Singapore cocktail scene

[dropcap size=small]O[/dropcap]ne weekend in early May, the sprawling Empress Lawn in front of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall bore witness to a less usual form of art. There were foreign performers, obscure names, and unusual juxtapositions – all at the third edition of the Singapore Cocktail Festival. The festival village was part of a longer event line-up that, in turn, presented just the tip of the artisanal iceberg that is Singapore’s growing craft scene: craft spirits and cocktails, that is. Admittedly, by volume or value, beer is still king in Singapore. In 2017, beer and ale accounted for about 83 per cent of duty paid releases of liquors, measured in litres, and 56 per cent of liquor duties collections, measured in value. Still wine is the next largest segment, accounting for about 7 per cent of duty paid releases and 17 per cent of liquor duties collections in 2017. No aggregate figures are given for spirits, which are listed in separate categories including gin, rum, vodka, and whisky.But in the last five or so years, spirits such as rum and gin have seen blistering growth in volumes – in line with changes in the drinking scene.

A peculiarity of the Singapore liquor trade is that it is heavily skewed towards sales in establishments such as bars, clubs and restaurants, says European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore’s (EuroCham) wine and spirits committee chairman Cedric Retailleau, who estimates that 90 per cent of sales here are on-premise rather than off-premise retail.

This holds true in the craft market as well, says Mathieu Musnier, general manager of La Maison Du Whisky, which distributes and retails craft brands. In Europe, perhaps 90 per cent of craft brand stocks make their way to consumers through shops. “In Singapore, it’s the exact opposite.”

At its opening in 2006, the Singapore branch of the Parisian family firm focused on whiskies. Today, it offers some seven or eight hundred whiskies – but its wholesale business recently outstripped its retail sales, with non-whisky spirits making up a third of the wholesale figures.

“It really was related to the explosion of demand for craft gin,” says Mr Musnier, who credits craft gin’s meteoric rise in the last three years to a proliferation of serious cocktail bars.

Since 2014, gin volumes in Singapore have risen more than 36 per cent, wheras overall liquor volumes grew just 4 per cent in the same period. Whisky volumes, in comparison, grew 4.3 per cent in line with the overall trend – though they are five times that of gin.

In a market so heavily driven by on-premise consumption, the composition of the drinking scene is key. While statistics on liquor licences are not publicly available, industry players say the era of bars is upon us.

In line with international trends, “low-energy” bars are growing fast, says Mr Retaillaeu, though traditional areas such as karaoke joints and “high energy” nightspots remain important.

Sophisticated bar scene

Today’s club scene is much diminished from about a decade ago, says Gregory Ong, who went from bartending in the 1990s to setting up bars and later entering the liquor trade.

“People are more willing to chill out by the bar rather than go into the club,” says Mr Ong, general sales manager of retailer and distributor Barworks Wine and Spirits.

The cocktail scene, meanwhile, has seen significant changes in the last seven to eight years. At the start of the 2010s, there was “just a handful of mixologist bars” – the customer base was too small, Mr Ong says.

But some five years ago, aided by high-profile events such as the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition – which began to hold South-east Asia regional finals in 2014 – public attention started to rise, feeding the growth of a more sophisticated bar scene.

“More bars are looking for more niche products: the craft spirits. A lot of bars are even using premium mixers,” he says, citing craft gin & tonic go-to brand Fever-Tree.

As Mr Retaillaeu notes: “Something that is still pretty new in Singapore is a much bigger offering in terms of brands.”

Hotels and restaurants are also trying to catch up, says Mr Musnier. Having an impressive wine list is no longer sufficient: “If you have fine dining, then you should have spirits of good quality, good quality cocktails.”

Thirsty tipplers have had no shortage of watering holes to wander into, with bars popping up seemingly at the drop of a hat. “This year alone, there are so many new openings,” says Colin Chia, co-owner of Nutmeg & Clove, who counts five or six bars so far since the start of the year. That’s one new bar a month, a pace that Mr Chia reckons has been maintained for the past three or four years.

Bartender Boo Jing Heng, who among other achievements was both Singapore and regional champion in the 2016 edition of the Diageo Reserve World Class, has had a frontline seat to the development of Singapore’s cocktail scene.

The focus used to be mainly on perfecting classic cocktails, says Mr Boo, head bartender at Tess Bar and Kitchen. Now “concept bars” are all the rage instead, whether centred on certain spirits – such as gin at Atlas in Parkview Square – or more esoteric themes such as foraged ingredients (including ants) at Amoy Street’s Native.

Singapore has also become a cocktail destination for professionals and partakers alike. About three or four years ago, bars such as famed speakeasy 28 Hongkong Street started to bring in famous bartenders for guest appearances, he notes. “Now the bartenders just come.”

