“Singapore was historically a trading post and financial hub, so you have different cultures and ethnicities coming together to promote creativity,” explains Jason Williams, a Queensland native who moved to the Lion City five years ago to serve as creative director for Proof & Co as well as Master of Gin at Atlas.
“There are tons of expats from the United States and elsewhere, along with a local middle class that have come up in a globalised economy. They experience cocktail culture elsewhere and bring it back here. And since food culture in Asia is so integral, people already have much a broader palate compared to in Australia, where I’m from. Here, they’re more willing to try new things, from smoky mezcals to European liqueurs.”
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Yet it would be inaccurate to give Singapore sole credit for birthing cocktail culture in the vastness that is Asia. Those with a longer memory may recall that the US food magazine Bon Appétit in 2008 proclaimed Tokyo to be “the cocktail capital of the world”—perhaps for the precision, craftsmanship and omotenashi (hospitality) of Japan’s buttoned-up bartenders. Often compared to other Japanese crafts like the tea ceremony or ikebana (flower arranging), Japanese bartending is a reflection of virtues like patience, respect and service.
It’s worth noting that many attributes of Japanese bar culture predate even the US’s own cocktail revolution. Indeed, even the late New York bartender Sasha Petraske cited the enthralling bartending performances put on at New York City’s Angel’s Share and other local Japanese-owned cocktail bars as inspiration for his legendary reinvented speakeasy Milk & Honey. And when Petraske’s disciple, Richard Boccato, began investigating the now ubiquitous use of “fancy,” hand-cut ice, he turned to a Japanese ice-sculpting studio in Queens, Okamoto Studio.
That early fascination with Japanese cocktail culture would soon be mirrored by a love for the cult genre of Japanese whisky—a product of Scottish-Japanese collaboration that emphasises the meticulous selection of natural spring water and a ceremonial reverence for the art of blending. In 2015, when Suntory’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 won the title of World’s Best Whisky, the spirits market acknowledged, for the first time, that Asian distillers were a force to be reckoned with. These days, Suntory and its primary competitor Nikka are foraying into gins and vodkas made with Asian botanicals and citrus such as yuzu.
But while there are exceptions, Japan’s cocktail culture continues to be defined by a near obsession with a classic canon of drinks and a dedication to honing even the simplest techniques. “One time, I was talking to a Japanese bartender working at Mizunara: The Library in Hong Kong,” remembers Nick Braun, creative director of the Bangkok-based Umami Hospitality group. “I asked him what he’d been learning, and he said, ‘My gin and tonic isn’t quite right.’ That’s all he’d been working on for months: perfecting a gin and tonic. They do things perfectly, or not at all.”
That’s not to say that creativity has been altogether sacrificed: Hiroyasu Kayama, in particular, has been revered for plucking out lesser-known ingredients like Japanese peppers grown at his family farm and Gula Melaka (palm sugar) brought in from Malaysia. But broadly speaking, Tokyo, like New York City and London, is marked by a concrete identity that’s become easily recognisable to global cocktail fans—one of scientifically accurate measured pours, impeccable light-touch service and exactly timed cocktail shaking.
All In The Mix
More fast-paced streams of innovation might be found in second-wave Asian markets like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei, but also particularly where a convergence of diverse cultures and widespread economic growth have given rise to newfound cultural, and thus cocktail, capitals: Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City and notably Bangkok.
With emergent middle classes, many Southeast Asian cities are seeing land grabs for first iterations of global concepts like craft beer breweries, Third Wave coffee shops and classic cocktail bars. For both the people who drink cocktails and the people who make them, it’s a brave new world.
“The best thing about the bar scene in Southeast Asia is that it’s youthful and diverse,” says Williams, whose consulted on regional projects like the hyperlocal Bar Trigona at the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur. “People are doing cool and crazy things—not just the cookie-cutter-style bars that you might see in different cities. There are also mutations of different concepts, whether that’s Ginza-style Japanese bars that also play heavy metal, or bars doing molecular mixology with all Southeast Asian ingredients.”
One standout of these exceedingly inventive hybrid concepts is Hong Kong’s Pontiac, a women-led, Coyote Ugly-esque neighborhood dive that oozes pure rock ’n’ roll. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, owner Beckaly Franks has been dubbed the First Lady of Hong Kong mixology for leading the city towards the trend of relaxed and inclusive cocktail bars that still shake up award-worthy drinks. “Before we opened in 2015, there were some great heavy hitters but mostly the scene was very exclusive,” Franks says. “That ‘you can’t sit with us’ mentality has flown the coop. There’s a spirit of collaboration in the scene.”
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Franks is quick to earnestly shout out Pontiac’s peers, including Stockton (“They’re the OGs representing Hong Kong”), COA (“Jay Khan is the most honest, determined guy in the industry”) and Quinary (“Antonio Lai is a champion and a badass leader”), as inspirations for how she trains and mentors her staff. But Pontiac’s unique calling card is perhaps its multiculturalism: the staff has included people from the Philippines, Taiwan, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Sri Lanka, Brazil and the United States.
“Hong Kong is special in that we have a beautiful melting pot of cultures—everyone comes from a different background, so we have to learn to respect each other and how each of us does things,” Franks asserts, adding that that diversity translates directly onto the menu. “My bar manager Tracy Villegas, who is Filipino, created a Palamig Ti Punch—a classic agricole rum punch but made with the flavours of Palamig, a traditional drink in the Philippines.”
