Fans of the cocktail might be aware of the Bacardi Legacy Competition, a hunt for uncomplicated, uncontrived cocktails that can stand the test of time.
Fans of the cocktail might be aware of the Bacardi Legacy Competition, a hunt for uncomplicated, uncontrived cocktails that can stand the test of time.
A couple of weeks back, the good folks at Edrington sent me a package containing some very interesting contents indeed.
Cocktail Week is almost upon us, and there’s plenty to see, eat and drink. So many, in fact, that you’re not quite sure where to start. 60 participating bars and restaurants, dozens of events, and a whole slew of the whos who of international bartending can be quite overwhelming, to say the least.
Never fear, we’re here to help.
When people think of whisky producing countries, it is usually the usual suspects that come to their minds. Scotland, America, Ireland, even Japan. And who can blame them? They’ve been producing the water of life for hundreds of years. Heck, “Scotch” and “Bourbon” have already become shorthand for whisky (or whiskey).
Purists might even cite the unique characteristics of the Highlands in the production of fine whisky. Cold, pure spring water, barley and the all-important peat of Scotland are the magic ingredients, without which we might as well be drinking tepid water instead. While all these are important, are these truly a Scottish-only thing? Can a good whisky be made half a world away, in the sweltering heat of the tropics?
It feels difficult to have just one favourite bar nowadays; a true first world problem.
With so many quality establishments to choose from, one’s choice of bar usually comes down not just to the drinks, but the quality of the experience and the chemistry one has with the bar’s own personality. Considering all that, I came to a conclusion that I might have a new favourite bar. It might be a newcomer, but it hits so many of the right notes that it’s hard not to love it!
What’s in a name?
In many cases, the name of a liquor bears some sort of significance. While most are very memorable, and some are almost poetic, few are as meaningful as Snow Leopard Vodka. In actual fact, I can’t think of another brand of vodka that is named after a cause.
I love old things.
To me, Singapore’s colonial history has a particular allure. There’s a feeling of nostalgia to capture the imagination. Those who have visited The White Rabbit, along Harding Road in the Dempsey area, would know. Housed in a restored chapel, one can’t help but enter a different time when spending a pleasant evening under its high ceiling and stained glass windows.
My last encounter with The Balvenie was at Whisky Live 2014. I found all The Balvenie whiskies that I tasted to be delectable, and I’ve been lusting for more ever since. There’s something about the distillery’s character that I find completely irresistible – perhaps it’s the delicate flavours that tingle the tongue with every sip. There’s so much creativity with their offerings – experiments with different cask maturations. Rum, multiple barrels and now, even port. Best of all, they still have age statements on their main life of whiskies!
The cocktail wave is riding high in Singapore now and there has been an absolute feast of riches when it comes to quality cocktail bars. During cocktail week this year, I had the opportunity to try out many of them myself and found much to love about all of them. While it’s definitely working in favour of consumers like us, the difficult thing for any upcoming bar is setting themselves apart from their rivals.
The Martini isn’t the oldest cocktail in the world. That honour belongs to the alcoholic punch. It isn’t even a particularly original cocktail. It is actually an evolution of an even older cocktail, the Martinez.
Yet, of all the cocktails in the world, none have the same hold on the imagination as the classic Martini. Even James Bond drank a variant on the martini.
Perhaps it has to do with its utter simplicity. At its core, it has only three ingredients: gin, dry vermouth, and a garnish of either lemon peel or an olive. Simple, but not easy; with only two ingredients, every little change is immediately obvious to even the least discerning drinker. The quantity of ingredients used, the proportion of each, must be precise. Quality of the spirit, too, is paramount. A cheap Martini will taste cheap, but a good spirit will really come into its own.
My own first sip of a Martini was not a pleasant one, and I shied away from it for years. Since then, however, I’ve come to appreciate how the ingredients complement each other. The end product is a refreshing aperitif that feels both simple and sophisticated.
