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Cocktail bars in Singapore: What to drink at the city’s best speakeasies, lounges and watering holes

Cocktail bars in Singapore: What to drink at the city’s best speakeasies, lounges and watering holes

Quench your thirst

Text: Crystal Lee


Image: Queens

It's safe to say that our city's bar scene is poppin' — and when that happens, one can get clouded with the overwhelming list of options. We're here to make things a little easier; drink wise, and its respective calorie count. These three tipples are on our list this week.

Willdabeast, Queens

Delusional or not, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one interested in drinking my vegetables — in a cocktail glass. If you're with me on this, you'll be happy to know that you can supplement your daily veggie serving at Queens, Zouk's speakeasy. Named after renowned hip-hop dance choreographer William "Willdabeast" Adams (the hidden drinking den pays homage to the OG of hip-hop), this antioxidant-rich (not a joke) tipple builds upon the classic Southside recipe (gin, lime juice, simple syrup, mint) with green pea-infused vodka, slow-juiced celery, lemon and sugar. The flavour is fresh AF, a little tangy, and has a hint of grassiness. Even better? It's garnished with a raw celery stick. Now, to get to the drink, you'll have to tell the bouncer at the door you want in for access, if you're not already a Queens member. Psst: watch this space for an upcoming review of the secret bar.

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Perry Cobbler, Raffles Courtyard

The cobbler is a pre-Prohibition oldie, said to have originated in the 1820s or early 1830s. The classic — consisting of sherry, sugar, lots of ice and some fruits — is believed to be the first-ever cocktail to be shaken. More than that, it was also responsible for bringing the drinking straw to common use (it would've been too cold to drink it straight from the glass). In the days before air-conditioning, people sipped this low-ABV tipple to cool down. So it makes perfect sense that Raffles Courtyard, Raffles Hotel's gorgeously revamped alfresco bar, has an ice-cold cobbler on the menu. Here, it's mixed with pear, Sloe gin, Olorso sherry, and fruits of the season to keep things interesting. Go ahead, guzzle this in the day or on a school night. Just be careful not to go overboard.

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Mezcal Old Fashioned, Papi's Tacos

It's Friday night and you're hungry for some mean tacos. Should you order the paloma, the mojito, or the margarita to go with? Neither, because it's Friday night and you deserve a strong-jawed, spirit-forward option to close a long work week. So give the Mezcal Old Fashioned a go. In place of whiskey and sugar, the folks at Papi's Tacos make theirs with mezcal and agave nectar. What results is a bonafide riff on the classic that shows off the smooth union of smoky and sweet. Friday nights should taste like this.

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What you may have missed:

Makan at Midnight, Bitters & Love

Not all cocktails these days contain bitters. Well, that wasn't always the case. The word "cocktail" — first coined in 1806 by The Balance and Columbian Repository, a publication in Hudson, New York — was defined as "a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water and bitters." Cocktail cognoscenti will recognise this as the base formula for Old Fashioned and Sazarac, but the folks at Bitters & Love has gone a step further to devote their entire drinks menu to the salt and pepper of the bartending world. More than that, they've launched a line of homemade bitters inspired by local flavours — think Bak Kut Teh, Satay Peanut, and Rojak Ginger Flowers. If you're intrigued by the BKT creation, order the Makan at Midnight. It's a savage combination of basil-infused gin, chilli-infused Aperol, lime, sugar, saline solution, and of course, dashes of BKT bitters. There's nothing sweet about this tipple as you can fathom (the sugar balances out the bitterness), and it's likely that you would only drink one, maybe two of these at a time. That said, our taste buds could always do with a shake-up from time to time, and this fiery, salty, slightly tangy, and all-out herbaceous glass of boozy BKT does a pretty swell job at that.

