A bar culture that pushes the boundaries between food, drink, art, and culture is just part of the urban-scape that has changed so much in the last three years in Singapore.“T
ell me what you eat (or drink) and I will tell you who you are.” French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 19th-century claim begins to make more sense one evening in post- pandemic Singapore. I am sipping on a cocktail dubbed ‘Magic Woman’ at the feted rooftop bar Smoke and Mirrors, known for its inventive cocktails, views of the glittering Singapore skyline, and spot on Asia’s 50 Best Bar list.The ‘magic’ in my cocktail, however, has nothing to do with the flex. Instead, it is uncanny how I have landed up choosing a drink (Campari, vermouth, cognac with a whiff of pandan leaf) that not only aligns with my tastes (bitter and complex, not sweet and fresh, in drinks) but sensibilities—“who you are…”, as Brillat-Savarin may have said.The cocktail is inspired by a work of contemporary feminist art by in-demand Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak, called Smiling Body (1997, acrylic on canvass), that directs our gaze to what it means to be a woman in Asia. I didn’t know Smiling Body had inspired the drink when I ordered it. But, later, as I read the menu dedication to the artist, I realise how I have chosen something both in sync with my taste and me. This twist on a classic Negroni is pretty magical indeed.
The cocktail is part of a new, 16-drink menu based on an art collection at the National Museum of Singapore, on whose top floor the bar sits. This art x cocktails collaboration (you can also take a two-hour tour where you first get a dekko of the art works and then climb up to the starlit bar to sip) has been garnering a lot of attention in Singapore, now not just the bar capital of Asia, but also one of the most experimental centres of gastronomy globally.In the city-state, serious gourmands are now patronising (and paying a premium for) exclusive, inventive lifestyle experiences. A bar culture that pushes the boundaries between food, drink, art, and culture is just part of the urban-scape that has changed so much in the last three years. Singapore is emerging as a favoured destination for the post-pandemic rich, attracting Chinese billionaires seeking distance from the Mainland, émigrés from Hong Kong, new sets of financiers, captains of industry, highly-paid Gen Y workers and more. Move over New York, London or Tokyo.Rooftop bar Smoke and Mirrors is known for its inventive cocktails and views of the glittering Singapore skyline.
Lifestyle in a sip
“If you want a certain lifestyle, Singapore is now a great choice to live in. There are so many experimental and vibrant places for food and drink,” quips Vir Kotak , founder and CEO propellor, a digital freights company.
Kotak has been based in Singapore for some years. One evening, knowing of my interest in wine (he is a wine collector), he invites me to the Regent’s Park 90 wine bar that offers a unique experience for wine lovers; it has a collection of more than a 1,000-curated labels of 90-points plus wines (rated according to the Robert Parker guide). As we talk about business and the business of leisure in Singapore over tastings of Blanc de Blanc (Champagne, from all white wine grapes), Arneis and the deep, powerful but often underrated Burgundy Gevrey-Chambertin, I realise that bars such as this—or 67 Pall Mall, the London-based private member’s club for wine aficionados, which opened its first Asian outpost in Singapore in February 2022—are enhancing Singapore’s status as the new powerhouse for industry and finance. After all, all work and no play does not a great metro make.Urban alienation is the theme at the newest haute spot, Nighthawk, conceived by Singapore’s most famous bar expert Peter Chua, and inspired by the ionic American, 1942 oil-on-canvas painting by Edward Hoppers of the same name.