Bartenders here hail from cocktail capitals such as London and New York, as well as countries such as the Czech Republic, the Philippines, Korea and Japan.

And Singapore now pings on global radars. The tiny city-state dominates the Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2018 list with 12 spots – including the top one, Manhattan at The Regent hotel – and ties with China as the most represented country in the ranking.

Singapore is also the third most represented city in the 2017 World’s 50 Best Bars list with six bars, trailing only London and New York. For the record, the six are: Manhattan (7th); Atlas (15th); Operation Dagger (24th); 28 Hongkong Street (25th); Tippling Club (31st); and Native (47th).

The country is not a volume market but a “lighthouse market”, says Stefanie Goh, co-founder of brand development agency Distilled: “It’s where the rest of the region looks for what’s good.”

Distilled, which represents small-batch brands such as milk vodka Black Cow and sugar cane spirit Maracatu Cachaça, is one of the newest craft spirits players here.

Ms Goh entered the cocktail scene in 2014, supplying cold brew coffee to bartenders in the pursuit of a good espresso martini. Last year, she started Distilled with business partner Chris Marshall.

The reputation of Singapore’s cocktail bars is a big draw for artisanal brands, she says. In the first few months of this year alone, she was approached by eight spirits companies but turned down half of them.

La Maison Du Whisky’s Mr Musnier notes that with so many high-quality cocktail bars in Singapore, artisanal producers now “expect to be in those kinds of outlets”.

“It always starts from the Singapore market. Singapore has that beacon effect in the region. You have to make it big in Singapore first.”

The entry of new niche distributors such as Distilled does not faze him: “There’s no point fighting to death over a cookie when you could bake a bigger cake.”

Besides, the most important thing in the craft world is “the relationship we have with our suppliers”, he adds.

Instead, the craft scene’s greatest threat might be its own success. “Today the challenge is more the explosion of demand for craft spirits,” he says. Small batch production means continuity of supply is a challenge. For instance, some whiskies are released only once a year, but are in demand all year round. “That can be difficult to handle.”

New entrants aside, established players are getting into the act too.

“We try to make Barworks a one-stop shop,” says Mr Ong. He does not want to overstate the scale of the craft movement: “The commercial stuff still moves. Eighty per cent of the bars still need all the commercial products. For day-to-day drinking, customers will still drink their usual stuff.”

Nonetheless, seeing a growing demand for craft gin, vodka and whisky, Barworks started looking at “less commercial stuff” around 2013.

Mr Ong echoes the view that competition is not a worry: “We maintain relationships with customers, so it’s difficult to penetrate (the market).”

In perhaps the clearest sign of the rise of craft, big players are getting into the picture. In May, for instance, drinks giant Diageo acquired artisanal mezcal brand Pierde Almas.

“The trend for craft spirits is very important,” says Mr Retailleau. “Big corporates are trying to innovate, which is good. … For many of us, we move also into craft through some small acquisitions. We are also benefiting (from the trend).”


The general liquor trade, meanwhile, is seeing a slightly less triumphant time. “Despite a challenging economic environment, I think the spirit industry is still growing in Singapore… but growing at a slower pace than it was in the past,” says Mr Retailleau.

He attributes the slowdown partly to changes such as 2014’s eye-watering 25 per cent hike in alcohol excise duties, as well as shorter liquor hours introduced in 2013 at Clarke Quay.

For liquor firms and distributors, after all, their business is tied to the health of the drinking scene.

“Because so much of our business is driven by the on-premise, on-trade side, we are also dealing with other factors such as rents, such as labour costs, such as regulations,” says EuroCham wine and spirits committee vice-chairman Davide Besana. As nightspots’ costs rise, they may have to raise prices, making drinking less affordable, says Mr Retailleau: “It’s something that we have to be careful about if we don’t want to jeopardise the vibrancy of the nightlife, and to remain competitive with other countries.”

The price of a cocktail in Singapore today ranges from around S$15 to as much as S$30, with most cocktail bar offerings in the S$22 to S$28 range.

Still, Mr Retailleau remains hopeful for “normalisation”, citing 2017’s “first step” of granting an extra hour of liquor sales on the last two Fridays of each month.

The craft cocktail scene, meanwhile, is far removed from Clarke Quay’s regulatory woes, clustered instead along stretches such as Club Street, Amoy Street, Keong Saik Road and Bukit Pasoh Road.

Such clustering poses its own challenges. Rents are a major issue, says Nutmeg & Clove’s Mr Chia, noting that two veterans – The Library and The Cufflink Club – closed last year after five years in the business.

“When bars close after four or five years, sometimes it’s because the lease is up, rent is up for negotiations, and landlords ask for as much as 30 per cent more,” he says.

