It was forever, I spoke on the phone with Vivian Pei, President of the Asia Academy of the World’s 50 Best Bars, last November, while in Melbourne for the Speed Rack Australia Finals. Furthermore, our first meeting in a bar called Native in Singapore when I was in town for the 50 best restaurants in the world in 2019 and the masterclasses, discussions and festivities that accompany it is a distant dream given the new reality to which we adapt. In response to the global pandemic, this year’s annual ranking, awards ceremony and other related events are being replaced by a three-part campaign to support restaurants around the world.
While the future of travel, restaurants, bars, and the hotel industry as a whole is uncertain, I wanted to share the insights from my conversation with Vivian to highlight some unusual businesses that are part of a globally recognized cocktail scene and continue to innovate and help shape the industry as our new normal continues. Singapore bars dominated the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2020 with 11 local spots in the ranking and Jigger & Pony, a Singapore bar, took the top spot.
During our call, Vivian laughingly said that her friends with whom she was staying in Melbourne described her as “the most highly educated dragonfly”. Her experience includes working in her family’s restaurant in the United States, staging in restaurants in Paris and Burgundy, helping Anne Willan to French Country Cuisine (a James Beard Award cookbook), restaurant and bar consulting work, cocktail contests, and did I mention that she had an MBA from London Business School and worked in companies in Tokyo and Singapore?
Her love for cocktails took root about eight years ago, when she started hanging out at 28 HongKong Street, an OG in Singapore’s thriving bar scene and number 30 in Asia’s 50 best bars 2020. Vivian was invited to judge her first cocktail competition about seven years ago for Diplomático Rum and the rest, as they say, is history. As President of the Academy for the World’s Top 50 Bars in Asia, Vivian helps organize a balanced electoral panel of qualified individuals representing a range of industries, backgrounds, ages and more.
Vivian credits Singapore’s “birth of a cocktail nation” to a number of factors, including an influx of imported talent, with key catalysts, including Matthew Bax, a Melbourne bartender who opened Tippling Club with chef Ryan Clift , 28 HongKong Street and the arrival of the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel. She describes the bar scene when she arrived in Singapore in 2006 as decent but very withdrawn, with local customers and local bartenders. Expatriates like Matthew Bax from Melbourne and Spencer Forhart and Paul Gabie, two lawyers from New York behind several well-known bars in Singapore (28 HongKong Street, Manhattan, Atlas) and Proof & Company, a distribution and consultancy company in artisanal spirits , were key players who helped take the cocktail scene in Singapore to the next level.
“The market was ready, and you had this influx of foreign talent who not only brought their experience and their perspective, but they also wanted other places where they could relax.” Said Vivian. “Then other people took on this challenge.” She added that the fraternal nature of the Singapore bar community also helps to energize the industry. “Everyone is very supportive. We have a group of WhatsApp bartenders and it’s amazing, we call it “Faster than Google”. If someone posts a question, it is answered within seconds. ”
For those of us who aren’t wondering where to go faster in Singapore when it’s safe to travel again, some of Vivian’s favorite bars (highlighted below) are a great place to start.
Junior The Pocket Bar
With its unpretentious facade – a simple white door with a minimalist sign bearing the name of the bar protruding from the corner of the building – you can pass right by Junior, as I did several times before Vivian wore it my attention and insisted that it was worth visiting. The concept at the time (it changes regularly) was Pacifica, a tribute to tiki culture with “traditional tropical tipples” like El Diablo (by Trader Vic’s) and Painkillers (by Soggy Dollar Bar) and small bites like the rangoon crab with a homemade sweet chilli mint sauce and blistered Padrón peppers.
