Absinthe, Cocktail Bars Shake Up Singapore

28 HongKong StreetDeliberately hard to find, the entrance to 28 HongKong Street is hidden on an obscure and relatively anonymous street just off tourist-filled Clarke Quay in Singapore.

Scroll down for our list of Singapore’s best tippling joints.

Just a few years ago, options for Singaporeans or visitors to the sterile city-state looking to have a good late Friday night could be counted on one hand – Zouk, crammed with underage teenagers, Clarke Quay and Boat Quay, filled with almost identical bars and clubs, and perhaps Orchard Towers for something a little seedier.

Since the opening of Singapore’s casino resorts, raking in millions for the city-state, nightlife has never been the same. With flashy clubs like Avalon and Pangaea and members-only clubs attracting much fanfare since their opening in the past year, one could be forgiven for thinking Singapore is but a playground for those armed with bags of cash and trendies looking to “be seen”.

Mint Museum of ToysMr. Punch, a rooftop bar at the Mint Museum of Toys, features vintage enamel signs from as early as the 1800s and a stunning view of the city.

But a little bit of searching reveals some hidden sanctuaries, where a group of dedicated mixologists – or “craft bartenders”, as they prefer to be called – are fighting back. Hole-in-the-wall cocktail bars are springing up with a vengeance in the island, where owners and bartenders aim to draw customers with the quality of their spirits; not their light-shows or the volume of their music.

Head barman and general manager Michael Callahan of 28 HongKong Street, armed with multiple awards and famed in the cocktail circuit, was wooed to Singapore from San Francisco by the bar’s owners, convinced that a “cocktail revolution” was about to happen on its shores.

“Singapore has all the right ingredients to be the next New York [in terms of nightlife],” said Mr. Callahan. “[Singapore] has a healthy economy, a young, vibrant people who are more educated, more travelled and willing to spend.”

The American admitted that he was drawn to Singapore because many of his peers believed a premium cocktail bar would never take-off in the city-state, often mocked for being sterile with a lack of creative bars, high taxes on spirits and strict regulations around obtaining a liquor license.

“Singapore has a bad reputation for being a deadzone,” said Mr. Callahan. “[Bartenders] say all they want there is bottle service and Tiger Beer.”

He begs to differ, however. Only two months into operations, 28 HongKong Street, has been full almost every night since they opened, with hopeful patrons sometimes turned away – and this without any advertisements, a published reservations number or even a sign on the door.

Absinthe ArtisanAbsinthe Artisan’s cocktails feature fresh fruits like pineapple, garnished here with curry leaves – a way, they hope, will get those less familiar with the spirit comfortable with absinthe.

Not all of those hoping to spark a bar revolution in the island are imports from trendier, far-flung locales like San Francisco or New York. Some are born right here, out of a genuine love for a particular spirit, and a keen interest to share that with other Singaporeans. Absinthe Artisan, the four-month old brainchild of absinthe-connoisseur Goh Hock Soon, was created in the hopes of debunking the myths surrounding the “highly-misunderstood” spirit.

Testament to the maturing tastes of Singaporeans, Mr. Goh said many customers are willing to try the notorious spirit, fabled for hallucinations involving green fairies, though the spirit was only taken off the country’s banned list in 2009.

“We have quite an even mix of Singaporeans and expats that come through here,” said Mr. Goh, who himself had his first experience with absinthe in Singapore. “We are on-par with the expat community when it comes to having the palate for a premium cocktail.” Absinthe Artisan serves Absinthe Drip made the traditional way, and absinthe-based cocktails using fresh fruit for those less familiar to the spirit.

Still – judging from those stumbling in to his bar in search of a beer or a glass of wine – Mr. Goh is aware of the risks of catering to a niche market. his establishment is the only absinthe-only bar in the entire region. Convinced that Singaporeans are “missing out,” he hopes to convert at least some into absinthe appreciators, one well-made cocktail at a time.

Caryn Cheah, one of the owners of premium spirit joint Barkode, said the bar first saw its foot traffic in the form of curious drinkers. now its third month of operations, Ms. Cheah sees a more discerning crowd of regulars who have returned for cocktails they have grown to love.

“I think we are just at the beginning of the cocktail bar culture. Wine has come and proved to be a stayer, and it seems craft beer is also here to stay, so why not cocktails?” added Ms. Cheah.

The only lingering lament from those aiming to transform Singapore’s nightlife scene is finding staff as dedicated in this mission as they are. Prevailing stereotypes about the service industry – that it is a low-level job with relatively low pay – often dissuades young bartenders from dedicating their lives to the trade.

“With the pay, [trainee bartenders] can’t sustain this as a profession, even though they are passionate about it,” said Absinthe Artisan’s head bartender, known only as Xander. “It is a pity.”

