Three new bars that have popped up in the last three months are drawing inspiration from the heritage of Singapore and other South-east Asian nations for their cocktail menus, where they use ingredients that showcase the flavours of these countries.
Instead of taking cues from the Western world’s bar scene, Origin Bar at the Shangri-La Singapore, The Nanyang Club at Boat Quay and Amrith by Barsmiths in Scotts Road are celebrating and rediscovering indigenous flavours.
At Origin, which opened in December last year, the menu is built around five districts in Singapore – Orchard Road, Chinatown, Little India, Boat Quay and Marina Bay. The cocktails reflect the history of each district by using ingredients that are “native” to each area.
The cocktails at two-month-old Amrith by Barsmiths are inspired by popular local dishes such as chicken rice and laksa.
Amrith’s head bartender Mark Tay, 43, who is Singaporean, says it is about acknowledging his roots.
“The drinks world already has plenty of classics but, looking to the future, we wanted local flavours to be the driving force behind all the things we do,” he tells The Sunday Times.
Meanwhile, The Nanyang Club, which opened in December, is working on a menu that will reflect the heritage of each South-east Asian country. Nanyang also means South-east Asia in Chinese. Currently, the bar’s menu draws heavily from ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine.
The bar’s owners also want to bring out the heritage of their own families as well as the location. Head bartender and co-owner Elex Ng, 32, is of Chinese-Indian parentage, while his five other business partners are a mix of Eurasian, Chinese and Peranakan Singaporeans.
They have always wanted to put together a bar concept that is local and Boat Quay is perfect, considering “most of our forefathers landed here”, Mr Ng says.
But with Singapore’s crowded and already world-class cocktail scene, it is also about standing out from the pack.
“There are too many bars out there that are doing the speakeasy thing,” says Mr Ng.
“You need to mix it up a bit and I can make something taste unique with a couple of spices and herbs from the market.”
CLASSIC LOCAL DISHES IN COCKTAIL GLASSES
AMRITH BY BARSMITHS
Where: 33 Scotts Road
Open: 5pm to midnight, Mondays to Thursdays; 5pm to 1am, Fridays and Saturdays; closed on Sundays
Info: Call 6732-1365
A glasshouse space just outside one Michelin-starred restaurant Song Of India is home to the 30-seat cocktail bar Amrith, which means nectar of immortality in Sanskrit.
An extension of the restaurant, it is run by beverage consultancy Barsmiths and led by head bartender Mark Tay, 43, and bartender Edwin Poh, 29.
Here, flavours of classic Singapore dishes such as chicken rice and the famous Katong laksa are distilled into savoury cocktails. Many of the drinks are multi-sensory experiences that combine gastronomy with mixology.
Hainanese Chicken Rice ($26) is made with a fat-washed rye that takes on the flavours of ginger, garlic, shallots and sesame oil, a ginger liqueur and calamansi juice. The drink is served with a little bowl of chilled, Hainanese steamed chicken that is sprayed with a fragrant sesame and shallot oil.
Katong Laksa ($26) is made with vodka that is cold-steeped with shrimp and a laksa broth reduction, and assembled a la minute. It comes in a little bowl, complete with noodles, a halved quail egg and a plastic spoon to eat it with.
There are also nods to family heritage.
For instance, The Peranakan ($26) is an ode to Mr Tay’s grandmother and the matriarch of the house he grew up in. Drawing on the smell of her rose-scented cologne and the sourness of tamarind that was prevalent in her dishes, Mr Tay put a spin on a gin sour by using pandan syrup, gin strained through ginger and a rose mist.
There is also The Lion City ($26), a take on Raffles Hotel bartender Ngiam Tong Boon’s original 1915 version of the Singapore Sling, which is closer in style to a toddy.
It combines housemade ingredients including cherry soda, pandan syrup, pineapple shrub and pomegranate grenadine for a punchier version of the sling. It is supposed to taste like the original Singapore Sling.
SERVING FLAVOURS OF SOUTH-EAST ASIA
THE NANYANG CLUB
Where: 55A Boat Quay
Open: 6pm to midnight, Mondays to Fridays; 8pm to midnight, Saturdays; closed on Sundays
Info: Call 8569-5805
Located on the second floor of a shophouse in bustling Boat Quay, The Nanyang Club is an amalgamation of South-east Asian cultures packaged in old-school kitsch.
This is reflected in the limited drinks menu, quirky playlist that features 1960s and 1970s music from countries such as Thailand and Cambodia, coffee-shop tables and red plastic chairs.
The bar counter is designed like what you would find at a traditional Chinese medicine hall, with rows of glass jars of dried flowers and roots sitting on the shelves at the back. Many of these ingredients are used in the cocktails.
The bestseller is the cheekily named Mamasan ($18). It is a pretty pink drink made of tequila infused with hibiscus. Head bartender Elex Ng says the slight sweetness comes from osmanthus flowers, while forget-me-not flowers add a drier finish.
He hopes to eventually have a menu with drinks that represent all the countries in South-east Asia. Currently, Singapore and Thailand are represented in the 1819 martini ($22), which is made with a gin infused with dried Rafflesia flower; and Chatuchak ($18), which is made with gin, lemongrass, chilli padi and kaffir lime leaves. Chatuchak is a famous weekend market in Bangkok.
Mr Ng is also willing to make patrons a bespoke drink. “Just tell me what flavours you crave and I’ll try to create something for you,” he says.
DRAWING INSPIRATION FROM SINGAPORE’S DISTRICTS
Where: Lobby Level, Tower Wing, Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, 22 Orange Grove Road
Open: 5pm to 1am, Sundays to Wednesdays; 5pm to 2am, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
Info: Call 6213-4595
The Shangri-La Singapore was the first outlet of the now world-famous chain of hotels and this inspired the hotel to launch Origin Bar in December last year.
The bar, with its high-ceiling and arches, is designed to look like an old train station and the bar counter resembles a ticket counter where the guest’s journey begins.
Each of the five “districts” listed in the menu is represented by three cocktails and one mocktail. Cocktails start at $22, while mocktails start at $14.
Bar manager Adam Bursik, 30, who spent three months developing the menu, says “the story, connection to the district and the flavours have to be right”.
The menu starts with Orchard Road, once home to orchards and plantations in the 1800s. One of the drinks, Origin ($22), is made with spiced pineapple, sugarcane, lime wine and gin.
The drinks under Chinatown are made from herbs and traditional Chinese medicine ingredients. The Safari Tea ($23), for instance, combines blended whisky, chrysanthemum, bamboo leaves and jackfruit marmalade.
The Little India menu features punchy flavours in the aromatic Leaf The Curry ($23), made with aged rum, curry leaf, tamarind and cardamom.
Boat Quay’s little-known Italian heritage is represented in Buona Vista ($23), which uses the Italian aperitif Campari along with coffee, fig, distilled hazelnut and chocolate.
The real showstopper, however, is The Pearl ($26), which represents Marina Bay and is served in eye-catching pearl-shaped ceramicware. Made with gin, shochu, elderflower and silken tofu, the cocktail is smooth and floral. Mr Bursik says it took him 50 to 60 tries to get the drink right.
“I knew I wanted it to be refreshing and floral, but with enough dryness,” he says. “It also had to be approachable to anyone.”
The article was originally published in The Straits Times.