Cover Jigger & Pony's Vesper is just one of the bar's several favourites that consumers can now enjoy at home

After a year plagued by a pandemic that almost crippled the F&B industry, we take a look at what’s in the mix for Singapore’s resilient cocktail scene

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced people into lockdown and halted operations for food & beverage businesses the world over, it seemed like the bar and cocktail industry was going to take a heavier beating. But bars were quick and agile to pivot their business operations to meet their customers’ needs. Pre-packaged cocktails for delivery and take outs, virtual bartending masterclasses and even international collaborations held over Zoom, and the accessibility of a plethora of craft spirits, all made it easy for consumers to partake in their favourite cocktails in the comfort and safety of their homes.

The continuing battle to contain the pandemic may have limited business operations but what it hasn’t done is curb the cocktail drinkers’ enthusiasm for high quality and sophisticated tipples. Charmaine Thio, committee member of Singapore Cocktail Bar Association and brand ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin notes that “conscious drinking” is becoming more widespread. Aki Eguchi, beverage director of the Jigger & Pony Group agrees, observing that drinkers have not eased on their demand for quality and well-executed cocktails, and preferences between high, low and no ABV cocktails are set aside for increased level of craft in all drinks.

Still, bar industry experts are cautious about what to expect in 2021. Jason Williams, creative director at Proof & Company, foresees more contactless service and faster adoption of technology within cocktail bars; “beyond QRC and PDF on websites, bars will invest more in content that’s attached to menus: animation, video and external embedded content”.

Most industry players also agree that the continued production and popularity of bottled cocktails, as well as the emergence of more craft spirits from Asia that highlight Asian ingredients, will be prevalent.

Sustainability will remain a guiding principle in bar operations, not just in terms of waste reduction but also in ensuring the well-being of the people in the industry.

(Related: Mo Bar at Mandarin Oriental Singapore Wins Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021 Art of Hospitality Award)

BETTER BOTTLED

When the circuit breaker kicked in on April 2020, consumers were still hankering for quality cocktails. To satisfy this thirst, bars switched to selling packaged cocktails for takeaway and delivery. For many, bottled cocktails became a vital source of incremental revenue during lockdown period. And though bars have reopened, the demand for bottled cocktails continues, albeit at a decreased volume. “People have gotten used to the idea of entertaining and drinking cocktails within the comfort of their homes. So, I foresee there will still be a market for bottled cocktails, but bars will need to continue to be innovative and creative in order to keep customers interested,” notes Andrew Yap, managing partner of Old Man Singapore.

“As curiosity and appreciation for craft cocktail experiences continues to grow, the demand for greater accessibility will continue to drive the bottled cocktail trend,” says Ivy Woo, founder of Singapore Cocktail Festival, who points out that restaurants too have picked up on the trend to offer creative cocktails, bottled in collaboration with drink makers.

From the bar’s perspective, bottled cocktails have also opened up opportunities to increase revenue. They make great corporate gifts as they are a flexible option and can be customised with different flavour combinations. Manager for MO BAR at Mandarin Oriental, Singapore Adrian Besa cites their offerings of mooncakes paired with cocktails during Mid-Autumn Festival as a prime example of a successful promotion that leverages the pairing of bottled cocktails with food for delivery.

Keeping in line with sustainability issues, bars have also noted a preference for large format bottles, in a bid to cut down on waste. Yap says: “When we first launched our bottled cocktails, they were available in 60ml bottles, but they can now be had in 500ml formats to meet the demands of those who enjoy drinking cocktails in gatherings with friends and family.” Co-owner of IBHQ Kamil Foltan concurs, noting how single portion bottles will eventually disappear. “I have a feeling that 350ml, 500ml, and 700ml will become standard,” he adds.

And even though canned cocktails might be a more sustainable option when packaging drinks, the industry will still be slow to pick up on it. Co-founders of Barbary Coast Celia Schoonraad and Michael Callahan explain: “Canned cocktails have always been around and make more sense as they are easier to recycle and weigh less, which leads to reduced carbon footprint when shipping. However, the stigma of canned drinks being inferior still persists, and it will be this perception that quality can come from a can that will need to be overcome. “The second main issue here is cost and accessibility of machinery to seal cans properly. A canning setup that is sanitary, cost effective, space effective and easy to use is not yet readily available to your general beverage outlet.”

