"We don't have that history of speakeasy cocktails," said Leon Tan, bartender at the newly opened NATIVE in Singapore as he mused on the US' ties to its Prohibition roots. "So there are no expectations and we have this flexibility to be creative and really experiment on what we want our cocktails to be."
And so, like the name suggests, NATIVE decided to focus on regional and local ingredients - sometimes so local that they are foraged right in Singapore proper. The results are deliciously exotic.
Take this beauty for example. Called Antz, it features.... you guessed it.... ants curated from Thailand. They're perched on top of a liquid nitrogen frozen basil leaf, which rests gently on a clay mug locally fashioned specifically for this drink.
"You take the basil leaf first," Leon says with an encouraging grin. "Then you taste the drink after."
It only takes a moment of contemplation (These ants are awfully big. Are they normally this big? With these many legs??) before one pops the whole leaf (with black, leggy occupants) into one's mouth. The obvious anise-and-licorice of the basil rushes you first, then the basil pellets melt in your mouth, and then, finally, the crunch and pleasantly sour acidity of the ants. It's like a perfect amuse-bouche for the cocktail itself, which is a rich milkiness of thai rhum, salt-baked tapioca, and homemade coconut yoghurt. All at once comforting in its creaminess, tantalizing with its slight sourness, and downright edgy with the addition of ants.
I can't help but return Leon's smile. The next couple of hours are spent tasting other delicious concoctions, such as the deep burgundy, visually arresting Red Light District (the local ingredient to go along with that theme is Tongkat Ali, a tree whose roots are known for its...uh... "amorous-inducing" properties), and getting an education on Asian sipping gins. We sampled from hand carried bottles of Bangkok's Iron Ball and also from Kyoto Distillery's Ki No Bi, Japan's first foray into gin. I can't say that my juniper buds are that refined, but there was no mistaking that both were excellently crafted spirits that were easily palatable on their own.
Lastly, the conversation turned to ice. The importance of it in certain drinks, the visually stunning element it provides if used correctly, and the balance a large format cube brings in diluting a cocktail at just the right rate. Leon showed us the small under-bar freezer where their hand-chipped cubes were kept, ready to use right in the glass. It was interesting to note that even halfway around the world, with radically different ingredients, liquors, and mixers, one element still remains constant in a cocktail no matter where you go: the ice.
Leon Tan from NATIVE with his bar's large format ice
"I swear he said to turn right at this restaurant!"
Even after Leon had walked us from the 2nd floor space that NATIVE occupies down to the street to point us in the right direction for our next destination, we were still, very apparently, very lost.
Our quest to find the world-acclaimed experimental cocktail bar Operation Dagger very nearly turned into Operation-this-bar-is-too-trendy-for-us-to-find. That is, until we noticed what appeared to be random scribbles of shapes with an arrow, pointing to random scribbling of shapes over a nondescript door.
Opening the door revealed a narrow, SERIOUSLY shady staircase straight out of zombie video game, leading downwards to an equally questionable door. Loud techno music poured out, and walking carefully down I was half convinced that we were going to be greeted by a den of vampires.
Instead, the darkly lit interior space of Operation Dagger was stunning to behold. A thousand incandescent bulbs clustered the ceiling, providing a warm glow to the tastefully appointed bar backed with shelves upon shelves of handmade powders, infusions, and preserves all housed in matching bottles.
The drinks themselves, however, were even more curious. With ingredients such as sesame miso caramel, avocado, chili smoked agave, heirloom tomato, fermented red cabbage, and burnt toast (that's just some of them!), you would think you were looking at a tantalizing appetizer menu if not for the "Dangerous Drinking Water" heading at the top.
The one dish? drink? that I knew I had to try was The Egg. It consists of a raw salted egg yolk cured overnight, blended with house-distilled rum, vanilla beans, and caramel. Before serving, the drink is nested on a bed of smoked hay and star anise. The resulting concoction is viscous, a blend between a heavy soup and light pudding, with a smoky earthiness from the aroma combined with an unmistakable salty bite on the onset, melting pleasantly into savory and creamy sweetness at the finish.
The next drink, Man vs Pig, was equally as impressive balanced. The fatty jamon de bellota (cured ham from an acord-fed pig) paired perfectly with the acidity of the heirloom tomato, rock melon, nigella seed (black cumin), and red wine vinegar. It was tangy, salty, slightly acidic, and savory. But savory didn't just quite cut it for a description. After a few days in Singapore sampling the cocktails in the city, there was one overriding "taste" that I couldn't put my finger on. It wasn't just that the ingredients were uniquely southeast asian, or that the drinks all had a certain mouthfeel, as if you could almost chew and make a meal of your drink. It was a few more cocktails in, sipping on the Corn + Oil and letting that nutty taste of the charred corn combined with the slickness of the lime oil coat my tongue that it hit me: umami.
Umami. The cornerstone of asian flavors. A taste normally reserved for dishes, especially broths, but why couldn't a cocktail give you that same "ahhh" feeling as you do sipping on a hot bowl of soup? Or better yet, why shouldn't it? There's some part of your brain that instinctively is soothed, is satisfied, and relaxes upon that first taste.
Our curiosity had been piqued in Singapore's local cocktail scene after wandering into Hopscotch, a playfully unique bar where the bartenders turn out equally as playful, but artfully executed drinks. You have two choices: you can order from their ever changing and seasonal menu, or like Singapore's storied heritage for custom clothing, you can ask the bartender to craft you a "bespoke" cocktail that fits your taste buds like a well-tailored suit. The day we were there, Jaslynn, Hopscotch's foremost cocktail tailor, was not slinging drinks behind the bar, but her counterparts Mustafa, Elijah, and Joyce recommended stand-outs from the menu.
Our foray into the complex creations of Singaporean cocktail culture started with Chicken Soup for the Alcoholic's Soul. You have to get down to the very last line of the ingredient list (homemade chicken stock, salt and pepper, soya and sesame oil, coriander, cherry tomatoes..... bonito infused vodka) to understand that yes, it's an alcoholic beverage. The same process as when you actually sip the pipping hot broth. It looks like mom's chicken soup, it tastes utterly fantastic like she spent hours painstakingly brewing it, and then, when that unfamiliar finish of spiced vodka creeps in, you can't help but fall more in love.
All the other cocktails that our trio of bartenders put in front of us were equally impressive in delighting our eyes with their presentation and tantalizing our taste buds with their perfectly balanced ratios of all five tastes. Like their other Singaporean cocktail bar brethren, they don't play with a half box of crayons. It's apparent that everything is meticulously thought out. From how it grabs your attention visually from the moment it arrives in front of you (unique glassware, serving style, vivid color of the drink and garnishes), to how to prepare you for your first sip (is it a smoky aroma? is it a little snack such as boboa bubbles, a shot of expresso foam, or..... ants?), to the actual taste, we were wowed by our cocktail adventures in Singapore. The drinks there are tasty, and savory, blurring slightly the line between cocktails and cuisine. The umami lingers on your tongue, and in your memory, and writing this now makes me want to add a bit of vodka to mom's chicken soup. Keep on doing you, Singapore. At this rate, maybe eventually my secret desires to live on an all-liquid diet will come to fruition!