Are Hotel Bars Making A Comeback?
Bars aimed at attracting the high-spirited crowds have cropped up all over Singapore in the recent years, but the country’s eager-to-libate ways seem to be infiltrating the streets in other ways not similar to countries that have had firmer aged roots in the business. While the locals and fashionable crowd flock to the newer kids on the block—touting hipster locations with equally eccentric cocktail programmes that will either have you intrigued or out the door in an instant (after an irreconcilable difference with mezcal, most probably)—hotel bars are relegated to stuffy ‘tourist-trap’ status. Which in all honesty is a bit queer since there is no lack of hotel bars in the World’s 50 Best Bars listing.
It’s easy to pinpoint exactly why hotel bars on local shores have never reached the same prominence—the sole factor being distance. When you’re travelling on your own or for business, sometimes navigating the chaos of the city for the sake of a cheeky tipple is out of the question. You’ll approach the sterile lounges with fervent need (G&T, yes please!), hence it’s easy to see why the hotel bar can make or break your trip. Most don’t remember their hotel rooms but they do spare a memory for the hospitality and the hotel bar. In Singapore, a night out around town with 2 hours to spare can easily bring the high-strung on a fuel-packed journey across 3 to 4 bars within walking distance of each other. To make matters worse, ask any tipple hungry Singaporean and they would tell you that hotel bars are boring, gaudy uninspired faculties offering expensive drinks and the bare minimum talent to stay afloat. Order an Old Fashioned and you’ll be sorely disenchanted by mediocrity. Been there, done that.
The good news is that this is changing. As the drinking culture prospers, local hotels are quick to adapt, stripping away its high-minded impressions and opening its doors to everyone, who might not be donning a cocktail dress or even fancy shoes. Along with that, lavish care has been showered to ensure original cocktail programmes are aimed at building individuality. Take for example Grand Park Orchard’s Mitzo Cantonese inspired cocktails with an emphasis on Chinese herbs and spices or the gin treasury experience at Oasia Hotel Downtown’s Cin Cin. Gone are the cookie-cutter hotel lounges who exude as much charm as an airport bar. Welcome to the era of destination hotel bars that you’ll want to build your trip around.
Home to the Singapore Sling, Long Bar in Raffles Hotel Singapore was the first to put Singapore on the map. Created in 1915 by Hainanese Bar Captain Ngiam Tong Boon as a Gin Sling, the beverage was conceived out of the pure intention to allow for daytime drinking without the judgemental stares. It obviously worked to substantial enormity, attracting the likes of famous writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway. At some point, the bar was serving 2000 Singapore Slings per day, (cue the celebratory peanut shell showers).
Fast forward two decades and Manhattan Bar in Regent Hotel sits in the top position of the burgeoning cocktail scene in Singapore. Its presence amidst six Singapore bars that have made appearances in the 2017 edition of the World’s 50 Best Bars list, prove how hotel bars have retained a supremacy over their underdog, watering hole compatriots. But lest we forget, the many establishments that have attempted to make a difference and whose efforts cannot be belittled like Martini Bar at Mezza9, Grand Hyatt Singapore which has made waves with its eclectic selection of specially concocted martinis. No harm playing on James Bond and his suave mannerisms there. Then there is Anti:Dote in Fairmont Singapore, helmed by the sprightly Head Craftsmen Tom Hogan who headed their drinks programme in 2013. His funny anecdotes and innovative twists to traditional classics turning what could have been a boring hotel bar into one of the most lauded nightspots in town. Another head-turner and night trawler venue is The Other Room at Singapore Mariott Tang Plaza. Drawing inspiration from the prohibition period, it’s only apt that the bar is located behind flushed varnished wooden panels in the lobby with doors only controlled from the inside. It is the shining result of what would happen if the Eighteenth amendment was passed today; a whole barrage of nondescript cask-finished spirits on offer to soothe the most wretched of souls.
So on a Friday night, I decided to visit the dark recesses of Asia’s Best Bar, Manhattan. On a tight leash of time seeing that it was fast approaching midnight, I ordered an uber to traverse across the peripherals of the Orchard sector to the new Origin Bar and Grill in Shangri-la Singapore.
Looking past the lures of the grilled specialities, the bar is a sanctuary like in the 1920s, dressed with accents of peacock green in contrast to old-fashioned wood and distressed reflective surfaces. The interiors are inspired by the romance of voyage by train, and the room is cleverly divided into pockets of spaces by velvety drapes in the most gorgeous rich shades. Hassel table lamps mimic the soft lighting of antique train lamps and I single-handedly pick that as the most mesmerising object to assist in the illuminating of the menu, which we received briskly upon being led to our seats. Not that it was needed, seeing that Bar Manager, Adam Bursik was quick to offer a bespoke drink after hearing the keywords “bitter, rough day… blah blah”. Shortly after, he came back with a smashing concoction of Diplomatico Mantuano, Cynar, Punt e Mes, fermented banana syrup, laced with gula melaka and a dash of fernet branca. It was my kind of drink, and I drank it with reverence, mostly at how he had managed to combine all my favourite components into a well-balanced tipple, on the grounds that we were only first formally introduced to each other that night.
It is becoming clear that Origin Bar is almost a mash-up, in the sense that it offers sanctuary in a bit of a no man’s land by focusing on alcohol. The cocktail line-up, an ode to Singapore’s illustrious history of trade, colonial charm and multiracial living is divided into five key districts. Every cocktail reflecting colours, flavours of its said race and nuggets of information capable of opening exploration gateways for the inquisitive traveller. My partner-in-crime sipped away at ‘The Buona Vista’, a cocktail blending cold brew coffee, fig, hazelnut chocolate liquor and Campari whilst I commit to memory the historic significance of Buona Vista—the district where the first Italian immigrants settled in Singapore. Brilliant.
I indulged in the ‘Leaf the Curry’—a tipple that reads rich, aromatic and sweet but could be better described as piquant sour from the tamarind juice. But it was the classics that were the stars. The Vieux Carré, a cognac and rye spiked French Quarter cocktail invented in Hotel Monteleone lived up to its name. There is no shame in ordering Rum with Diet Coke at this lofty establishment, in fact, what the partner received was fondly likened to his ‘regular’ served by Roman Foltan when working the stick at London’s Artesian at The Langham (He now quenches his thirst at the very swanky Atlas Bar). As the night went on, Adam’s mild mannerisms in contrast to Head Bartender’s Bystrik Uko’s playful antics made us feel at home, and despite the wee hours of the night relinquishing the dramatic space to a ghost of its physical grandeur, it was a serendipitous experience. 3 hours later, we rolled out, dewy-faced and languid; the holes in our wallet not big enough to impede us from contriving our next visit.
The hotel bar scene has waited a long time for its newest drinking den and you’d forgive drink seekers like myself for wanting to keep mum. Problem is, when it’s this good, it’s hard to be tight-lipped. For those travellers who have the fortune of staying in any of these hotels sporting some magnetic bars, the best part happens after the nightcap, when the pillow is just an elevator ride away.