The local cocktail bar scene has come a long way since its days of sugary vodka- based-tinis.
Almost every bar now has a slew of handcrafted drinks done with homemade bitters, orange juice squeezed a la minute, or small batch artisanal spirits.
Having created a more demanding clientele, bar owners are now compelled to come up with new tricks to differentiate themselves from competitors.
"There are a lot of bars catering to the same demographic - it's a sophisticated scene now with people doing micro distilling and making their own bitters," observes restaurateur and hotelier Loh Lik Peng. Mr Loh created The Library, a password- required, prohibition style speakeasy two years ago.
"When we started The Library, around the same time that 28 Hong Kong Street opened, it was really cutting edge but if we were given the same location now it would be something different," shares Mr Loh.
Next month, he opens Long Play, an easygoing vinyl record bar that focuses more on creating the perfect ambience than on intricate cocktails.
On the other end of the spectrum is veteran bartender Daichi Kanetaka who pays attention to every single detail from the ice to the vessel that his sherry mixed drinks are served in at his newly opened D.Bespoke.
On why he decided to set up in Singapore, he explains that Singapore's bar scene is not as saturated as the overcrowded Ginza in Tokyo.
"Singapore's bar culture still has room to grow. My mentor is 83 years old and still bartending, but in Singapore there are no bartenders over 60," says Mr Kanetaka.
"There are many foreign bartenders coming to Singapore but hopefully the next generation of Singaporean bartenders will develop their own style."
The newest watering holes are therefore moving away from the mainstream into a niche market.
Whether it's specialised sherry or rum-based drinks, creating a different ambience or revamping old concepts, the evolution of the local bar scene continues to be no less than intoxicating.
Getting a facelift
83 Club Street
Z 6690 7563
Take a good look at 83 Club Street - because the progressive French bar is planning to reinvent itself and by next month it will emerge with a new concept, new interiors and new name.
Opened three and a half years ago by the Deliciae Hospitality Management group, the eclectic bar is known for its pastiche of ever-changing pop art (all available for purchase), as well as its steampunk meets urban free radical inspired decor that sees carved life-sized tigers at the entrance and a wall covered with vintage cassette tapes.
It was avant garde art, trendy music, and drinks all rolled into one nifty package.
If the formula isn't broken, why change it? Because Olivier Bendel, Deliciae's founder and CEO, believes that bars have shelf lives.
"83 Club Street is a bit different from the other concepts that we have like L'entrecote (a cozy steak frites bistro) and Sabio (a Spanish tapas joint), which have become established institutions over the years and earned a loyal following.
When we opened the bar three years ago, we were the first of its kind and part of the new generation of bars in Singapore. But today we are the oldest one on Club Street," he explains.
With intensified competition from the other new watering holes in the area, a revamp seems only natural.
The concept is still being fine-tuned at the moment but one thing is for sure: the new 83 Club Street will revolve around rum cocktails, a drink that Mr Bendel believes is the next IT tipple.
"Rum is beautiful and still relatively unknown in Singapore and at the same time it's not too expensive. That will allow us to serve it at good prices to our customers," says Mr Bendel whose concepts have mostly centred on quality and affordability.
The bar will offer up to 80 different types of rum ranging from basic to more premium varieties.
While the current 83 Club Street offers a paltry food menu, the new concept will place a greater emphasis on cuisine.
In addition to bar snacks, there'll be sharing platters of Caribbean/Hawaiian inspired food to complement the rum cocktails.
Renovations are slated to take place in December and re-open by end of the month or in January.
Mr Bendel promises that the new concept is going to look very colourful.
"83 Club Street is free, fun, and a bit decadent - this will remain the same with the new concept," he adds.
Relish the classics
2 Bukit Pasoh Road
"Do you like sweet, sour or refreshing?" That's the oft-asked question at bespoke cocktails bars.
Daiki Kanetaka takes things a few steps further by considering the length, aroma, body, and strength of the personalised cocktail he's serving.
Housed in the historical shophouse that was formerly the Siong Leng Music Association, D.Bespoke is a Ginza-style cocktail bar run and owned by the Kobe-born Mr Kanetaka - the "D" is a reference to Mr Kanetaka's first name.
The 28-seater D. Bespoke is Mr Kanetaka's first foray into Singapore. He has two more bars in Beijing: Glen Bar Beijing and Glen Classic. With sepia-tinted menus, plump chesterfield sofas, metal-knitted lampshades, plenty of teak wood, and a jazz soundtrack in the background, D.Bespoke feels retro although it has been open for just one month. Mr Kanetaka himself wears a smart pinstriped suit, bow tie, and slicked back hair - a uniform typical in classic Japanese bars.
Mr Kanetaka spent 16 years in the strict Japanese bar system, and counts Japanese legend Hidetsugu Ueno as a mentor.
As a result, his approach towards cocktails is somewhat obsessive.
Drinks must be diluted just so, the choice of ingredients exact.
"The same cocktail will taste different with a different shaker and a different bartender," insists Mr Kanetaka as he demonstrates some of the nine shaking techniques that he commonly uses - one in particular is a round movement to introduce more air for a lighter, fluffier drink.