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Donna Summer, Nineteen8o

Call me basic, but I'm stupidly drawn to strawberry-anything. Smoothies, juices, cocktails, desserts — if it's got strawberries (the real stuff, not nasty flavourings or syrups), it's got my attention. Got heart-shaped eyes for these heart-shaped gems too? Nineteen80's Donna Summer will make you smile, perhaps like a kid in a candy store. It's not very fascinating, sure. But it's rum and juice and very fun. Also, it's not a sugar bomb as you may expect it to be — lime juice, strawberry puree, and sumac powder makes it more tangy and refreshing than cloyingly sweet.

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The Little Red Dot, Jigger & Pony

Singapore Sling will probably never be usurped of its title as Singapore's national drink considering its antiquity — though I can think of a whole slew of great  "local-inspired" cocktails that make worthy contenders to the throne. One of them is Aki Eguchi's The Little Red Dot, which he created for the global finals after winning the Singapore leg of the Diageo World Class Competition back in 2012. Like the OG, this crimson-hued, gin-based tipple is a tropical, fruit-packed delight with lychee liqueur, raspberry, and grapefruit. What gives it a little bit more edge than the Sling: the addition of rose water for a hint of floral elegance.

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Singa, Manhattan

In the world of serious cocktailing, vodka is often considered something of a bastard child. It's not as debonair as whiskey, certainly not as hip as gin, nor is it quite as fun and sexy as rum and tequila. But that may change in the foreseeable future with The Belvedere Collective, an exclusive panel of world-class bartenders chosen by Belvedere to get people talking about rye vodka. If you find yourself getting bored of all the talk around the spirits listed above and are curious about vodka's ability to impart distinctive flavour and dimension, go to Manhattan and ask Gabriel Martin Carlos to make you a Singa. The boozy-aromatic tipple, which consists of Lake Bartężek vodka from Belvedere's terroir-driven Single Estate Rye Series, Italian bitter Fernet Hunter and aperitif Cocchi Rosa, is anything but sweet. Brace yourself for a heady herbaceous concoction with slight hints of floral and citrus notes that goes down smooth and finishes long.

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Gold & Rojak, Potato Head Singapore

Who says you need rum to make a tiki drink? Certainly it wasn't Adam Mohamed. Potato Head's bar manager's tribute to the rojak uncle of his childhood is a riotous whiskey-based concoction full of tropical flavours — with pineapple juice, maraschino and grapefruit bitters in the mix — but tastes lighter than your typical juice-heavy tiki classic. In other words, it's refreshing, and thanks to Johnnie Walker Gold Label and chilli padi syrup, there's that slight smoky burn and fiery kick to buck you up a little in this chilly, wet season.

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Art & Influence, Atlas Bar

Some F&B establishments reek of the Gatsby remake. None nails that no-expense-spared, slick twenties glamour like Atlas: soaring muralled ceilings, lots of brass, leather and velvet. It's not all theatre - the drinks are a serious throwback to the Art Deco era. Titled Interbellum, in reference to the period between the two World Wars, the mind-boggling, 25-page cocktail menu is divided into five chapters, each featuring libations inspired by a significant moment during the interwar years. With a drinks list this extensive, there's something for every mood, but if you're feeling cautious on a school night for some reason, I suggest going for or starting the night with the Art & Influence. It's a luscious, low-ABV milk punch made with white rum, ruby port, and coconut milk, then accented with tea, honey and lemon to give the drink a tangy kick. You may not realise you've hit the bottom of the glass. How did we get there? Can we have another?

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Quiet Inlet, Live Twice

This is, without a doubt, one of my favourite drinks of the year — mainly because I love umeshu. But here's the thing: there's no umeshu in it. What it does have — which serves as the base of the tipple — is something called Kayuki, a spirit that is made by distilling, well, umeshu. This little-known Japanese liquor is three times stronger than an umeshu with 45 percent ABV, and, perhaps most importantly, dramatically less sugary, which means it won't (and doesn't) overpower other ingredients in the cocktail. Yes, you'll smell and taste ume right from the get-go, but you'll also soon notice the familiar tartness of granny smith apples along with it, followed by an almost imperceptible hint of spice at the finish thanks to the infusion of Jamaican rum by Long Pond. While it sounds like it has the makings of a fun, fruity rum tipple, the Quiet Inlet, as the name would suggest, is far more delicate in its flavours and sweetness, but with more than enough bite to get you through like a solid martini. If you're craving simplicity in a world full of complex concoctions, this one will steal your heart. Psst: read our full review of this new bar by the Jigger & Pony Group.

