Bespoke drink? Spare me the stress

My first time was with a friend who knew what she wanted and wasn't afraid to ask for it.

"Give me something sour, vodka-based, with passionfruit and a single large ice cube," she instructed the bartender.

He bestowed on her the approving smile of a rare book dealer asked to bring out the autographed first edition of War And Peace in the original Russian. Then he turned to me.

"Errr," I said.

"Just say what you want," urged my friend, who is accustomed to so doing. "Do you want a cocktail that is sweet and fruity? Dry and bitter? Dark and strong, with a smoky aftertaste?"

The last one sounded good if it could come in a tall male version, but I decided not to say that out loud.

"I want... a menu?" I offered instead.

The bartender, having heard the equivalent of a request for the collected works of Harry Potter, gave me a pitying look. My friend shot me an exasperated one.

"This is a bespoke cocktail bar!" she said. "What's the point of coming here if you're just going to order something you can get anywhere else?"

It was a good question. The sad answer was that for someone completely devoid of creativity like me, bespoke is really befuddling.

For those wondering what tailor-made suits have to do with alcohol, it should be explained that bespoke isn't just for menswear anymore.

These days, you can custom-make anything to your specifications: cars painted to match your nail varnish, coffee tables built to the exact height of your sofa cushions, vacations in the desert with your own private chefs and temperature-controlled tents.

And, of course, cocktails to not just suit your tastebuds, but express your sparkling personality as well.

The trend is understandable: Nothing makes people feel more special than believing they are buying something that is not only one-of-a-kind, but made explicitly for them.

That's why people etch their initials on their shirt cuffs, bags and even bedsheets, much like how my mother used to sew my name into my kindergarten bloomers to differentiate them from my sister's. It's a sensible practice although the need for stitching clues to identify one's own belongings should really diminish beyond the age of seven.

But there comes a point where individualisation becomes its own unique form of stress.

As if it wasn't demanding enough to have your own house and your own car and your own personal motivational quote and your own quirky-but-elegant e-mail sign-off, these days you also need to have your very own signature drink.

It used to be that one could go into any bar, ask for a glass of house wine or a pint of whatever was on tap and then relax in the company of other unimaginative people who had all ordered the same uninspired beverage.

In today's world of ubiquitous customisation, though, it's just not done to tell people you prefer off-the-rack to made-to-order.

That would be like admitting you would rather drink your latte - sorry, your skinny double-shot macchiato with a single pump of hazelnut syrup, extra hot - without a drawing of a foam cat on top. In which case you might as well own up to favouring char siew bao over artisan bread and buying your sunglasses based solely on their degree of UV protection.

Here I have to confess I did something worse: I bought my sunglasses based on price, from some department store bargain bin. I just don't see the point of spending hundreds of dollars on something that insists on breaking the moment I put it in my bag.

Which is probably why I find it so difficult to embrace the whole bespoke cocktail experience. For a standout order in a dim and noisy bar, you need to come up with a drink that's tasty and easy to describe, yet with a singular twist that tells the bartender you're more than just a generic gin-andtonic girl.

"It's simple," a bespoke-bar-regular colleague told me the other day. "Just find an unusual fruit that you like, and a drink that you like, and tell the bartender to put the two together."

That actually sounded like a great solution, until I tried it. "My favourite fruit is lychee, and I really like martinis, so maybe my special bespoke drink can be a lychee martini! Oh wait..."

It was clear that nothing I could come up with myself would be better than what the expert mixologists who actually did this for a living had already thought of.

So, as with any problem way above my head, I have decided to ignore the specifics and go high-level.

The next time someone asks me what I want to drink, I'm just going to say:

"Bring me something that makes me feel special. With a smoky aftertaste, please."

fiochan@sph.com.sg


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