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'."MANHATTAN
About the bar: Opened in April last year, the bar is named after the famed New York City borough and pays homage to the legendary 19thcentury watering holes in the city.
It is also home to the world's first in-hotel rickhouse, a space where its head bartender Ricky Paiva, 33, ages whiskies, spirits, bitters and cocktails in American oak barrels.
Its cocktails and bar bites are inspired by the districts of Manhattan, which include the Lower and Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem and Soho.
Drink this: Try the Primavera, a cocktail made with Cava Brava rum, fresh pineapple, mint, dry orange curacao, lime juice and house-made Straits spiced bitters, and garnished with an "ice bowl" filled with pineapple and mint ($20).
Those in a punk-rock mood may want to try the CBGB, named after the defunct Lower East Side club where bands such as The Ramones and Patti Smith Group performed.
It uses champagne, fresh berries, grapefruit, basil, peach bitters and St George absinthe, and is topped with a fruit garnish made to look like a mohawk ($24).
The adventurous can go for a tasting session of various aged Manhattan cocktails, and a tour of the rickhouse and ingredients room. You can barrel-age, bottle, label and wax seal your own cocktail too ($2,950 a barrel, three-hour session, for up to eight guests).
Eat this: Manhattan is probably the only bar in town to serve Fried Bread & Butter Pickles ($14).
Chef Nicholas Trosien, 29, does the pickling inhouse and serves it with a jalapeno ranch and remoulade sauce.
He also recommends the Smoked Marlin Dip ($18), which is made with avocado butter, topped with white sturgeon caviar and served on crisp tostones (fried plantain slices).
Where: 1 Cuscaden Road, Regent Singapore
Hours: 5pm to 1am daily; 11.30am to 3.30pm for cocktail brunch on Sunday
About the bar: Ding Dong started in 2013 as a fun concept where South-east Asian cuisine took on a modern spin in its style and representation.
For instance, its cocktails are made using fresh Asian herbs and spices and they often pay homage to the region's history, culture and heritage.
Head bartender Kamil Foltan, 29, of The Tippling Club (Ding Dong is set up by Spa Esprit Group chief executive Cynthia Chua and British chef Ryan Clift of The Tippling Club restaurant), who is from the Czech Republic, has concocted a few new additions inspired by his experiences living in Asia.
Drink this: Mr Foltan adds a twist to the typical Singaporean breakfast of kaya toast and coffee with Roti Kaya (Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky, pandan syrup, gomme, coconut cream, $18).
It incorporates the ingredients used in kaya spread, shaking it up the same way you would with a classic whisky sour cocktail.
For a fresh and tropical pick-me-up, try Bahru Bootleg Cocktail (aged tequila, orange curacao, pomegranate, pineapple, calamansi, $20).
Eat this: The black Carbon-battered Prawn Tempura ($16) may not look so appetising at first glance, but one bite is all it takes to change your mind. Sweet and juicy prawns in a deceivingly light and crisp batter of charred bamboo, which gives it the black colour.
If you prefer something with a bit of heat, go for the crisp homemade pancake with spiced pork mince and kaffir lime yogurt ($15) for that added zing.
Where: 23 Ann Siang Road Open: Noon to 3pm and 6pm to midnight from Monday to Saturday, closed on SundayJEKYLL & HYDE
About the bar: Opened in 2013, the bar has a quirky concept - nail salon at the front and bespoke cocktail bar at the back.
The man in charge of the tipple here is Mr Jeff Ho, 37, a Singaporean bartender known on the scene for his keen palate and creative use of local ingredients, such as tau huay (tofu pudding) and sour plums.
Drink this: With Chinese New Year around the corner, get into the festive mood with the creamy Love Letter (Bols advocaat liqueur, pandan syrup, milk and rum, $23) with a custard flavour.
For something less sweet, try Plum O.F (Plum-infused Chinese liqueur with a splash of plum bitters, $25).
The bar is also the only one in town to use Baijiu, a Chinese white wine, in its cocktails. Get acquainted with the taste profile of Baijiu and ask Mr Ho for a tasting flight, comprising two Baijiu cocktails and two shots of the liqueur ($40++).
Eat this: The bar gives Deviled Eggs - a British dish made of hardboiled eggs, mayonnaise, mustard and sweet relish - an Asian twist by adding ebikko or fish roe ($12).
There is also Garlic Prawns With Butter And Basil ($15), stir-fried juicy king tiger prawns in garlic butter oil topped with fresh basil.
