes From Mars in Duxton Road, barman Louis Tan's cocktails are inspired by local food such as chilli crab and Milo dinosaur.

These days, it is not unusual to see cocktail bars here infusing whisky with shitake mushrooms, or tequila with ginseng to create more Asian-centric tipples.

For some bartenders, their skill in crafting bespoke drinks has garnered them a loyal following. Regular customers show up with their own ingredients, such as spices and seasonal fruits bought on their travels, and ask for them to be whipped into a customised cocktail.

Leong notes that bartenders overseas are keen to see what Singaporean barmen can do, picking up skills and ideas. The 38-year-old, who has done bartending stints in New York, Phnom Penh, Shanghai and Tokyo, says: "The Singapore style is good enough to be recognised worldwide and, with more international bartenders doing guest bartending shifts here, we can have a cultural exchange in the way we make our cocktails."


RISING STARS

Naz Arjuna, 31

Bartender Naz Arjuna has come a long way since serving B-52 shots and Long Island Tea cocktails at a sports bar in Clarke Quay a decade ago.

The 31-year-old is currently the head bartender at bespoke cocktail bar Bitters & Love in North Canal Road, serving innovative cocktails that incorporate fresh fruit, homemade syrups and infused spirits done in-house.

He says he had "no real formal training" in bartending and picked up most of his skills when he joined restaurant-bar The White Rabbit in Harding Road as a bartender five years ago.

"There, we had the freedom to be creative with cocktails. That really sparked my love for cocktails," he says.

He joined Bitters & Love in June last year and says he learnt a lot from veteran bartender Din Hassan, who headed the bar for about a year before leaving at the end of February.

Naz, who holds a diploma in IT and programming from Informatics Academy, acknowledges that there was pressure to deliver after taking over from Din initially, but he is a lot more confident now.

He says: "They were huge shoes to fill. The problem was to keep the theme of unique cocktails going, which is not easy to execute, but the team at the bar gave me confidence to do it."

These days, he pushes creative boundaries in mixology, whipping up drinks such as Smoked Banana Pancakes cocktail, a bourbon-based drink infused with apple and cinnamon tea, smoked in a jar with hay; or dessert cocktails that use toasted marshmallows.

Like other bartenders, he also gets the odd request now and then, such as to create cocktails that symbolise love or to make one feel young again. "I served that drink to make one feel young again in a baby's milk bottle, by the way. The customer gave me a high five," he recalls with a laugh. The drink was a rum-based cocktail that used chocolate and peanut butter.

The bachelor adds: "I love the moment when a customer tastes a drink and is surprised at how much creativity goes into it. At the end of the day, I like to show off lah. I like a challenge."

Kino Soh, 27

If you had asked bartender Kino Soh what the difference between Scotch and bourbon was a few years ago, she probably would have given you a blank look.

Now, she can not only answer the question, but also whip up a cocktail that brings out the flavour of either spirit.

For the record, Scotch is a whisky usually made from malted barley and can be labelled as Scotch only if it is made in Scotland, while bourbon is whisky made from a grain mixture which comprises corn, and can be named bourbon only if it is made in the United States.

Soh has also managed to fulfil strange requests from customers, including making a cocktail that reminded a patron of his father who had just died (a whisky-based cocktail served in a mug similar to what her own father used to drink out of).

The spunky 27-year-old is one of the few female bartenders in Singapore's cocktail scene and has been a familiar face at Bar Stories in Haji Lane.

She got her start in bartending by working part-time in various pubs and restaurants in her teens, but her interest in mixology was piqued only when she tasted her first fresh fruit cocktail at the former Klee cocktail bar in Portsdown Road about four years ago.

Soh, who also holds a diploma in marketing from Kaplan Singapore, says: "I thought, where can I learn how to make this? Klee was the first place to do really nice cocktails using fresh fruit."

So in 2010, she joined restaurant-bar The Disgruntled Chef in Dempsey, a place that also happened to offer fresh fruit cocktails. "I learnt a lot there, such as different culinary techniques that I could use in the creation of cocktails," she says.

After a year, she joined Bar Stories, where she learnt to experiment with different flavour profiles under the guidance of local bartender Jeff Ho, who now heads the bar Jekyll & Hyde in Tras Street.

She left Bar Stories earlier this month to work on a new project, Hopscotch, a pop-up cocktail bar set to open next month at the Red Dot Museum.

Soh, who prides herself on using fresh fruit and local ingredients that reflect Singapore culture in her tipples, says Hopscotch will offer a dose of nostalgia that will remind Singaporean customers of their childhood days.

Her drinks will feature sweets popular with children here in the 1980s, such as multi-coloured mini cup jellies sold at neighbourhood mini-marts, and kueh bangkit.

A modern take on the classic Singapore Sling is also something she wants to work on.

Soh, who is single, says: "We're not pioneers of cocktails like New Orleans but if we do it long enough, we can have our own style and identity too."

Louis Tan, 25

When Singaporean bartender Louis Tan tasted a Bloody Mary cocktail for the first time a few years ago, he found the vodka and tomato juice concoction "totally disgusting".

The 25-year-old bartender at L'Aiglon bar in Neil Road recalls: "It was canned tomato juice and vodka. I thought, 'Who comes up with this stuff?' And it didn't have the best publicity as a drink - it's like a brunch drink or to cure hangovers."

So he decided to create his own take on the classic cocktail, to "make it fresh, instead of using preserved ingredients".

Today, he is known in the bar scene for making one of the best Bloody Marys in town. It was one of the most popular cocktails at The Horse's Mouth, the bar where he worked between 2012 and last year.

"It was just a project I did for fun. To be famous for a drink I don't even like is ironic," he says with a laugh.

He left the bar at the end of last year to head L'Aiglon and now serves a version of the cocktail, called Screaming Tomatoes, there.

Tan, who says he was exposed to bartending when he started working part-time in a salsa nightclub at age 16 for extra money, uses French tomatoes grown in a greenhouse for the cocktail and ghost peppers instead of Tabasco sauce to give the drink a little heat.

"I spent time sourcing for high-quality ingredients. I went through 20 recipe changes to transform the drink," says the self-professed perfectionist.

Like many local bartenders, he cut his teeth working at nightclubs and bars part-time. He moonlighted while studying for a diploma in logistics and supply chain management at Republic Polytechnic. He eventually dropped out of school and decided to work full-time as a barman.

He counts veteran barmen here such as Raveen Misra, 35, former executive bar chef at cocktail bar Nektar in Scotts Road and a regional brand ambassador of alcohol giant Diageo; and Shawn Kishore, 28, who owns food and beverage consultancy firm Bespoken Concepts, as mentors "who taught me everything; the foundation of bartending... that there were avenues for craft cocktail bartending".

The bachelor says of his career choice: "I actually wanted to be a chef, so I joined as a cook in a kitchen. But I realised it's so hot and people are shouting at you all the time.

"As a bartender, you work in air-conditioning and bosses can't shout at you in front of customers. So I thought, 'That's a good plan', and I've never looked back."