Cocktail crafter, writer and historian Simon Ford just returned from a trip to Asia, and cocktails for him will never be the same. Ford, whose “Drink Ford Tough” column appeared for several years on Food Republic, is also cofounder of the 86 Co., the respected brand of spirits made for bartenders by bartenders (and now consumed by drinkers around the world). Traveling to judge the Gin Jubilee, a gin and tonic festival held in the buzzing culinary metropolis of Singapore, with entries from all over the continent, Ford made some significant discoveries. Most importantly, he can say with certitude that Asia’s cocktail scene is alive, well and packed with elaborate botanical brews.
Where did you go, and how long were you on the road?
Seoul, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok for two weeks. It was the biggest eye-opener of my career when it comes to cocktails. What I’ve been desperate to see is the next evolution in cocktail innovation. If you think about the journey of the culture, we’ve gone from relearning the old-school classic techniques of Jerry Thomas to all the revivals. There’s even been an attempt at ’70s and ’80s cocktails, but without the crappy ingredients. What I saw when I was in Asia was constant innovation, as well as classics. The bartending world there has entered a moment, and nowhere showcased it more than Singapore.
It’s hard to explain Singapore’s food and drink culture to someone who’s never been. What inspired you while you were there, and what’s the best culinary and drinking experience you had?
Definitely the pride and seriousness with which they cook and create cocktails. The bars don’t take themselves too seriously, only what they deliver. Some great examples might be going to the Tippling Club, a restaurant and bar with a celebrity chef behind it. The food is “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants” level. There’s a bartender there called Joe Schofield, who trained in London and blasted out a cocktail menu he called “The Sensorian.” He makes a martini where if you sip it out of one area of the glass you get lemon, and another orange. They subtly flavor the glass with garnish oils and give you a little map on the coaster. It was playful, delicious and experimental. I find that type of thing inspiring.
Another place in Singapore is Manhattan Bar, where they specialize in barrel-aged cocktails. They have 140 of them in a barrel-aging room where they keep things at different temperatures, with distiller and bartender sections. They’re taking barrel aging to this whole new level, and it felt like that’s what I was seeing everywhere.
And a last example: Operation Dagger, which had a back bar that was devoid of any spirit brand or bottle, just “flavor sensations.” It might say “sesame,” or “super-zesty orange.” The way they put the drinks on the menu was in a way that would inspire customers to order drinks not because of a spirit category or brand, but because of a flavor they like. The founder, Luke Whearty, this bearded grizzly South African — not in a hipster way, more in a Chewbacca way — is like a mad scientist at a speakeasy on acid.
What were some local ingredients you encountered in Singapore’s bar scene?
At a bar called Potato Head Folk, they were doing something called the Indigenous Bartender. They only work with ingredients they can find locally, with a sustainable element to it: Coffee bean shells they’d roasted, things that would normally get thrown away, lots of types of honey from all over the world — bitter honey, which I’d never had before.
There were fruits I’d never heard of. It had a very lively vibe, as far away from being a speakeasy as possible, decorated with lots of local arts and crafts to celebrate the region. They made a drink with something called snake fruit. We’re used to the fruits our bartenders work with, and what people tend to do is copy London and New York instead of what they should be doing themselves. Potato Head Folk was a fantastic example, using things like mangosteen and vanilla arak, unrecognizable things, but making use of local ingredients.
Have you found that local sourcing and sustainability have taken hold as a trend in Asia’s cocktail bars?
Absolutely. A Kuala Lumpur bar called Case Study, built in an old printing mill, really inspired me. The owners, one of whom had previously bartended in Singapore, built a 20-by-5-foot urban garden that gave an aroma to the whole bar. The back bar was also all potted herbs. I’d never seen that in the bar world.
Did you notice any evolution in the classic Singapore Sling?
I went to Singapore for the first time 10 years ago, and the only places where I was told to get a cocktail were the Tippling Club and the Raffles Hotel for $30 touristy Singapore Slings. As much as it’s fun to feel like a colonial Brit for a second, the Sling wasn’t very good. Then along came 28 Hong Kong Street, which is one of my favorite bars in Asia.
28 Hong Kong street, which set the tone for the whole cocktail movement in Singapore, is a lot of fun. The drinks and food are amazing, it’s a great party and it’s the ultimate training ground for bartenders in Singapore.
If you go, you should also jump across to a bar called D.Bespoke, which is the bar equivalent of a three-Michelin-star restaurant. Some people might say it takes itself too seriously. They have so many people around, you get up to go to the bathroom and someone pulls your chair out. You’ve never had water that’s so pure and clean — it goes through multiple filters and comes out a certain temperature — and your glass is constantly filled up. “Jiro Dreams of Cocktails” is the best way of describing it. The bartender is from Japan — I ordered a drink with plum and various things, and there were five guys around this master bartender helping. Someone carves the ice; someone else serves it. The theater element was amazing, but also the quality of everything they use, from ice to glass to the chair you’re sitting in, is the most expensive money can buy. It’s reflected in the price, of course — these are not $8. They’re $27 and up, usually $40 to $60, but they’re making it with things like 15-year Calvados.
What are your thoughts on the $60 cocktail?
There’s always been this cost restriction on drinking. We don’t like spending as much on it as on food. We’re happy to get a $20 steak, but when we go into a cocktail bar, we expect everything to be the same price. That’s Singapore adapting Japanese drinking and service to Singapore in the same way the other bars have been bringing U.S. and U.K. drinking styles and adapting them to local ways. It was really cool.
Tell me about the Gin Jubilee, the event you traveled to judge.
They should call it the Gin and Tonic Jubilee! Different bars all over Southeast Asia serve their version of a gin and tonic, and the winners come to Singapore for the giant final. During that week, 28 to 30 bars are pushing their Gin Jubilee special, and a winner is declared. Then there’s a giant gin and tonic–themed street party, with bar after bar, musicians and DJs and thousands of people drinking. Part of what I enjoyed was seeing the progress of the industry, because 15 years ago it was hard to just sell gin in Singapore, and now people are paying good money to go to this festival. And it’s not just a Singapore thing; that’s an international movement.
Lexis Tan from Singapore’s Red Tail Bar, with her “Float Like a Butterfly.” It was a gin and tonic using Bombay Sapphire infused with bright blue butterfly pea tea flower, cinnamon syrup, fresh lemon juice and Burma tonic with a layer of citrus foam. I will also add that a bartender from Phnom Penh made his drink with Fords Gin, which was cool because I didn’t even know it was available in Cambodia.
Of those you visited, which city in Asia drinks the most?
From an outsider looking in, with my limited experience, I personally drank the most in Singapore, but the cocktails there are very expensive — really only expats drink them. I think the award goes to South Korea. I watched one person I’d been drinking with vomit outside, get into a taxi and drive off. We found out that that person had bought our entire night’s drinks, which was quite an interesting experience in itself. Hong Kong is another big party city. I always thought NYC was London on steroids, but if that’s true, Hong Kong is NYC and London on steroids combined. They built buildings as tall as New York’s with streets as narrow as London’s, and every street is so busy, every bar is so busy, anything goes, 24/7.
Which place had the best cheap eats?
Kuala Lumpur. I had the best cheap food I’ve ever had in my life. Kuala Lumpur is a melting pot of cultures. People over the course of its history have come from all over, and it’s driven some amazing food. I got there at 3 a.m., went to a 24-hour place and spent $2 on some of the most delicious food. For breakfast the next morning, $1.50 hawker stands — the traditional “served on a banana leaf” places.