Tamara Hinson tells the story of a classic cocktail packed with spicy liquor and fresh tropical fruit juice. Are you sipping comfortably?
I’ve crunched across plenty of bars in my day, but none quite as crunchy – or classy, for that matter – as the Raffles’ recently reopened Long Bar, where peanut carcasses cover the tiled floor. You’d be forgiven for thinking the cleaners are on strike, until you notice the visitors, throwing shells onto the floor with wild abandon. Even more surprising, in a country known for its rules, is the fact that staff don’t bat an eyelid. In fact, it’s positively encouraged.
It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1900s, when the Raffles hotel was surrounded not by skyscrapers but by nut plantations. Nuts were in such plentiful supply that they were offered to drinkers for free (and still are, hence the huge sacks lining the bar). “Plantation owners would hang out here,” explains LeRoy Chan, the hotel’s marketing and communications manager. “When the owners were on their plantations, they’d just sweep the nutshells onto the floor, and the tradition continued here at the Long Bar,” he says, chucking his shells aside with a cheeky grin. “As a Singaporean I struggle sometimes, but it’s liberating!”
But the Long Bar is famous for more than its nut-throwing antics. It’s the birthplace of the Singapore Sling, the pastel-hued cocktail created by Raffles barman Ngiam Tong Boon in 1915. Given that it’s one of the world’s most iconic cocktails, it’s hardly surprising that there are various theories regarding its creation, including the belief that a British officer asked Ngiam to create a cocktail the same colour as the lipstick worn by a woman he’d spotted.
“I haven’t heard that one,” admits LeRoy. “But we know for certain that it all started with Ngiam Tong Boon. It was ingenious, really – he created a drink resembling fruit juice, because it was socially unacceptable for women to drink alcohol. So from a business point of view it made perfect sense. The ladies were happy because they could drink alcohol in public, and the guys were happy because they could buy ladies a drink without offending social norms.”
It’s not just the bar (the hotel fully reopens in August) which has been given a spruce-up – so has the cocktail, although the ingredients remain the same. “We’re using craft ingredients now – not commercially made ones,” explains LeRoy. “The colouring is all-natural, and some ingredients, including the bitters, are made especially for the bar.” He shows me a bottle of bitters adorned with images of spices once grown nearby.
Head bartender Priscilla Leong offers me a Singapore Sling masterclass, and starts by cooling a cocktail glass by filling it with ice – to help the drink stay cool in Singapore’s notoriously sticky heat – and lining up the ingredients. “The most important thing is to make sure the juice is fresh,” says Leong. “There are only two juices – lime and pineapple – so they need to be fresh. Secondly, use a good gin – London dry gins work best, because they’re spicier and tie everything together. A western-style botanical gin would be too soft – it’s got to compete with so many ingredients.”
After adding 30ml of gin, I splash in 10ml of dry curacao, used as a sweetener, and to add depth. “It’s like when you’re doing your make-up – you’ll use a blend of colours,” says Leong. “I looked into its Latin background and curacao means ‘from the heart’. On a basic level it’s an orange liquor, but it’s more than that – the different spices highlight the orange notes, and it’s got a wonderful, chocolate-like smell.”
Next comes the dom benedictine, made by monks and drunk in Asia as a herbal tonic. “It’s the star of the show,” reveals Leong. “ There’s nothing like it – it gives the drink that herbaceous background.” I add a splash of grenadine syrup and 10ml of cherry liquor, which gives the cocktail its first fruity kick, before Leong instructs me to add a dash of bitters. “They add spice and help tie the ingredients together,” she explains. Finally, the fruit juice – a slug of lime juice and 60ml of pineapple, a slice of which is also used as a garnish. It’s another nod to Singapore’s heritage, in this case the pineapple plantations which once covered southeast Asia.
Actually, I lied – there’s one final step: the shaking, which turns out to be the hardest part, especially when the mercury’s pushing 23C and the humidity’s well over 90 per cent. “Inject your life and soul into it!” shouts Leong over the rattling of ice cubes. I tell her I’m surprised by how much effort it requires, and ask how many she makes a day. “Over 1,000!” she replies, adding that the bar’s bespoke Singapore Sling Shaker – a wrought iron gadget that can shake up to 18 at a time – is a godsend.
It’s time for a taste test. Full disclosure – the day before, I had a Singapore Sling at another iconic Singapore hotel, and didn’t like it. It was sickly sweet – how I’d imagine a fruity perfume might taste, if I ever fancied downing a bottle. But this one is delicious. “The biggest mistake you can make is to get the quantities wrong,” warns Leong. “It’s a delicate cocktail with lots of very different ingredients, and once you start doing that you’ll throw it out of balance.”
Luckily, the Singapore Sling is in safe hands. “Working at the Long Bar is a dream,” admits Leong, who returned to Singapore – where she was born – after a stint in Australia in order to take up the role. “I’d often imagine working here, and how it would be the most incredible experience for a bartender, to go back to where they came from, to a bar with this much heritage. I love the fact that I’ve got an opportunity to make history happen again.”
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Singapore from £447 return.
To book a Singapore Sling masterclass at the Long Bar, visit raffles.com/singapore/dining/long-bar/