On the cutting edge of cocktails
It is not just pricey alcohol that defines Singapore’s top-class bar culture. If elite lifestyle seekers are making a beeline for the city for its gourmet status, it is also because of ideas and inventiveness.Singapore’s and India’s cocktail cultures took off just about a decade ago, around the same time. But today, Singapore has established a reputation for high quality and experiments that often uses techniques more commonly found in labs. Then, there is a diversity of offerings and a camaraderie in its tightly-knit food-and-drink circuits that help promote it to young, global customers who are highly influenced by social media.Also read: Savour thy sip: The slow alcohol fad
It is this diversity and uniqueness of the bars here that I am peeping into along with a group of eight young Indian bartenders in Singapore for an exposure and grooming trip under drinks major Grey Goose's House of Change programme (launched during the pandemic to help bartenders).Many of the bars we visit are on Asia’s 50 Best list. Last year, Singapore, with 12 entrants was one of the most represented regions on the Asia list—incredible, because it is just a city. Indian bartenders from Delhi, Jaipur, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Goa, some who confess to having even learnt English on the job in their bars, having grown up in small towns, are absorbing some of the latest trends and techniques that are shaping this sophisticated bar culture.“There is so much to learn from Singapore… there is so much vibrancy and such different trends because no bar is copying another,” points out Joe McCanta, global brand ambassador for Grey Goose vodka, who has flown down from London as a mentor to the Indian contingent. “There is a willingness to share, a camaraderie in the community here that helps grow this culture.”For a food-and-drink enthusiast, one of the most interesting experiences can be swapping tales with insiders at local restaurants and bars. In Singapore (as in New York or London), as you hop across multiple establishments, it is quite possible to end up at the quintessential insider’s bar of the moment, peopled by bartenders from different rival bars, all drinking together, swapping tales. It is a priceless experience.Also read: Abhishek Khaitan: In the spirit of things
On the other hand, urban alienation is the theme at the newest haute spot, the 22-seater Nighthawk, conceived by Singapore’s most famous bar expert Peter Chua, and inspired by the ionic American, 1942 oil-on-canvas painting by Edward Hoppers of the same name. Nighthawks, the painting, shows four nighthawks at a cheap restaurant in Manhattan, including a desultory bartender working the soda machine.At the Singapore bar Nighthawk, you can sip on an eponymous cocktail that layers up the experience of being lonely in a big city, by juxtaposing temperatures: A cold mix of coffee infused with rum, vodka and amaro, layered with the warmth and homeliness of coconut and gula Melaka foam (local palm sugar from Malacca).“This idea of juxtaposing temperatures is something new for Indian bars. Then, there is equipment that most Singapore bars are using, like the rotovap (rotary evaporator, used in chemical labs to remove solvents) that can be used to create flavour-forward cocktails by distilling ingredients. In India, just two bars have it,” points out expert Nitin Tiwari, also mentoring the Indian bartenders.Pricey equipment such as this, as well as trends such as those of pre-batched drinks, may find their way to your own city bar, thanks to Singapore’s experiments.Then, there is the focus of Asian flavours and ingredients that is hard to miss. At the fashionable MO bar at the Mandarin Oriental (that climbed from number 45 to 8 on Asia’s Best list for bars in 2021), highly sought out in October by Formula 1 tourists because of its vantage views of the track, cocktails are concocted with modern equipment such as sonic infusers and water baths and focus on different Asian regions. Sip on the unlikely ‘Holi’—a cocktail with gin and frothy butter milk with rainbow colours on top—that is surprisingly sophisticated.At Jigger and Pony, Number 2 on Asia’s Best list, the menu reads like a lifestyle magazine while the drinks are an Asian twist on classics.
Singapore’s exploding craft cocktail culture is also luring more travel by Gen Z ever since it opened up to tourists in mid-2022, anecdotal evidence suggests. Bartenders such as the Japan-trained Anthony Zhong attract cult following across Asia. At Jigger and Pony, Number 2 on Asia’s Best list, the menu reads like a lifestyle magazine with styled shoots, guest articles and recipes, while the drinks are an Asian twist on classics. At Atlas, 1,000 bottles of gins keep you preoccupied, while Manhattan, which kick-started this era of prestige bars here, is a portal to 19th century New York’s plush hotel bars.Among Singapore’s most erudite mixologists is the Indian-origin Vijay Mudaliar, who had done a pop-up in India a few years ago and has a number of fans of among the subcontinent’s discerning. At Native, his path-breaking bar, native spirits from the Philippines, Thailand, India as well as locally foraged ingredients all go into your glass. Mudaliar’s latest bar Analogue, rated right on top of most ‘must’ lists, pushes the envelope even further and is a vegan-friendly drinking spot championing sustainability.Can India, widely acknowledged as the fastest growing market for alcohol in the world, learn from these larger Asian trends? We have 2023 to sip on and savour.