SINGAPORE: The sun beat down mercilessly on Vijay Mudaliar as he stood stock-still, brows furrowed, surveying a tree trunk with the intensity of a neurosurgeon at the operating table.
“Sorry ladies,” he finally told us with a sigh. “No ants today.”
This statement would usually be greeted with good cheer – for most of us, ants are pests to be squished. But for Vijay, founder of cocktail bar Native, it meant he'd be short of a key ingredient for his signature drink, ‘Antz’.
The bar uses more than 20 ants in each cocktail. Most of them are blended with other ingredients like tapioca and soursop. The rest are sprinkled on top of a bed of basil leaf and basil meringue, and dipped into liquid nitrogen to create a bite-sized treat for the customer.
So far, more than 50,000 ants – some from ant farms in Thailand and others foraged sustainably from around Singapore – have been used in the drink.
While some might dismiss ‘Antz’ as a gimmick, Vijay insists that it’s thinking out of the box. “There are a lot of different ways of adding acidity to your cocktails, be it the usual citric acid found in limes and lemons, or formic acid,” the 28-year-old said.
“Weaver ants contain formic acid, and they’re quite big, so when you pop it in your mouth they taste almost like limes or lemons.”
Vijay is among the growing number of bartenders here who are experimenting with increasingly bolder ingredients and making more conceptual drinks, as Singapore’s cocktail scene explodes.
From just a handful of bars serving up the usual Old Fashioned and Mojito less than a decade ago, many now popping up around the island are competing to redefine the cocktail.
Bartenders credit Singaporeans’ sense of adventure and the island’s easy access to a variety of Asian ingredients and spirits, as well as the diversity of cocktail talents, for its vibrant cocktail scene.
Last year, Singapore beat regional rivals Hong Kong and Tokyo to clinch the title of Asia’s bar capital. The Singapore Cocktail Festival was also held for the first time in March, drawing thousands of attendees.
SINGAPORE "FAR AHEAD" OF PARIS
Just a six minutes’ walk from Native’s Amoy Street venue stands the Tippling Club. The bar, known for being one of the earliest joints to incorporate the principles of molecular gastronomy into cocktail making in Singapore, is still churning out drinks with a scientific bent.
Take for example, the “Rain” – a cocktail meant to evoke the memories and taste of a rainy day.
Although the drink looks simple – a piece of charcoal-grey “storm cloud” sitting atop a glass of cloudy white liquid – the thought behind isolating the taste of rain is anything but that.
WATCH: Science and imagination at work (2:33)
It’s all about science and understanding the ingredients, Joe Schofield, the Tippling Club’s head bartender said.
“The technical name for the smell after it rains is called petrichor, and petrichor is filled with a component called geosmin, which is very present in beetroot,” he explained.
And so the base of the cocktail is a distillation of vodka and beetroot – a “rain spirit”, as Joe calls it.
But there’s more. You add white dirt, or Kaolin clay, as it is more commonly known, for the rocky, earthy notes. The bar imports the edible clay from Africa “just to be able to get across some of the notes of when the rain hits the pavement”, the 27-year-old Briton added.
Joe, who was bartending at The Savoy in London before joining The Tippling Club, said that Singaporeans have been very receptive to trying the “Rain”.
“There is an openness to Singaporeans and they are willing to trying new drinks and have unique experiences,” he said.
Luke Whearty, co-founder of three-year-old underground speakeasy Operation Dagger, agreed. He said:
I’ve just been to Paris recently, but Singapore’s cocktail scene is far ahead. (Parisians) appreciate wine and the more classic drinks, but they are not as open to trying more progressive drinks.
FROM GRANNIES TO SUPERMODELS
Operation Dagger was ranked number 21 on 2016's World’s 50 Best Bars list. But Luke, an Australian, almost never opened the bar in Singapore.
After working at the Tippling Club for two years, he’d returned to Melbourne in 2011 with the intention of setting up shop there. The 32-year-old had reservations about returning to Singapore to start a bar that would focus on molecular mixology.
“The demand for such drinks wasn’t there yet – a lot of nights at the Tippling Club were very quiet,” he remembered.
“Back then, in 2009, Singaporeans hadn’t been exposed to anything like that – (the scene) was very traditional. The Tippling Club was five to six years ahead of what was understood then.”
But attitudes towards cocktails have changed drastically since.
“People are curious, they will ask you about the drinks they’re drinking, there are more back and forth discussions,” Luke said.
Today, 80-year-old grannies and Victoria’s Secret models alike have sought out the hard-to-find basement bar in Ann Siang Hill for both the hip factor and the drinks that push the definition of ‘cocktail’.
