Shake it up, baby

Shake it up, baby

Whenever a new watering hole in town opens, you can be sure to find barflies flitting to it in droves.

It is a challenge, though, to entice them back in an increasingly competitive scene.

To keep things fresh, at least eight established cocktail bars in town are or will soon be serving new drinks and posh nosh in the coming month.

They include Manhattan at Regent Singapore, Jekyll & Hyde in Tras Street, Maison Ikkoku in Kandahar Street, Ding Dong in Ann Siang Road, Bar Naked in Club Street, The Cufflink Club in Jiak Chuan Road, anti:dote at Fairmont Singapore and Jigger & Pony in Amoy Street.

From barrel-ageing and bottling their own cocktails to serving tipple using uncommon spirits such as Baijiu, a strong grain-based alcoholic beverage from China, these operators are pulling out all the stops to stand out.

More fancy and sophisticated bar nibbles such as prawn tempura and smoked duck and Hoisin pizza are also shoving run-of-the-mill grub such as fries and fried chicken wings off the menu.

So stiff is the competition these days that bar operators say they have to review their offerings every three to four months to stay ahead of the game.

There are now more than 30 cocktail bars in Singapore that specialise in bespoke drinks and premium spirits, up from fewer than 10 four years ago. These include Bar Stories in Haji Lane and Nektar in Scotts Road.

Last month alone, four new bars joined the party.

Manhattan's head bartender Ricky Paiva, 33, who has unveiled 11 new cocktails this month, says having to tweak the menu regularly keeps bartenders on their toes. It is the first time the bar has updated its menu since it opened in April last year.

He says: "It really pushes bartenders to keep striving to do better, be it to create new innovative cocktails or to try unique techniques."

Among his new offerings is a package where up to eight guests can learn to concoct classic cocktails and sample aged spirits straight from the barrel.

They will also be treated to a tour of the bar's rickhouse, a space where Mr Paiva ages his cocktails in custom American oak barrels, and a walk- through of the bar's ingredients room.

Ageing cocktails and spirits in oak barrels is known to enhance their flavours.

At bar anti:dote at the Fairmont Singapore, head bartender Tom Hogan will introduce new cocktails next month, the first update of its menu since it opened in December 2013.

Mr Nick Flynn, Fairmont Singapore's director of food and beverage, says: "The burgeoning bar scene, coupled with growth in the pool of bar industry talents, has led to an increasing number of guests being exposed to a wider range of creative cocktails. And with guests being increasingly educated on cocktails, we will no doubt have to keep up our level of offerings to stay in tune with this dynamic industry."

Ms Hilda Tan, 20, head bartender of Spiffy Dapper in Amoy Street, says consumers today are not just spoilt for choice, but are also increasingly savvy.

"They're quite likely to compare the cocktails they've had here with not just those at other cocktail bars in Singapore, but also those in London, Tokyo and New York," she notes.

At South-east Asian-inspired bar Ding Dong, bartender Kamil Foltan has added eight new cocktails to the menu this month and hopes to update it every three to four months.

The 29-year-old says: "Changing menus on a regular basis is important to attract guests. At the same time, it is also a way to develop one's business. The food and beverage industry is like fashion - there are many brands and they change often. It simply means you have to keep up."

Bars have also been introducing exotic nibbles to go with their cocktails, from fried bread and butter pickles with remoulade and jalapeno ranch sauce to deviled Scotch eggs topped with fish roe and olives.

Manhattan's chef Nicholas Trosien, 29, says growing interest in the craft of making and drinking cocktails means that bars have to keep refining and improving their food.

"I believe that the food at a bar is just as important as the drinks served. If one or the other disappoints, it tends to change one's overall opinion of that bar," says Mr Trosien.

He adds that bargoers' expectations are higher these days, given the rising standards of cooking and food in general, and that has had a trickle-down effect on the cocktail scene.

Mr Joel Fraser, 31, owner-bartender of The Cufflink Club, also updates his menu every quarter or so and recently introduced pizzas to the offerings, which he says complement the cocktails and vibe of his New York-inspired bar.

At Jekyll & Hyde, patrons can expect to try fresh offerings - eight cocktails and five bar snacks, to be exact - from next month. However, regulars will still be able to order past signature cocktails that are no longer on the menu.

The bar, which updates its menu every quarter, usually sees sales jump by up to 20 per cent within the first two months each time it launches new offerings.

But while its head bartender Jeff Ho, 37, acknowledges that variety is a good thing, he notes that the bar's identity is also important. He says: "Every bar has a personality, a soul, perhaps. Be clear and consistent, then your customers will keep coming back."

The bargoers Life! spoke to agree, adding that the quality of the cocktails and the rapport one has with the bartender are what count most.

Ms Charlotte Lourdes, 37, who works in human resources and frequents Jekyll & Hyde three times a week, says: "The way Jeff describes a drink before he lets you try it, that's priceless. And he knows your palate, what you like and wouldn't like." She adds that as long as a bar has a distinct identity that people can relate to, customers will return. For insurance executive Jack Ledger, who pops into cocktail bar Bitters & Love a few times a week, how a bar markets itself matters.

"If it's an innovative cocktail bar, then there has to be constant evolution... At Bitters & Love, there are always new drinks and new things to try," says the 22-year-old.

The bar in North Canal Road makes minor tweaks and additions to its menu without fanfare every three months and customers can always ask for customised cocktails.

Its co-owner Beverly Yeoh, 28, says: "While it's important to keep things fresh, there's also the adage, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'."

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