Local ingredients likewise inform the ethos at Singapore’s Native, a three-year-old bar by luminary Vijay Mudaliar that looks and breathes like a classic Western cocktail bar except with a fixation on Asian ingredients (pandan leaves and Indian whisky, for instance) as well as locally procured artisan crafts (batik fabric aprons and locally crafted ceramic vessels). One notable drink, Antz, fuses salt-baked tapioca and coconut yogurt with aged cane juice and Thai agricole rum. The garnish? Crunchy Polyrhachis ants from Thailand nestled in a liquid nitrogen-frozen leaf with melting basil “cubes.”
“It took us a while to connect with our audience, as we work solely on local and regional produce and make no classics at the bar,” admits Mudaliar. “However, I think it was exciting for the local audience to rediscover ingredients used in our heritage—but in terms of a cocktail. We work on reconnecting our customers with tradition, farmers and foraged produce. Being indigenous to this part of the world, we really wanted to showcase not only the unique ingredients, but also give a sense of familiarity to the culture.”
More surface-level attempts to simply drop Southeast Asian flavours into classic cocktail formats have been at times misguided. Braun recalls an early moment in Bangkok’s cocktail renaissance in which Thai ingredients were used primarily in such forced applications with subpar results.
“Back then, it was tom yum-spiced cocktails, sticky rice infusions, and mango liqueurs—low-hanging fruit that weren’t very creative and didn’t mix well,” Braun says. “But now that more and more people are seeing Bangkok as a true cocktail city, we’re seeing interesting ways that the breadth and variety of Southeast Asian cuisines lend themselves perfectly to innovation. For example, things here are typically locally sourced. And while Western cuisine is generally quite wasteful, Asian cuisine focuses on eating the whole animal.”
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Asia Today, the neon-lit bar that Braun opened with veteran Thai bartender Niks Anuman-Rajadhon in 2017, offers a masterclass in spotlighting local ingredients in thoughtful ways. “We focus our drinks around local wild honey from different regions, species and vintages, as honey is one of the most terroir-driven natural ingredients,” explains Anuman-Rajadhon.
A house daiquiri incorporates a honey variety from Khao Yai National Park, while the back bar showcases local ingredients like cocoa wine and various rums produced around Thailand. “European food has been pretty well explored in cocktails,” Braun adds. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the next new ingredient fads coming out of Asia.”
Shaping The Scene
Asia’s rapid ascent in the bar world offers the continent’s top haunts an opportunity to shape the global conversation in terms of ingredients, techniques and trends. At the same time, more acclaim has turned a profession once deemed unworthy into a lucrative, sustainable industry.
“The prestige of being a bartender is small but growing in Asia—it’s now seen as a viable career path,” Williams says. “At Manhattan, we hired a strong Filipino contingent of bartenders who were used to working banquet situations. Five years later, most still work there and they’re travelling the world leading presentations on how to build one of the world’s best bars. That’s a huge metric of success for us.”
Indra Kantono, co-founder of Singapore’s pioneering Jigger & Pony group, which just launched its latest venue Live Twice, says a new generation of homegrown bartenders is emerging to helm and open their own bars. “It is already the case that home-grown bartenders are leading and opening exciting bars that take the cocktail scene to the next level and make it their own,” Kantono says. “The Jigger & Pony bar is managed by Jerrold Khoo, a Singaporean bartender who rose up the ranks from apprentice to bar manager at our group.”
Beyond their home bars, Asian bartenders have also earned acclaim through their performances at the world’s largest bartending competitions. At this year’s Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition it was a Thai talent, Ronnaporn “Neung” Kanivichaporn of Bangkok’s whimsical theatre-themed Backstage Cocktail Bar, who took home the crown with his basil-garnished take on a lighter, rum-based Bloody Mary. He was the first bartender representing an Asian country to win the competition.
Kanivichaporn notes that he’s not the only Thai making waves in global competitions, expressing excitement for peers like Arron Grendon of Tropic City, who won the Chivas Masters Global 2018 competition, and his Backstage colleague Supawit “Palm” Muttarattana, who bested the rest at Campari’s Asia-Pacific bartender competition.
“I’ve been thinking about Thai-born bartenders for a couple years—we are good enough now that we can make our country’s name global,” Kanivichaporn says. “We have a new generation of talented Thai bartenders. If they can get through the language barrier, I would love to see them share their ideas and passion on the world stage.”
But language is hardly the only struggle. In Ho Chi Minh City, several ambitious bars have emerged as hopeful champions for the still-nascent Vietnamese cocktail scene. Among them is Rabbit Hole, a recently opened but already beloved speakeasy that whisks revellers to a bygone, prewar era of Saigon with live jazz and subtly tweaked classics.
Co-owner Leon Nguyen cites poor access to ingredients as a major issue: “I have to source things in non-official ways, such as hand-carrying. That’s been the biggest challenge. We can’t even get Chartreuse, Cherry Heering or Pimm’s.”
Another obstacle is a lack of infrastructure for training. “Saigon fell behind because we didn’t have alcohol literacy yet,” Nguyen explains. “Vietnamese bars tried to copy popular Japanese concepts, but many times people don’t take the time to learn the basics.” But to improve training and education within his fledgling bar, Nguyen is not looking only to the West. Rather, he’s bringing in heavy hitters from Asia’s mighty cocktail scene for an ongoing Asia 50 Pop-Up Series at Rabbit Hole, featuring guest shifts from seminal regional bars like Ben Fiddich in Tokyo, Quinary in Hong Kong and its namesake Rabbit Hole Bangkok.
Nguyen is hopeful that with the right training, a little patience, and some inspiration from those who’ve come before that Vietnam might one day see one of its own bars in a coveted place on a World’s 50 Best Bars list. “After we opened, we saw more and more bars taking cocktails seriously and understanding classics,” Nguyen says. “That’s the greatest reward—being able to change something big-picture in Vietnam.”