The whisky scene in Singapore has grown rapidly in the last few years. Barely a decade past, there was a bare handful of whisky bars to be found here. Now, it seems like the island is dotted with them.
Riding the wave of whisky’s meteoric rise, many of these new bars come off as empty shells, bereft of substance and passion. Like fast food, they fill the appetite, but not the soul.
But every so often, a true whisky lover opens a bar, and you recognise it instantly. It is that feeling we got when we walked into The Writing Club one weekend afternoon.
A Room with a View
The new bar is a cozy 35-seater ensconced in a small corner of Palais Renaissance, a shopping centre that manages to be both in the heart of Orchard Road, and somehow far removed. It is quiet, serene even.
The space is laid out simply; leather armchairs, chesterfield sofas, and dark wood panelling, as we have come to expect. It brings to mind a small study, or a living room, but with shelves stocked with whisky, not musty old tomes. A crest on the wall, gold stitched on red velvet, proclaims that this, indeed, The Writing Club.
We can imagine Ernest Hemingway penning a novel here (though, despite his alcoholic proclivities, the old fellow never drank and wrote at the same time).
The real story of how the name came about is far simpler- maskirovka. Owner Tan Soo San, a true whisky lover, regularly meets with fellow enthusiasts to share their love of malt. They named their collective The Writing Club to avoid the disapproval of their spouses.
Over time, Tan’s insatiable thirst for whisky led to his collection almost bursting out of his home (one can imagine inadvertently tripping over bottles of rare whisky). He promptly decided to open a bar to share that love of malt with others. His wife Sherin Ong joined the venture this time.
As both writers and whisky lovers, we approve.
For those who are concerned about the range of whiskies, there is a veritable treasure trove of fantastic expressions available across all price ranges. Atop the shelves are an assortment of The Balvenies, Mortlachs and Glendronachs – commercial to special release. We spied a few rare Ardbegs- the widely acclaimed Supernova, Renaissance and Kelpie. Apparently, the folks at The Writing Club are huge fans of the Islay distillery.
With a range of over 500 whiskies, there was some room for experimentation. Kavalans, Miyagikyos of all sorts, and even a few Irish Redbreasts. We even spotted a few that one might call esoteric- Sherried French whisky by Michel Couvreur anyone?
Such an expansive range would be wasted if one would have to navigate it alone. Few can claim to have intimate knowledge of over 500 different drams, and for that we must rely on advice. The true heart of The Writing Club reveals itself, then.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
We often walk into bars where the bartender is only vaguely knowledgeable about the whisky sitting on his bartop. Too often, they will spout canned lines about their whisky; the same lines you can read on any marketing pamphlet.
Whether it’s a rare whisky or a mass-market bottling, it’s one thing to spout a marketing script by rote, and another to know the spirit’s intricacies and history, and yet another to make a customised recommendation.
Well, there’s no danger of fumbling on facts here. The bartender CT is as knowledgeable about whisky as they come. He effortlessly rattles off facts about the obscure whiskies behind the bar, and many of those from independent bottlers, no less.
On our visit to The Writing Club, we sampled three rare whiskies- the 1966 Gordon & McPhail Old Pulteney ($124++), the 1977 G&M Connoisseur’s Choice Caol Ila ($92, 45ml) and an old Glen Grant 8YO ($39++, 45ml), complete with stout 1970s packaging.
We admit to sucking in our breath at that point. Clearly, meticulous care had been taken in the selection- and there is a twinkle in CT’s eyes as he guides us through the drams.
The Old Pulteney, for example was full of peach, raisins, lemons and grain, with a nut dry finish- and not much of the brine you might expect from the “The Maritime Malt” distillery. The Glen Grant was pale gold, typical of the distillery at the time, but shocking to modern drinkers used to the current dark caramel colours.
The Caol Ila is perhaps the most striking. The distillery primarily makes whiskies for blending in Johnnie Walker, and independent bottlings are the only way to get hold of a single malt before 2002. Caol Ila whisky normally tastes exactly how you imagine Islay whisky would- perhaps not so peaty as chimney-stack Laphroaig, but full of smoke and brine nonetheless. This particular bottling defied expectations; the smoke was still there, yes, but this was more than a touch lighter. Instead, we got honey, nuts and stone fruits in the foreground.
Each whisky had a story- particularly for hoary old whisky enthusiasts. Putting the dram in drama, as it were.
The Telltale Heart
For a spot of fun, we also tried doing a mystery tasting flight of whiskies. Whisky flights are nothing new in themselves, but they can feel somewhat tired if they are predictable. Putting three core expressions from the same distillery together has become par for the course; we can’t count the number of times we had a 12, 15 and 18 year old in sequence.
We were pleased to note that the tasting flight was specially designed to challenge our tastebuds. Other than knowing that all of the whiskies were sherried, no other clues were given. The idea, of course, was to actually focus on what the taste of the whisky was, not on labels, brands or other preconceived notions. Much sniffing and slurping ensued.
We appreciate the effort that went into selecting those whiskies. There were a few surprises waiting for us when the veils were removed, so to speak, and the identities of the whiskies laid bare (none of the whiskies were Scottish). It felt like it was designed for whisky lovers, by whisky lovers.
Summing it all up
For whisky bars, this new contender definitely ranks up in the top echelons. Not merely content to have a great range of whiskies, it exudes passion and thoughtfulness, giving us an incredible experience.
It was almost as if someone wondered, what would a whisky enthusiast want from a whisky bar, and went on to give us just that.
So if we say that we’re busy writing… well, you know where to find us.
The Writing Club