The Inaki, for example, resembles a sorbet more than a drink – a mixture of egg-yolk pumpkin sake and white chocolate pumpkin liquer is chilled with liquid nitrogen to a semi-solid state, which the customer eats with a spoon.
Sasha Wijidessa, 22, junior sous bartender at Operation Dagger, has been working at the bar for three years. She said that it’s seen a wider variety of patrons since its opening.
We once had an old Singaporean couple – an 80-year-old lady on crutches and a man in his 70s – come down the stairs and plonk themselves in front of the bar.
"I thought they would order the off-the-menu classic drinks, so I was really surprised when they insisted on trying all our weirder creations.
“It showed that they were very open to trying new things,” she said.
And in March, the bar received a famous guest: Supermodel Adriana Lima.
“I was serving her the whole night and I didn’t even realize who she was,” Sasha admitted. “She introduced herself as Adriana but I didn’t put two and two together until someone pointed it out later. We did go out and party after that, though.”
INSPIRED BY HAWKER FOOD
For Monti’s head bartender Joseph Millar, coming to Singapore has unlocked the doors to a whole new world of ingredients - and possibilities.
“I’m using ingredients like lemongrass, dragonfruit, gula melaka… things I’ve never used before,” the 26-year-old Belgian marveled. “Singapore is like a gateway to many of the Asian spices and flavors that you just can’t get in the West.”
Joseph, who had stints bartending in Texas and London before arriving in Singapore three years ago, said that hawker food here has inspired his drinks.
There are such intense flavours in local food like nasi lemak and chicken rice, and I want to emulate them in my own drinks.
His experiment has yielded the “Rosemary Kueh”, a spin on the Old Fashioned that he pairs with a homemade pandan syrup and fresh burnt rosemary.
Joseph is now working on perfecting a molecular-gastronomy inspired drink – the first in his decade-long career. After tinkering with the cocktail for six months and running through over 30 variations, he is feeling the pressure.
“In Singapore, you either make it or break it,” Joseph said.
“The pool of talent here is smaller (as compared to London), but because of that you also really get the chance to make a name for yourself and become known for one drink – and this could be it.”
BARTENDING NO LONGER A ‘PLACEHOLDER’ JOB
Singapore’s booming cocktail scene is also thrusting young local bartenders into the international spotlight, with many setting up their own bars after years of learning the ropes from big-name international bartenders.
“For a long time, you didn’t see a local bartender set up their own bar, but that has changed in a big way,” said Vijay, who started bartending ten years ago at clubs to earn extra cash. He eventually dropped out of university to pursue bartending as a full-time career at Operation Dagger.
Now, Vijay is making his mark with his own bar. Five-month-old Native uses only regional spirits and ingredients – a strategy he hopes will “showcase the work of smaller craftsmen in the region who don’t get a shot and are often overlooked”.
This philosophy extends to the bar’s furnishings – the bar top, tables and chairs are made by local carpenters, and even its playlist includes only regional artistes.
The hard work seems to have paid off. On Thursday (June 1), Native was named one of Asia’s 50 best bars in 2017.
The recognition is a long time coming for Vijay, whose parents had urged him to pursue a “real career”.
“They have always been supportive but they would have doubts. They had hoped that I would change my mind,” he recalled.
Vijay’s journey is one that Peter Chua is familiar with.
“There has been a drastic change in how bartenders are perceived locally over the past six years. Being a bartender is no longer a placeholder career,” said Peter, the co-head bartender of Crackerjack, an all-day drinking and dining venue that opened in January this year.
Young people nowadays actually jump in and see it as a proper career, and they enroll in schools specifically with a vision to end up as a bartender.
The 29-year-old, who first got his start at 28 Hong Kong Street in 2011 and rose to become senior bartender there, is making waves overseas.
In May, he won the Asia-Pacific regional title in the Diplomático World Tournament, an international cocktail competition. He will go on to compete with 12 other bartenders at the global finals in London later this month.
For both Vijay and Peter, the goal is to translate their personal success into training a new batch of local bartenders to fuel the cocktail boom.
“Six years ago, there was no (cocktail) scene. Six years later, a lot of us here have gone through our own trials and tribulations,” Peter said. “The goal of Crackerjack is to teach new bartenders and let them learn the ropes – maybe even send them overseas to learn.”
Vijay agreed, adding: “When Peter and and I were growing up, we didn’t have a template to follow. We want to change that for the next generation. We want to help groom young Singaporeans.
“The guys under me, I want them to open their own bars in the future. That’s the goal."