It seems a logical development in hindsight, that Singapore would emerge as the cocktail capital of Asia. The people here have high disposable incomes, travel widely, and have developed a sophisticated palate as result. If Paul Gabie and business partner Spencer Forhart were not the first to offer premium craft cocktails to augment the city’s fine dining scene, they certainly spearheaded the movement that elevated Singapore to its present status – and established Proof & Company, their alcohol distribution and bar consultancy business, as the outfit with the golden touch.
Two months ago, six of its projects – Manhattan, Atlas, and 28 Hongkong Street (28HKS) in Singapore; Charles H in Seoul; Bar Trigona in Kuala Lumpur; and The Pontiac in Hong Kong – were included in the annual Asia’s 50 Best Bars list. Manhattan at Regent Singapore was named best bar in Asia last year, while Charles H took the 14th spot – and the best bar in South Korea – this year.
Proof’s winning mix is equal parts revolutionary and, well, spirited. Take pioneering speakeasy 28HKS, which opened in 2011 and upended Singapore’s drinks scene with its New York-style mystique and creative craft cocktails. Atlas at Parkview Square, which opened in 2012 under its creative direction, has earned the reputation of being the world’s best gin bar and wows patrons with its Art Deco-inspired interior.
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“The guiding principle that the company was founded on is this cocktail renaissance that’s been happening for the last 20 years – (and) we have made it our mission to spread it,” says chief executive Gabie, 40.
Both Gabie and Forhart are former attorneys who moved to Singapore from New York to work for an investment fund in 2008. But they missed the booming drinks scene in the Big Apple and, particularly, legendary bar Milk & Honey, where Gabie, who hails from Vancouver, says he had his first “real” cocktail. “It was the summer of 2001,” he reminisces. “There was no menu and the bartenders just made you whatever you liked. I remember (my first drink there) was a shaken cocktail, possibly made with gin and a sour of some sorts.” The quality of the drink, coupled with the beautiful space and the service he received, culminated in a gestalt moment that would stick with him.
Once in Singapore, he saw, in people’s appreciation for fine food and drinks, similarities with New York’s craft cocktail scene – and seized the opportunity. After opening 28HKS in 2011, Proof proceeded to cater to the rising demand for independent and uncommon spirits labels – including the Diplomatico range of rums, and craft gin distiller Sipsmith, which has since been acquired by Beam-Suntory – that was, in part, driven by the popularity of 28HKS.
While distributing independent spirits is its core business by revenue, conceptualising spaces for clients has a “disproportionate” role in Proof’s brand and reputation – which comes as little surprise, given the shining reputations of the bars that it has worked on. Proof was one of the first to spot the return of the great hotel bar, a genre that has overtaken the glut of speakeasies in Singapore. Once a last resort for drinkers, new hotel bars – many of which have been designed by Proof, like Manhattan, Idlewild at Intercontinental Singapore and Charles H at Four Seasons Seoul – now dominate best- of lists, thanks to stellar drinks programmes.
The company operates in nine cities across Singapore, China, Australia and New Zealand. In the pipeline is a pilot project to be fully carbon-neutral.
“We’re looking at doing a full carbon audit of our operations in Australia… Moving spirits and bar equipment around the world does have an impact,” shares Gabie.
Proof is also expanding to new markets across the Asia-Pacific, some of which have burgeoning cocktail scenes of their own. Gabie shares that there’s an entire wave of speakeasies opening in Inner Mongolia right now, adding: “There’s almost unlimited interest around the region for fine drinking.”
Indeed, there’s still room for growth, even in Singapore. “Every night, there are still people having their first ‘real’ cocktail for the first time at bars like Native or 28HKS.”