What if someone came up to you and told you that you were drinking your alcohol wrong?
That was my takeaway from a recent dinner with a spirits ambassador, who described the Chinese “yum seng” culture as rowdy and an excuse to binge-drink. To him, it is “a waste of good liquor and disrespect for the hard work and effort of the producers”.
At another dinner a week later, alarmed at the rate a delicious spirit was being knocked back, he entreated a group of toasting revellers: “Do not yum seng this!”
Slow down. Savour the drink. It’s five thousand dollars a bottle, he implored.
The flip side is this. As someone who has spent many wedding dinners seated at the table bored stiff with polite conversation and a traditional 10-course dinner, the yum seng, or toast, has always been my favourite part of the night.
After all, it holds the power to forge a sense of goodwill among 300 people at one go.
It all comes down to understanding different drinking cultures. In Europe, where wine production is abundant, it’s common to enjoy a bottle over dinner. In America, strict alcohol laws dictate more control over imbibing. In Asia, it is an instilled cultural habit to drink as part of social engagements. According to Hoon Chang Yau, an assistant professor of Asian studies at Singapore Management University, yum seng as a practice was first brought into South-east Asia by early immigrants.
The act of toasting on the wedding night is seen as a rite of passage for the couple – part of a ritual that calls for celebration and breaking of the norm.
But one yum seng session shouldn’t paint us as binge drinkers. The number of cocktail bars that has sprung up lately is proof that locals have more substance than what was observed.
As Singaporeans travel more and refine their palates, places like the Manhattan bar at Regent Singapore have upped their game with specially crafted cocktail glasses and an entire room dedicated to garnishes. B-Bar at Bacchanalia introduced the Educated Imbiber series last year, while Ku De Ta Skybar has been conducting whisky and rum flights for a true connoisseur experience.
Much as I love lingering over a glass of whisky, there are times for this, and other occasions that call for a little loosening up.
Should we toast with a bottle that costs a few thousand dollars? Probably not. But, when the good times roll, it’s hard to put on the brakes. Otherwise, you might as well store the bottle as you would your best silverware.