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Death in the Afternoon, The Old Man Singapore

The original instructions for Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon (the cocktail, not this non-fiction book of the same name) reads like this: "Pour one jigger absinthe into a champagne glass. Add iced champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly." Now, for the sake of your liver, I don't recommend you following this recipe, but you most certainly should embark on The Old Man's interpretation instead. It honours Hemingway's creation with absinthe and sparkling wine (in healthier doses, obviously), while giving it a delicious local twist with coco-pandan yoghurt and nutmeg. Got a bit of a sweet tooth but want something suitably potent? This green-tinted, ondeh ondeh-tasting frothy concoction so effectively lubricates the black Jelly Bean taste of absinthe that it goes down the hatch with no resistance whatsoever.

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E-701, Operation Dagger

Operation Dagger — the underground modern-day cocktail apothecary known for its wildly imaginative and sometimes bizarre tipples — has a new mad scientist at its helm (name: Thomas Girard), and he brings with him a pocketful of crazy-innovative recipes for the bar's refreshed drinks list. All of Girard's wonderfully intriguing additions (there are six of them) are worthy of a taste, but if, for some reason, you can only have one drink, make it the E-701. Don't be fooled by its pretty hue and the ingredients written on the menu (beetroot, cacao, mandarin and cheese cheese); this drink is punishingly complex with what seems like a hundred steps in its production process that includes fat-washing, fermentation, clarification, and more. To protect our fragile sanity, details about how the drink is being made won't be recounted here. But I'll break this down for you: it looks just like a glass of sparkling ribena, yet somehow manages to taste — get this — a fizzy, mildly-chocolate-flavoured drink, in a good way. It's novel, for sure, but it's also delightfully drinkable in its balance of sweetness and acidity.

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Roses & Lychees, Nutmeg & Clove

Could we be reaching peak gin? As mother's ruin grows in popularity, brands and distilleries from all over the world are crafting versions of this versatile, centuries-old spirit with different flavours and ageing methods. Over at Hendrick's, the brains behind the gin have been experimenting with some unique ingredients for a new bottle, and the result is a curious, progressive potion called Hendrick's Orbium. Marketed as "a reimagination of what Hendrick's might taste like in a darker parallel universe," Orbium retains the same distillates of cucumber and rose, but with the addition of quinine (often found in tonic water), wormwood (found in vermouth), and blue lotus blossom to balance the overall flavour.

Unlike the ubiquitous Hendrick's Gin, Orbium is only — for now, at least — reserved for professional use, and you can find a slew of interesting concoctions made with this mysterious spirit at our local bars, including an iteration of the bandung at Nutmeg & Clove. Named Roses & Lychees, this Orbium-based drink — part of the bar's new menu that celebrates Singapore culture — is layered with lychee-and-rose-infused clarified milk, and garnished with a lychee-rose chip that's made with the leftover curd from the milk-clarifying process. While it looks nothing like our childhood drink, the clear tipple does have the familiar taste profile of bandung, albeit much sexier with floral notes, a bitter end, and a long finish.

