December 3, 2020

Bottled cocktails are having their moment during this pandemic. And if you have been imbibing your fair share of adult beverages, you would know that there has been a surge in bars launching their line of at-home cocktails. I am not complaining because these ready-to-drink cocktails have, on my many occasions, preserved my sanity. Although it’s a stark contrast to the pomp and fun of nursing a cocktail at a bar counter on Friday night, we will take what we can get in these uncertain times. 

Fresh off their recent crowning as No. 9 on the World’s 50 Best Bars 2020 list, Jigger & Pony is hoping to make PONY cocktails a household brand. The bottles are très chic, sporting whimsically illustrated labels, but what puts them in the crackerjack section of bottled cocktails is their conviction towards a relationship economy. Supported by an audience who are keen on gifting to reaffirm their social interactions with friends (in this Covid-19 climate), PONY’s mission is to not only help guests find comfort in a drink, but also fortify friendships and share happiness.

Here, we talk to Indra Kantono, the co-founder of Jigger & Pony, to find out what’s on the menu.

High Net Worth: Some may think you are a bit late to the game, as we are reaching the tail end of 2020. But what made you decide to launch PONY now?

Indra Kantono: The inspiration for PONY was sparked during the community circuit breaker from mid-March to mid-June when F&B businesses were closed during Singapore’s version of a lockdown. When we pivoted to online deliveries, we discovered an enthusiastic audience for cocktail deliveries in Singapore. To be honest, it was beyond our wildest expectations. We realised that consumers were not only buying cocktails for themselves, but also gifting them to reaffirm connections with people they care about, whether as a pick-me-up or for a virtual ‘quarantini’ party.

The pandemic has shown us the importance of the relationship economy. In a time when everyone has been starved of a very basic human need for social interaction, it has reminded us of how valuable relationships are. In creating PONY, an online premium bottled cocktail brand, we put in much thought, used the best possible ingredients and exercised the same levels of craftsmanship that people have come to expect at our bars into each and every bottle.

Why did you stick with plastic packaging throughout the circuit breaker, despite its bad rep?

Like any other country in a lockdown, Singapore was experiencing supply chain issues. Using plastic packaging was the best solution we had at that time since we already had those on hand for storage of ingredients in our bars and restaurants. For PONY, however, we thought long and hard about how our bottled cocktails would fit into our consumers’ lifestyles. This was why we ended up choosing elegant, slender bottles with easy-to-open twist-caps. They are convenient to store in home fridges and are ready to be served whenever a convivial moment is needed.

What was the most difficult part of researching and developing bottled cocktails?

Consistency is key. We realised that when people are consuming products out of a bottle, their tolerance for variations is significantly lower. From the colour to the taste of the cocktail, everything has to be consistent. Unlike in a bar, we have no control over the environment that PONY cocktails will undergo. From different glasses and ice variations to different serving temperatures, we needed to ensure that every PONY cocktail will taste as good as possible, time after time.

Our R&D for PONY started with seven different variations of seven cocktails, including the Old Fashioned and Negroni because it would be remiss of us to exclude these classics. From these seven variations of each cocktail, we picked the variation that we liked most. From this most favoured variation, we did seven more variations of this variation. As soon as we settled on the recipe that we liked, we did more stress tests.

We ultimately opted to use premium spirits to celebrate the spirit character at the heart of every PONY creation. We also formulated the cocktails at higher ABV (alcohol by volume) levels to withstand dilution, and incorporated house-made natural citrus essences so there is no need to garnish the cocktails. In working on PONY, we pushed our bartenders to go further and into situations, they have never experienced before, and they rose admirably to the challenge. Every PONY cocktail has a consistent taste, colour, and even aroma.

How is creating a ready-to-drink cocktail different from mixing one behind the bar?

When you’re creating cocktails for your guests in a bar, the recipes are standard and with experienced bartenders, it becomes an almost instinctive act of creation. But with PONY, we needed to create batched cocktails in fairly large quantities, while bearing in mind the need for consistency in every pour. And because we wanted PONY cocktails to be ready-to-drink, it was imperative that they are shelf-stable. PONY’s core team—Aki Eguchi, Jigger & Pony Group’s Bar Programme Director, and Gento Torigata, PONY’s Principal Bartender—developed ways to ensure the integrity of each cocktail from your first sip to the last drop.