(Related: Singapore Cocktail Bar Association Launches Two New Funds to Support The Bar Industry)

CRAFT ASIAN SPIRITS

In a country with such a mature drinking culture such as Singapore’s, it takes a lot to keep consumer interests piqued. Thankfully, there is a continued array of new craft spirits entering the market. What will stand out in the coming year are regional spirits (crafted and bottled in Asia) that highlight Asian ingredients. “More local distillers and those around the region are making their own artisanal spirits, and these will feature more prominently in bars here,” shares Yap, citing the likes of gins that are blended with Asian botanicals like Taiwanese gunpowder tea, Siberian ginseng, Korean omija berries, Kampot peppercorns, Malaysian torch ginger and Chinese osmanthus.

Besa adds: “Local distillers have shifted from trying to fit into the mainstream profile to showcasing what the country of origin has to offer, whether it’s with unique techniques or indigenous ingredients.” For Foltan, he likes the geekiness of the guys behind the Singapore Distillery, a recently launched local distillery that boasts a range of uniquely flavoured gins, such as their Coconut Pandan Gin, Stolen Roses Gin, and Lime Garden Gin.

From our Southeast Asian neighbours, Gabriel Martin Carlos, assistant bar manager at Manhattan Bar uses Arc Gin that is made in the Philippines with ingredients sourced throughout the archipelago. “The ingredients comprise 28 botanicals, most of which are foraged locally: calamansi, Benguet pine, karnia flowers, dayap limes, fresh pomelo, lemongrass and mangoes. At Manhattan, we use it in a cocktail called Kiss and Cry,” he tells.

For many bartenders here, using craft spirits with regional flavours comes naturally as Asian ingredients are not only more accessible but also more familiar. These bartenders also tend to have a broader knowledge of these flavour profiles, possibilities, and pairing preferences.

Over at Live Twice, Aki Eguchi likes using Kayuki Ume Spirits, which are made by letting plums steep inside a neutral spirit such as korui (multi-distilled) shochu. “Ume flavours are rare in cocktails and using Kayuki Ume Spirits in drinks like our Ume Highball and the Quiet Inlet provides a plum flavour without it being overly sweet,” he explains.

(Related: 15 of the Best Asian Gins to Drink Right Now)

SERVING SUSTAINABILITY

Moving into the new decade, bars in Singapore will find ways to reduce wastage and carbon footprint. Williams lays out measures to reduce energy wastage. This includes implementing biophilic design practices by incorporating landscaping and using sustainable materials; mandating every cocktail uses upcycled ingredients; minimising water use in cocktail preparation; working with suppliers and producers to adopt better sustainable practices and working with tech and financial platforms that also contribute to environmental causes.

“Bar Trigona’s native Trigona bee hive adoption programme in Kuala Lumpur is but one great example,” notes Paul Gabie, CEO of EcoSpirits an innovative distribution system that nearly eliminates packaging waste in the premium spirits supply chain by using “ecoTOTES”—a tamper-proof 4.5L reusable glass vessel that replaces the standard 6-bottle case of spirits, and “ecoPLANTs”— small footprint, semi-automated facilities that process spirits by sanitising, refilling and sealing the aforementioned glass cases. After use, these are are returned to a local plant for refilling. A good number of bars, local and regional, have come onboard using EcoSpirits.

Over at Barbary Coast, Schoonraad and Callahan are committed to further reducing production materials use during the creation of drinks, for example, by pre-diluting drinks and keeping them chilled to reduce the wasted “shaking ice”. They are also looking at work-flow dynamic to reduce movement of the staff through optimised station-layout design and production steps. “By reducing the need for staff to exert energy, they in turn should need less fuel to feed the human engine throughout the day,” they note.

To be sure, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of staff welfare and ensuring that the industry is one where people can see themselves working in the long term, Thio explains.

(Related: Kyushu Spirits Debuts with Singapore Launch of its Asakura Premium Japanese Whisky)

5 Large-Format Bottled Cocktails to Take Home

Scarlet From Barbary Coast, $60 for 375ml
Remy Martin Cognac, Wild Turkey Rye, Vermouth, Absinthe & Clarified Raspberry

The Torrents Of Spring From The Old Man Singapore, $150 For 500ml
Glutinous rice, cooked mezcal, grain Wild Turkey Whisky, Amaro Nonino, clarified William pear, pom-beet shrub, charcoal

Old Fashioned From Jigger & Pony, $85 For 450ml
Bulleit Bourbon, demerara sugar, Angostura Bitters
Each bottled cocktail’s label is unique and hand-drawn by the Jigger & Pony team.

The Manhattan From Manhattan Bar, $128 For 700ml
Michter’s Straight Rye Whiskey, Mancino Rosso Vermouth, House Cherry Brandy, Angostura Bitters

Kopi-O Negroni Fromibhq, $65 For 350ml
London Dry Gin, Kopi-infused Sip Rosso Vermouth, Campari