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Wisdom Cup, from Gibson

There are cocktails you can guzzle everyday, like a negroni, a G&T, a margarita, and a martini. The Wisdom Cup is not that drink. But if you're in need of a sweet, postprandial fix, this lip-smacking liquid dessert is a real winner. Crème de menthe and Fernet Branca Menta give it a bold jolt of minty-freshness, while the Balinese cacao butter and pandan coated inside of the cup provides an aromatic sweetness to each sip. It's almost like having an After-Eight without the nuttiness of chocolate, but with a creaminess that's balanced with the spicy smoothness of Altos Reposado Tequila. Will drinking from the Wisdom Cup make you smarter? Well, in Aztec mythology, cacao beans were said to be a gift from Quetzalcoatl, the God of Wisdom, and the Aztecs believed that eating the fruit of the tree would bring wisdom and power. Cacao to boost our grey matter? We'll cheers to that.

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The Heart of Vincent, from Smoke & Mirrors

Smoke & Mirrors has a knack for romance. Everything about it is swoon-worthy, whether it's the plush, sexy interiors, killer views of the city's skyline, or the poetic drinks menu titled Illusions of Flavours. And most romantic-sounding tipple on the list? The Heart of Vincent, inspired by van Gogh's famous quote in The Letters of Vincent van Gogh: "The heart of a man is very much like the seas. It has storms, it has its tides, and, in its depths, it has its pearls too." Naturally, the drink is complex. Sea salt tingles the tastebuds with savoury notes. Pickled purslane comes across as grassy and acidic. The unnamed ex-wine barrel-aged agave spirit and quinine aperitif sit at the back with slight hints of bitterness and smokiness. Then there's bubbles to lighten the otherwise intense drink. It will not be for everyone, but somehow, this perplexing cocktail will intrigue you till you get to the bottom of the glass.

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Hay & Apple, from No Sleep Club

Singapore has been a vortex of cocktail innovation for a while now, so seeing unusual ingredients in a drink list is, well, not that unusual. But hay, the stuff that horses eat? That's something we've yet to see in a cocktail. "We learnt early on from chef Andre Chiang that hay attracted the right bacteria to ferment fruit such as apples and pears," says Jessica Hutchinson, co-owner of the recently-opened and very-cool No Sleep Club. "The combination was an easy one when we thought of doing a version of whiskey soda." For this tipple, fresh, oven-toasted hay is sous-vided with a mix of blended and peated scotch to make the base spirit. Apple honey (made in-house with dry fermented apple juice, chamomile flowers and local honey) and fresh apple juice are added and carbonated before serving. If Singapore has seasons, this tipple is perfect for fall. It's sweet, with a hint of earthiness from the hay, but not too sweet; boozy but doesn't hit you as hard as some whisky-based drinks do. Drink with caution because it's easy to have one too many.

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Sweater Weather, from Junior

Sometimes we want what we can't have: chilly days, snug layers, warm fireplaces, and beautiful snowy landscapes. While we can't control weather, we can hope that Junior's latest concept, Petite Chalet, may transport you to the Alps for a moment with a menu that pays tribute to the '70s après ski scene. To complete this wintertime reverie, ask for the Sweater Weather. It tastes like spiked, toasted marshmallows — except that it doesn't contain any marshmallows. Constructed with Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, dark rum, spiced pear, bianco vermouth, and honey, the drink is a comfort sipper that warms your bones and soul.

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Kaiser Goblet, from Vue

If Hay & Apple represents fall and Sweater Weather feels like warm winter hug, then the Kaiser Goblet from rooftop bar and grill, Vue, is for balmy summer months. Opened just last month at the OUE Bayfront tower, Vue telegraphs itself a spritz bar, serving 14 different variations of the summer standard, including classics like Aperol Spritz and elevated concoctions like Iberian Burbuja composed of Amontillado sherry, white port and Mediterranean tonic water. All of these effervescent drinks are fine and dandy for our tropical climate, but if you're feeling particularly hot and bothered, the Kaiser Goblet, with its refreshing blend of homemade fruit cup, fresh mint, cucumber and ginger ale, will cool you down and perhaps help you drift away from reality for a bit. Pop in during sunset hours (from 5-7pm) for complimentary canapes with your spritzes.

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