Here are some of the best spots to get a drink in Singapore; offering good spirits, consistently well-made cocktails and excellent service:

28 HongKong Street 28 HongKong Street

Once past a hidden entrance on a relatively obscure street and a thick black curtain, it is easy to forget that you are still in Singapore. The New York-inspired lounge is an oasis for serious cocktail drinkers, serving some of the best drinks on the island at surprisingly reasonable prices. General manager Michael Callahan even makes some of the spirits himself in a secret backroom, having crafted half of the bar’s menu himself. The crowd at the intimate lounge is eclectic, ranging from businessmen and models to students, and is frequented by return customers wishing that their hideout will be kept a secret.

Absinthe Artisan 60A Boat Quay, +65 6535 0838

it may be located along popular Singaporean drinking street Boat Quay, but blink and you’ll miss the entrance to this absinthe-only bar. Located on the second floor of relatively nondescript shophouse, the entrance to Absinthe Artisan is only a shared staircase next to a convenience store. Once inside, you’re immediately greeted by a long bar and shelves lined with absinthe, rivaling any joint in Paris. Tweaked to Asian standards of alcohol tolerance, the bar also has a “sober room” comprising a chaise lounge and a bucket within easy reach. Don’t forget to ask about the tribute to a famous person in the bar’s logo, and be careful when you go to the restroom: it is a bit of a riddle figuring out which is the gents and which is the ladies.

Barkode 66 Dunlop Street, +6396 4463

Singapore’s Little India is anything but glamorous, with the occasional cockroach roaming around with backpackers and low-wage migrant workers. Nothing like the karaoke lounge next to it, Barkode boasts a range of premium spirits like U’Luvka vodka, Patron Silver tequila and Ferran Adria-crafted beer. The industrial-themed, minimal interiors leave something to be desired, but the low-key vibe matched with good music and excellent cocktails attract a sizeable following. The U’Luv Me (S$28), a mix of champagne, strawberry and vodka, and Pisco Passion (S$18) with pisco, egg white and passionfruit are house favorites.

Bar Stories 55-57 Haji Lane, +65 6298 0838

Located in Singapore’s hipster-filled Arab Street district, Bar stories is a haven away from rows of “trendy” shops and similarly-dressed teens. Located on the top floor of a two-storey shop house, keen waiters and bartenders without menus will ensure all cocktails are made to please, based on the taste preferences of their customers. Homey interiors make the bar the perfect place for good conversation. Ask to be surprised and you could be served up anything from a Tiramisu or Chocolate Martini or their signature Rosemary cooler and Honeydew Sake Martini.

Mr. Punch Winebar Mint Museum of Toys, 28 Seah Street, + 65 6339 6266

The only place on this list where you won’t be chastised for ordering a gin and tonic, Mr. Punch Winebar is a secret hideout on the 5th floor of the Mint Museum of Toys, one of the city’s overlooked museums. The view of Singapore’s skyline from the outer patio of the bar is breathtaking, and does not come with a ridiculous price-tag or cover charge unlike most of Singapore’s rooftop bars. Walls are adorned with more than 100 vintage enamel signs, kitschy reminders of childhood days. The cocktails are relatively simple, but the Mr Punch and Judy signature cocktails are tasty, especially when enjoyed away from the madding crowd below.

The Good Beer Company Block 335 Smith Street, Chinatown Complex, #02-58

It isn’t often you get good craft beer at your local hawker store. The Good Beer Company, tucked away in a corner of the sprawling Chinatown Complex food centre, is a quiet and unassuming joint, eye-catching only in the impressive array of beer in its refrigerator. The Good Beer Company stocks over 15 different types of craft beers, and serves Singapore-brewed Jungle Beer Easy English on tap. Don’t want local fare with your beer? Ask nicely and maybe the jolly owner will serve you up some Indian crackers, or murukku.

Bartini 46 Club Street, + 65 8138 4342

Bartini is one of the newer establishments to spring up in Singapore’s slightly more sophisticated drinking area Club Street, and its drinks are a good balance of both class and fun. Owner Patrick Fok and mixologist Barnaby Murdoch have perfected the classics, but have also stocked the bar with premium and slightly more uncommon spirits like Wyborowa’s flavoured vodkas and Diplomatico rum from Venezuela. Favorites here include the Pornstar Martini (S$22), which is a Wyborowa vodka, Chambord raspberry liqueur and passionfruit with a mouthful of Charlie, or try The Hunk Martini (S$17), made famous by Carrie Bradshaw of Sex in the City fame, which is made of Absolut vanilla vodka shaken with pineapple juice, lime and gomme.

Speakeasy 54 Blair Road, +65 6410 9026

It may say its modeled on the 1920’s prohibition speakeasies, but Speakeasy does without the kitschy unmarked doors and secret entrances. what it does have is 1920s reminiscent decor and music, and outdoor seating. what it lacks in exclusivity, however, it makes up for in warmth. this new take on the traditional speakeasy serves up wine, beer, or get the bar men to mix you up a “Prohibition-era cocktail”.

Absinthe, Cocktail Bars Shake Up Singapore

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