Every component is taken seriously. Let's just say that the ice used here is not your average Tuck Lee variety.
To make pure ice "without that minerally taste", water is passed through a US imported system quadruple times then kept at -10°C; it takes a longer time to harden (about one week) but it forms dense, crystal clear ice that melts at a slower rate and doesn't dilute your drink as fast.
There is a minimum spend of S$60 per person at D.Bespoke but when there is so much attention to detail - all the ice is handcut into spheres and cubes of varying sizes depending on the drink, and every highball, tumbler and martini glass is specially designed to enhance the tasting experience - the price seems justified.
All cocktails are also served with complimentary roasted almonds, dried apricots, dehydrated kiwis, and dried sweet tomatoes.
Sherry, Calvadoes, Armagnac and vintage rum are the specialty quaffs here and Mr Kanetaka has spent some time in Spain, France, and the Caribbean to hone his expertise.
His penchant for sherry shows with over 50 types offered at D.Bespoke.
As a certified venenciador (a sherry equivalent of the sommelier), he's able to serve sherry with the traditional venecia, a long flexible shaft with a cup at one end and a hook on the other. There are sherry tasting flights (including 3-5 drinks) starting from S$25, and there are plans to hold sherry cocktail pairing dinners every three months.
Putting the record on
4 Haji Lane
In an era where music can be accessed from Spotify or downloaded through Apple iTunes with a swipe of your fingers or click of a mouse, vinyl records with all its crackle and cumbersome imperfection seem so last century.
However, its old school charm lies in the "warmth of the sound", explains restaurateur and hotelier Loh Lik Peng.
Mr Loh is the founder of Unlisted Collection and responsible for trendy restaurant bars such as Esquina, Pollen, Bincho and Burnt Ends.
Not one to repeat his concepts, and with the Library, a successful prohibition style cocktail bar already under his belt, Mr Loh's latest project is a vinyl record bar that will open along the tiny alley of Haji Lane just before Christmas.
"Obviously we are going to serve drinks but Long Play is not a bar in the pure sense of being just a watering hole. We are trying to represent a creative subculture and at the same time bring another dimension into the local bar scene," he shares.
Mr Loh is not a vinyl record collector and his team is in the process of procuring a collection of vinyl records that will encompass everything from 50s or 60s music genres to contemporary hits.
They are also spending a "healthy six figure sum" on the record player and state of the art sound system.
Still, the idea of a vinyl record bar was not the initial concept Mr Loh had in mind when he found the vacant lot at 4 Haji Lane up for grabs.
"I wanted to launch a restaurant like Esquina or The Market Grill but the place is too long and narrow to fit a kitchen," says Mr Loh.
The 1,500 sq ft unit opens on both ends and you can walk through from Arab Street to Haji Lane. It's almost like a passageway or corridor and ceilings aren't particularly high.
"This is probably one of the oddest spaces I have had to work with," quips Mr Loh, who will be enlisting the help of Shanghai based design firm Neri & Hu to create interiors that are "raw and defined by clean lines and nice details" to play off the urban heritage feel of the neighbourhood.
In addition to bar seating, there are clusters of small booths to provide a cosy atmosphere.
"People can come into Long Play and tell the DJ which genre of music they like and he can have a nice drink while enjoying the music. It's not going to be rammed to the rafters like some of the other bars. It's really more a chill out venue," says Mr Loh.
On the menu will be classic cocktails like old fashions and gin tonics as well as a mixture of beers and wines.
To eat there will be simple menu of finger food, cured meats - "something that you can eat with your hands".
321 Orchard Road
#02-01 Orchard Shopping Centre
The 40-seater Elixir Bar is helmed by Japanese bartender and mixologist Yutaka Nakashima but if you're expecting the classic Japanese cocktail, think again.
From the unique concoctions such as the Lycopini (S$21) that melds Skyy vodka with cherry tomatoes and the Spice Candy (S$21) with Mount Gay Rum, dulce sauce and gingerbread cream, you'll get a taste of Mr Nakashima's culinary background. With over 16 years of experience in bartending and cooking, Mr Nakashima offers the best of both.
Elixir Bar is one part of the multi-concept KUVO which also boasts a restaurant, wine bar and gift shop in the 9,000 sq ft space.
It's located in the nondescript Orchard Shopping Centre building that's sandwiched between H&M and 313@Somerset.
Henry Tan, marketing communications manager of KUVO, likes to think of the place as more like a "private sanctuary in the heart of Orchard Road that is accessible to everyone but still located away from the crowd".
The restaurant will serve all day breakfast Western and Chinese style to hearty main courses such as Slipper Lobster Laksa Lemak and Chargrilled Wagyu Half Pounder.
KUVO is The Connoisseur Concerto's (aka TCC) first attempt at a proper restaurant.
The leading gourmet cafe chain focuses on good quality coffee and cafe friendly bites and manages the Australian cafe franchise House of Robert Timms.
This article was first published on November 22, 2014. Get The Business Times for more stories.