And when every other alley seems to hide a slick speakeasy, new startups will find it tough to set themselves apart. Says Mr Boo: “People don’t just open a bar now. You need to have a concept.”

Still, while competition is stiff, it remains friendly, he adds, pulling up a WhatsApp group containing the who’s who of Singapore’s bar world. The tiny craft cocktail scene has a strong sense of community: “Sometimes other bartenders might help out and do a shift here.”

This comes in handy, given one of the biggest headaches faced by bars: manpower.

Staff costs are one aspect. A new bartender in a cocktail bar can command a salary of about S$2,400 a month, compared to S$1,800 to S$2,000 in a pub, estimates Mr Boo.

But more pressing is the simple lack of people: “I don’t think the F&B industry will have enough people – bars keep opening.”

And bar-hopping is not just practised by customers. “Usually when you get someone, they leave after a while. Out of 10, maybe two or three stay.”

There are few enough people entering this line as it is, he adds: “A lot of people in Singapore nowadays, most of them study until university… (they want an office job) instead of washing a glass behind a bar.”

Changing tastes

While young Singaporeans’ tastes in jobs might jeopardise the sustainability of the craft spirits scene, their taste in alcohol may be what keeps the scene going.

Expats still dominate the clientele of Club Street spots, but at Tess – located at Seah Street, outside established enclaves – most of the customers are locals.

The craft scene’s rise has been more a case of getting new patrons interested rather than converting older drinkers, says Mr Boo, who estimates that most of his local customers are aged between 25 and 39.

Younger generations are going down the artisanal path right from the beginning, says Mr Musnier: “They started with craft. They don’t want to be associated with mainstream brands.”

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Could it be, like many food and beverage trends, merely a passing fad?

“If you look at other industries in Singapore… there is just a consistent expectation of quality,” he replies. “It’s really, really hard to turn back once you’ve tried the best,” he says, hastening to add that he does not mean luxury brands, merely good quality spirits. “I don’t see the market turning back. Awareness is going to continue to grow.”

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And much-maligned millennials, with their hipster predilections, actually make for adventurous customers. “They want that constant exploration. People always want to be the one sharing their finds” – not least on social media, he adds.

As Distilled’s Ms Goh puts it: “Nowadays, people want to know what goes into their drinks.”

There will always be drinkers who do not discriminate, she acknowledges: “There needs to be that segment for the business to survive.”

But there is undeniably a growing pool of tipplers who care. “Some will now specify the kind of gin and tonic they want… As long as they can see what brand is in there, they know, ‘Okay, that’s why I’m paying S$23’.”

Nor is it a question of snootiness, or style over substance. The difference between a mainstream tequila brand and an artisanal small-batch tequila – one that would be ruined by lime and salt – is concrete and obvious: “You’re going to have different mornings after,” she quips.

Ms Goh sees a parallel to the craft coffee movement. “I think the craft coffee scene has helped the craft cocktail scene. People used to go, ‘What’s craft? Why am I paying S$5, S$6 for a cup of coffee?’ ”

“You’ve trained the customer into thinking in a certain way.”

Drinking, previously confined to the bar or club, has also become more a part of everyday life, as EuroCham’s Mr Besana point out. His own East Coast neighbourhood is full of “little restaurants, little corner cafes (where) you walk by on the weekend and there’re people having drinks, either spirits or beer… There’s a general kind of change in the trends of consumption.”

At kult kafe on Emily Hill on a drizzly Friday night, young children run around a green lawn while their parents kick back with beers. Yet behind the bar are craft gins such as Sipsmith and Monkey 47; and on the menu, far-fetched concoctions involving gula melaka or sambal belacan.

Co-owner Zac Mirza refuses to limit his establishment with labels such as “cocktail bar” or “beer bar”, and draws a line between himself and stuffier outfits for the office set. Yet, he is no less serious in his mixology.

In 2000, the then-23-year-old was crowned Singapore’s Bartender of the Millennium, winning a bottle of Beefeater gin, S$500 cash and an all-expenses-paid trip to London to represent Singapore at the Beefeater International Bartenders Competition 2000. It ended up being a much longer journey that took his bartending skills across Europe.

“Singapore back then only had so much to offer in terms of spirits,” he recalls. Europe was a “more advanced landscape”.

Yet, Singapore eventually wooed him back: first to set up bar consultancy Bartistry 10 years ago, before he set off again; then more permanently three years ago, when he started kult kafe.

His chilled-out, family-friendly space is proof that craft spirits do not have to be limited to hipster spots and speakeasies. Or as he puts it: “We’re unpretentious, but we can still serve you the serious stuff.”

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: Tess Bar & Kitchen