For instance, the unique aroma accent that finishes a cocktail is usually created by a citrus garnish. But we could not use any perishable fruits or ingredients that are commonly used as garnishes, as that would impact the shelf life of the bottled cocktail. Our solution was to create house-made natural citrus essences that we would incorporate into each batch. This is something a bartender normally wouldn’t do. And to combat dilution caused by refrigerator-made ice cubes, which melt faster compared to the large blocks of ice used at a bar, our small-batch bottled cocktails with higher ABV, to keep the flavours robust. In layman terms, you could say that PONY cocktails are “stronger” than what you might normally be served at a bar.

Can you talk about some of the cocktails in the PONY line and the inspiration behind them?

We have three cocktail flavours available in two core lines—Classic and Signature. In the Classic series, we have the Old Fashioned and the Negroni while our Signature series features the Sakura Martini. A timeless classic, the Old Fashioned is a spirit-forward concoction featuring a generous pour of Makers’ Mark bourbon whisky and Okinawa sugar sourced from Hateruma island, the southernmost island of Japan. Finished with a hint of orange zest, this cocktail is rich and deliciously smooth. The Negroni is given a floral lift with the use of Roku Gin—a spirit crafted with six unique Japanese botanicals harvested in their respective peak seasons. A touch of grapefruit zestiness lends an added dimension to that characteristic bittersweet Negroni flavour, resulting in a delightfully complex, aromatic cocktail Roku Gin’s uniquely floral note also takes centre stage in our elegant Sakura Martini which is imbued with floating sakura flowers, reminiscent of spring in Japan. Made with Japanese sake vermouth, this pretty martini is smooth and crisp, with a distinctively floral character.

Is there specific glassware recommended for each cocktail in the PONY line? Also, does it vex you that you cannot optimise the level of enjoyment for your consumers with the never-ending variables of ice/temperature of service/glassware choices?

A PONY bottled cocktail is designed to be as stress-free as possible. We understand that not everyone has access to a martini glass or even the appropriate ice cubes at home, and that is perfectly okay. PONY has been created with home consumption in mind. We encourage our customers to treat PONY cocktails like how we would with a bottle of white wine. Simply chill before serving—or, in the case of our Sakura Martini, a stint in the freezer is ideal. Simply serve as suggested, no additional garnishes are required.

Honestly, cocktails should not be stressful. When you drink a cocktail, it is not about how much you can drink in a given amount of time, but rather a way to relax, to have conversations with people. We like to think of PONY as a connector, for people to share a gift of convivial hospitality in a bottle with family and friends.

I love that you mention PONY and the relationship economy. During the circuit breaker, I ordered my first Jigger and Pony cocktail as a gift to a friend. Do you think that this benevolence will continue in the post-Covid era?

We are living through an extraordinary time. It’s clear that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift away from the last 10 years, when the F&B industry had been centred around the “experience economy” and we sought out novel and new experiences. During the pandemic, we saw how people are starting to care more and are spending more on ways of improving their relationships. And when we are finally allowed to become social again, I think that we will enter a new era of relationship-driven consumption. We will want to spend our money on things and experiences that enrich our human relationships. In this next normal, whenever that will be, restaurants and bars would be more valued than ever before for being spaces that bring people together. But home comforts will just be as important, and that is where concepts like PONY will strike a chord.

What is one value you advocate in business?

I worked in finance before my co-founder Guoyi Gan, who is also my wife, and I took the plunge into F&B, starting Jigger & Pony in 2012. We are thankful that we have created brands that resonate with people, and most importantly we are super proud of our team. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We are advocates of not looking back, and I honestly can’t think of a better job than what I am doing now. Life is too short for regrets.

What’s next for PONY?

We literally just launched PONY in November. It’s early, early days yet, and we are busy building the PONY universe. There is so much more that we have planned for PONY, from new cocktail flavours to unique consumer experiences. And we hope consumers will come with us on our journey with PONY, cocktails in hand.

PONY cocktails are currently available in two sizes, the elegant mini (200ml) and standard (500ml) bottles. A fourth flavour, the Chocolate Boulevardier, a fantasy hinterland for the chocolate fiends will be joining the ranks on the 1st December.