The true history of the Martini has been lost to time, but we do know that it’s been a part of the cocktail world since at least the late 1800s, possibly 1880s, where it appeared on the bar menus of the hottest bars of its day. While other theories link it to the gold rush in the 1840s, or even the advent of the Martini brand Extra Dry vermouth in 1900, the evidence around those ideas is wafer thin at best.
What’s more interesting than the origin of the Martini is its evolution. The vermouth used for Martinis is always dry and white, and bot much has changed in the last 50 years. There really aren’t that many brands; my favourite is Dolin, though Noilly Prat works just as well. The same can’t be said of the spirit.
It seems that these days the question of whether the Martini should be made with Gin or Vodka inevitably comes up. The original spirit is indubitably, and in my opinion, correctly, gin. Unflavoured vodka lacks a strong taste of its own for the most part, gin is always flavoured with juniper berries and other botanical ingredients. These work in tandem with the vermouth to provide a unique taste. Choosing vodka as the base spirit robs the Martini of most of its character (by the way, a “vodka martini” is more correctly termed a “kangaroo”.)
What’s more interesting is that the gin itself has changed. The gin we know and love today wasn’t the gin that went into the first Martinis. Back then, good gin was Dutch genever, and had malt notes in it, consequently giving it some extra weight. At the time, then, the vermouth and “gin” were mixed in a one to one ratio.
Over time, the London dry gin gained popularity, and it this style of gin that most people think of today when you mention the word gin. As its name suggests, it is much dryer and lighter than its predecessor. The gin at this point also ran at a 3 to 1 ratio to the vermouth, a much drier and stiffer drink.
The world never stops changing, and in this modern world, the even drier 5 gin to 1 vermouth is considered the gold standard – and many bartenders stick by this proportion. Things get more extreme, however; some bars even suggest not even bothering with the vermouth. All they do is swirl a little dry vermouth in the glass, dump it all out, and fill it with gin. Some even recommend just whispering the word “vermouth” over gin to make the perfect Martini. Even Winston Churchill himself famously remarked that the best way to add vermouth to a martini was to look in the direction of France while vaguely lifting the bottle over the Martini.
The end product of these efforts to go too far would not really be a Martini. but an extremely cold gin.
To complicate matters, different gins will work differently with the vermouth and the proportions will change yet again. No two gins are the same, because of the different botanicals that go into each of them. Generally, a juniper-heavy gin will lean towards less vermouth, and a floral, herbal gin will lean towards more vermouth. I like Martin Miller’s, Hendricks and Monkey 47, which are well balanced and can work either way.
What’s the definitive proportion of gin to vermouth in the Martini then?
The secret answer is that there isn’t one. The best proportioned Martini is the one that you like best. I myself prefer a classic 3 to 1, which would be considered a wet Martini, though it’s still plenty dry. You will have to experiment a little here; I tasted about 8 variations on this before I could make up my mind. If you desire something truly balanced, I’d start with the classic ratio first.
Put it all together:
The Classic Martini
15ml Dry French Vermouth
A thinly sliced lemon zest
Measure the proportions of gin and vermouth precisely and stir with ice in a mixing glass till cold. Strain and serve with the garnish of lemon zest.
Yes, Martinis should be stirred, not shaken, unlike what a certain superspy would have you believe. A stirred martini is crystal clear and tastes smoother and lighter, even if it is not as icy cold as the shaken one!
It’s amazing how much debate can occur over a cocktail that has, at its heart, only two ingredients! There are enough variations to suit every one. If you’re bored with the classic martini, why not try a variant? The Reverse Martini is 5 Vermouth to 1 Gin. The Gin and It is a Martini made with Sweet Italian Vermouth. Change the gin. Serve it with an orange peel. There’s so much fun to be had in tweaking the Martini to be just right for you. That’s the beauty of this seemingly simple drink.
It’s your drink.
The British have certainly left their mark on the history of alcoholic drinks. Whisky, gin, port, sherry, and of course, rum – and while some of these have fallen somewhat off the radar somewhat, they’re all very much alive. Even the great spirit of the colonial age- rum.