Where: 49 Tras Street
Open: 6pm to midnight (Monday to Thursday), 6pm to 1am (Friday and Saturday), closed on Sunday
About the bar: Helmed by head bartender Ethan Leslie Leong, 39, a pioneering mixologist on the bar scene, Maison Ikkoku does not have a menu. Drinks, made using fresh herbs and fruit, are concocted based on customers' preferences: sweet or sour, strong or light and refreshing.
But every few months, Mr Leong may have a new batch of infused spirits or seasonal ingredients which he uses to create new cocktails.
Drink this: Mr Leong is known to collaborate with luxury fashion brands for his cocktails and his latest endeavour is with German luxe accessories brand Montblanc.
The cocktails are usually concocted for a brand launch or event and then made available at his bar.
The latest, a strong drink named Montblanc ($32), uses The Macallan 18 whisky, Brugal 1888 rum, honeycomb, Himalayan salt and citrus zest and is smoked with rosemary, chrysanthemum and cinnamon.
This month, the bar is going more "local" with its offerings, with bartender Noreen Dunzo's The Nonya (pandan infused vodka, coconut rum, lemongrass, kaffir lime, molasses, $28, top).
Eat this: In line with the local theme, the bar has a few quintessential Singaporean snacks.
They include the Aigre-Doux, a play on sweet and sour pork served on skewers (bite-sized pieces of roast pork in sweet and sour sauce, white vinegar, tomatoes, olive, pineapple, onions, green and red pepper and olives, $18, above); and The Hainanese, traditional chicken rice served tapas-style (jasmine rice, steamed chicken, garlic, ginger, onion, soya sauce, pandan leaves, lime and chilli, $9).
Where: 20 Kandahar Street, Level 2 shophouse unit
Open: 4pm to 1am (Sunday to Thursday), 4pm till late (Friday, Saturday and eve of public holiday)THE CUFFLINK CLUB
About the bar: Owner-bartender Joel Fraser, 31, has been on the bar scene for more than five years and is one of the pioneering bartenders pushing the boundaries in craft mixology.
The bar, which opened in 2012, has a chill vibe and Mr Fraser's team of bartenders take a light-hearted approach towards their well-balanced tipple.
This includes garnishing their cocktails with toy soldiers and handcuffs, and barrelageing jagerbomb (a mix of Jagermeister with Red Bull) for "60-ish days".
For the record, ageing jagerbombs in an oak barrel does not add anything to the drink, but is the bartenders' way of poking fun at the sudden popularity of ageing cocktails in barrels for 30 days or more.
Drink this: Try their F***ing Good Whiskey Sour (Good Ol' Fashioned American whiskey, hand-pressed citrus, house bitters, egg white, $22, left) for a smooth and refreshing take on the classic whisky sour cocktail.
The bar has also brought back an old favourite by popular demand - Jiak The Ripper, a gory-looking cocktail inspired by the infamous London serial killer Jack The Ripper (London dry gin, blood orange, citrus and a "Whitechapel surprise", $23, above).
Eat this: The bar recently added five pizzas to its food menu to complement what the owner calls a New York vibe, complete with hip-hop music.
Meat-lovers will enjoy the Salami (spicy Italian salami, Mozzarella, black pepper, tomato, $21, above), while those after something more adventurous can try the Duck Hunt (Hoisin sauce, tomato, smoked duck, spring onion, coriander leaves, $21).
Where: 6 Jiak Chuan Road
Open: 5pm to 1am (Monday to Thursday), 5pm to 2am (Friday), 6pm to 2am (Saturday), closed on Sunday
About the bar: Bar Naked opened in July as a bar space that can be repurposed every few months to showcase a particular spirit brand. It was a showcase bar for Monkey Shoulder whisky, a brand under Scottish alcohol company and distiller William Grant & Sons.
This month, it is highlighting Sailor Jerry spiced rum. Bargoers can try signature cocktails made using the rum and get to know about other spirits under the William Grant & Sons brand portfolio, including Reyka Vodka and Hendrick's Gin.
Drink this: Two signature cocktails have been created by Zachary Connor de Git, regional portfolio ambassador for William Grant & Sons.
They are The Sirocco (rum, Solerno blood orange liqueur, campari, orange juice, $25) and the 11th Hour Fizz (rum, red tea, vanilla syrup, lemon and soda, $28).
Eat this: Nothing too fancy on the food menu here, but you can munch on truffle edamame ($12) and Auntie Ang's Wings (deep-fried shrimp paste chicken wings, $16).
Where: 95 Club Street
Open: 5pm to 1am (Mondays to Wednesdays), 5pm to 3am (Thursdays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays
This article was first published on January 30, 2015.
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