“Now it’s called Petite Chalet; it’s like a kitsch 70’s après ski theme that is hilarious, ”said Vivian. “They’re super interesting because they change their concepts completely every six months – everything from (of course) the drinks menu, but also the food, the playlist, the uniforms, the decoration, the glassware; everything changes. In a place like Singapore where everyone is always looking for the new thing, I think it’s an interesting way to stay relevant, and the guys behind are really good and everything that comes out is very tasty. It’s not a fun gadget, it’s actually a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience. ”
Joe Alessandroni of San Francisco now heads the bar after a long stint as creative director of Proof & Company. “He brings a lot of experience and he’s also very good at coaching young local staff, which is great,” said Vivian.
Located at the InterContinental Hotel in Singapore, Idlewild is a relatively new addition to the bar scene in Singapore (just over a year). “The leader there is Andy Griffiths, and he’s a Kiwi who was based in Australia. He’s great, I really like his personality and everything. He comes from a culinary background, so he goes about drinks that way, “said Vivian.” The Idlewild theme is the journey from a bygone era. Idlewild, IDL was JFK’s original name. “The signature cocktails at the bar are inspired by cities like Dublin, Rome, Lima, Lisbon, New York, Casablanca, London, Paris, Mexico City and Havana. They are made using modern techniques and present artisanal spirits (many of which come from the respective city for more authenticity ) and rare vintages.
“They also have live jazz, which is wonderful because there aren’t a lot of live music rooms in Singapore that are good, and they have what they call the” Cabinet of Curiosities, “” said Vivian . “It’s this room filled with all of this incredible travel gear, very vintage spirits and other cool things you can go and look at.”
Jigger & Pony
Topping the list of the 50 best bars in Asia 2020 (against number 9 on last year’s list), Jigger & Pony is part of a family of bars and restaurants that includes Gibson (number 25 on the this year’s list) and Humpback. It opened in 2012 and is led by husband and wife team Indra Kantono and Guoyi Gan. Vivian noted that Guoyi was a flight attendant for Singapore Airlines, “so she understands service and hospitality.”
Beyond their beautifully designed space with a mezzanine perfect for private events, Vivian likes the bar’s emphasis on classic cocktails. “The bar manager, Akihiro Eguchi, is Japanese, but has been in Singapore for a long time,” said Vivian. “They do riffs on classics, but it’s really about being comfortable, making you feel at home when you get there, and now at the new place, they also have a very good menu of dishes . ” She added that having a long common table was a feature that the owners had intentionally kept to convey that common feeling to their new location.
By ranking 6th among the 50 best bars in Asia 2020, 12th on the list of the 50 best bars in the world in 2019 and winner of the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award in 2019, Native is the local champion. Vivian explained that you won’t find things like tequila or vermouth at the bar “because these things are not made in this part of the world.” During my visit, I ordered Sarapan (coconut distillate, toasted breadcrumbs, roasted coffee with butter, soy gula melaka, ropes with pandan eggs) and Vivian, probably because of my confusion and curiosity , I ordered the Ubin oysters (oyster distillate, miso boiled eggs, Kampot pepper, coriander sprouts, calamansi) – it was, of course, delicious and perfectly balanced.
“Everything from the playlist, the uniforms, the ships they use, it’s all as local as possible,” said Vivian. Sustainability and zero waste are also a major concern. Drinks are served on “coasters” of dried lotus leaves which are composted on site when they fall apart. “On a busy night, they only throw around 100 grams of garbage, which is pretty incredible,” she said. “It fits in the palm of your hand.”
No Sleep Club
Just a few months ago, this one-day concept was named one of the top 10 new international cocktail bars in the Asia and Pacific region in this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Foundation Spirited Awards and Campari One To Watch , an individual award in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2020. “At the head of [No Sleep Club] are two young girls; Juan Yi Jun led Operation Dagger here in Singapore and has very good chops, and Jessica Hutchinson worked at 28 HongKong Street and then at Proof & Co. “Said Vivian. “It’s a concept that lasts all day and they have great coffee, lunch plates, great drinks, a really fun playlist, a nice vibe and dinner too. Two really talented young women doing their thing. They make everyone feel really welcome, and everything they have posted is quality, so it’s very exciting.