Contrary to what we see in the movies, rum isn’t just for the sailors and pirates. It’s a little underappreciated. perhaps. but it has a legitimacy deserving of a place on the bar. White rum is pretty much vodka made from sugar, and is perhaps a little less sophisticated and very intentionally so. Dark rum, however, is made using many of the same techniques used in making single malt whisky- down to the aging in oak barrels. That’s, in fact, how it gets its amber-brown colour.
Like a good whisky, a great specimen of rum is not all just sweetness and cocktails. but can, and should, be tasted on its own as well. Why hide the complexity of a good rum behind lemon, spice and ironically, sugar, when there’s already so much flavour to be had?
Fortunately, adventurous spirit lovers are beginning to rediscover the pleasures of sipping a well crafted rum. Sugarhall, which opened last year, in 2014, specialises in rum- which makes it unique among Singaporean establishments. They’ve brought in many different rums that are not available anywhere else on our sunny island.
Before we go on, let’s consider the idea of a single cask spirit. Most commercially available spirits are made from blending spirits of different casks of different casks, so that the producer can consistently recreate a familiar flavour, and their customers know what to expect. In contrast, a single cask spirit exults in its uniqueness. Trouble is, it’s hard to find one particular cask of whisky which has all the qualities that one finds perfect in a drink. It has to contain the desired flavours, have the right maturity and perhaps something unique of its own- unique but pleasant. Even single cask whiskies are not all the common.
Interestingly enough, Rums can also be aged in casks- and one finds oneself in a similar situation when selecting a single cask rum as when looking for a single cask whisky. The good folk at Sugarhall believe that they had found such a cask- from the now closed Trinidad distillery Caroni.
So, of course I had to try it.
I arrived at Sugarhall on a weekday night. The service was prompt, polite, and warm, even. You can judge for yourself.
Fortunately, Sugarhall is mindful of the adventurers who like sampling a bit of everything. They created the Flagship Flight, which includes three excellent aged rums to tantalise the tongue. The presentation was delightful- three small rocks glasses on a wooden “tray”” that one suspects used to be a cask. Like any good rum from the age of sail, it came with a little glass bottle, complete with a treasure map.
Well, I didn’t find a chest of gold, but the contents of the glasses were precious indeed.
Sugarhall Berry Bros and Rudd Caroni, 17 years old. The flagship; exclusively bottled for Sugarhall, there were only 240 of these made, and that number has dwindled somewhat, I suspect. Nose of oak and smoke, slight toffee smell. I found the taste to be surprisingly dry, lots of oak influences from the cask- very woody. Some very mild raisin notes. Heavy on spice and smoke. Refined, though, not raw at all – sophisticated and smooth on the palate. I’d happily endorse this single cask rum if you’re into tasting a complex, fulfilling whisky that would make you long for yet another sip; it’s not a kind of drink that you would take purely to get drunk!
Caroni 1997, 17 years old. Another 17 year old from Caroni, but not a single cask expression. Similar to the BBR above, but feels a bit more raw. Oaky, smoky and a little bit spicy. Another fine rum, and if you can’t get the single cask, then this is a good bet.
El Dorardo, 15 Years old. A sharp contrast to the other two rums. Nose of honey, dried fruit and a little bit of wood. The taste doesn’t disappoint. It’s as sweet as the other two rums are dry. Thick and syrupy, caramel and honey flavours with a bit of spice and just a touch of wood, nothing more. Like drinking treacle or toffee. Despite all that, it’s not one dimensional. The flavours are well layered and it’s not cloying in any way. Excellent rum and easily my favourite of the night. I have a serious sweet tooth.
If you’re thinking that rum can’t have the complexity and sophistication that a good whisky can, these 3 rums will change your mind. All 3 are worthy of a place on the bar shelf, for sure! Sadly, it’s not easy to get your hands on them. Rum hasn’t quite caught on with most drinkers yet (more’s the pity), so you won’t find that many places that offer these liquid delights. I’d suggest you head down to Sugarhall to get a taster. Don’t wait too long though, the BBR Caroni is very limited in quantity, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
102 Amoy Street
Cocktail Week is about tasting our way all the creative concoctions that the combined creativity of our bartenders dreamed up. How often does one have a such a perfect excuse to go drinking for an entire week?
Obviously, I couldn’t let such an unbelievable opportunity pass by just like that; so after the opening event, I had to go bar hopping.
To kick things off, I had the most wonderful cocktail at one of my favourite bars: Anti:Dote.
It’s called the Becherovka Swizzle. Becherovka is a rusty-red Czech liqueur that tastes like a mixture of about 20 different spices, dominated by cinnamon and clove flavours. Despite it being the first time I have tasted Becherovka, I wasn’t put off by its somewhat exotic flavour thanks to the consummate skill of Anti:dote’s bartender Tom. The cocktail was more bitter than sweet, with the herbal taste working in harmony with the lemon, honey and mint to create a balanced and refreshing drink. A pity that it’s only available for Cocktail Week.
I also checked out Operation Dagger, which is cunningly hidden in a basement off Ann Siang Hill; a great chance to cloak team mate Vanessa in my looming, ominous shadow.
Don’t be put off by Operation Dagger’s somewhat sinister initial appearance, though. It’s a pretty sight indeed once you get inside. It combines modern industrial chic with Scandinavian minimalism and tops it off with a dollop of lightbulb-filled whimsy.
The first special I tried was Rocks and Rye. It looks reminiscent of an Old Fashioned; orange liquid, large rock of ice, so you could be forgiven for thinking that it has the sweet-smoky taste as well. I did, and I was wrong. It tastes nothing like what I expected.
When I took my first sip, I thought it was Sambuca; the licorice taste of Star Anise was so strong it was somewhat overpowering. I checked the ingredients list- apparently it has saffron, apricot and cinnamon in it as well, but I could only really taste (and smell) the Anise. It wasn’t a bad drink, by any means; I finished it, after all. It was just disappointing that it could have been so much more with a bit of added depth and subtlety.
My second cocktail, Snow, quickly won me back though.
Made with yuzu, yogurt liqueur and genmai tea, it was a much lighter counterpoint to the Rock and Rye. I enjoyed it immensely the creamy yogurt with citrus notes is a winner in my book, and the genmai adds a very slight woody, roasted edge to an otherwise light drink.
The icing on the cake (or should I say topping on the cocktail) is the white chocolate “bowl” filled with yuzu yogurt balls floating on the drink. I was told to chomp it down all at once to finish off the drink. I must admit, it is a novel touch that really adds a special something to an already good cocktail. The melting chocolate and the yogurt went down so well that I was of a mind to order another.
Alas, it was not to be though, since the journey had to continue someplace else.
The new bar concepts really amaze me. So much creativity and thought has gone into them that they defy all expectations. Ding Dong was a bar hidden on the second level of a shophouse, which also happens to be a Chinese restaurant!
On second thought, while we’re at a restaurant, why not grab a bite?
Or two bites, perhaps?
The roasted duck dumplings were succulent. The shittake mushroom and duck consomme sauce gravy was just bold enough to make its presence known, yet light enough to not take away any of the texture of the dumplings. The Vietnamese scotch eggs were really tasty. Full of the minced meat and herbal flavours familiar to fans of Vietnamese cuisine, it came with a thai-style chilli sauce that brought out the succulence of the meat.
A welcome treat indeed for a bunch of hungry bar-hoppers. I didn’t forget what I was here for, though.
My final drink of Cocktail Week was the Ding Dong Sour.
Tea infused whiskey with citrus and gomme (gum arabic based syrup), this take on the classic Whisky Sour it reminded me a lot of the Thai Iced teas with its slightly spiced, balanced flavour and smooth texture. It brought my thoughts to South East Asia and the wonderful, spicy food (and drink) we have here.
And with, that my Cocktail Week experience came to an end. Overall, I’d say that it was a roaring success. I got to try so many drinks, learn a great deal and had a lot of fun exploring the bars of Singapore. On the cheap, no less. I’d definitely sign up for round 2 next year.
In the meantime, I’ll definitely be going back to some of these bars again. Look out for full reviews in time to come!