Cocktails often come sweet, sour, and at times, salty. But rarely savoury. It’s still a peculiar concept in drink-making in Singapore beyond the boundary-pushing bars. Still, a handful of bold players are taking a page from stovetops – drawing inspiration from local dishes and recreating them in cocktails. From char siew to laksa, here are various Singaporean favourites you can sip.
From Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall
With a colloquial name like Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall, the menu at this bar, unsurprisingly, draws inspiration from the local culture. “We wanted to recreate a hawker drink stall that serves locally inspired cocktails,” says bar manager Sim Sze Wei.
Everything, from the menu to the interior, is delightfully patriotic. Old-school biscuit tins and even the latticed window grills are sourced from dumpsters and flea markets, while signature cocktails, such as Milo Dinosaur and Chrysanthemum Tea, are boozy renditions of familiar beverages found in hawker centres.
The Laksa ($24) takes cue from the spicy coconut noodle dish. Sze Wei explains: “The focus is on the freshness of the laksa leaves, not so much on the richness.” To lend a savoury edge, the fat from dried shrimp is first rendered, then infused with vodka. It’s then used as a base with other quintessential herbs and spices: fresh laksa leaves, lemongrass, chilli padi, lime juice, sugar, and a touch of coconut cream.
“And we top it off with powdered dried shrimp to give it that extra oomph,” says Sze Wei. “The challenge was to extract the flavours of laksa without making it too overpowering,” he adds. “In the end, we manage to achieve a balanced drink that’s fresh, tasty, and at the same time, very familiar.”
From Mona Lounge
Get transported to the hedonistic days of 1980s Hong Kong where triads ruled at Mona Lounge. True to its gangland inspiration, this back-room cocktail lounge even requires a secret code to gain access. Once inside, sway to the smooth tunes of Chinese jazz as you sip on Asian-influenced tipples.
The drinks selection, conceived by bar consultant Edwin Poh, is full of surprises. “I love hawker food,” says Edwin. “And I enjoy the challenge of making food-inspired cocktails.” From his unique, savoury creations, My Favourite Roast ($24) is one that draws from char siew rice. According to Edwin, replicating this layered dish, with all its assertive flavours – sweet, salty, savoury, and roasty – wasn’t easy.
Mirroring ingredients from the actual dish, he makes a blend of chilli padi, calamansi, and Japanese cucumber, mixes in a dash of homemade char siew syrup, and uses Remy Martin VSOP instead of rice. “The sweet element is the key to balancing the drink,” says Edwin. It’s then finished with smoke and a slice of pork on the side since its meaty flavours can’t be replicated in the drink.
From The Elephant Room
Little India is filled with colour, culture, sight, sounds, and for Yugnes Susela, inspiration.
The drink maker finds it in jasmine-scented Jothi Store and Flower Shop on Campbell Lane. He sees it in the bustling Tekka Market. He also derives it from the beer garden at Chander Road where foreign workers gather after work for a cold beer and massive plate of biryani. “It had me reminiscing the good moments I shared with my family and friends in Little India, and how these labourers bring to Singapore a communal togetherness that India is known for,” says the co-owner and head bartender of The Elephant Room. “I just had to capture this story in a cocktail.”
And so, Yugues spent over three months translating his experiences into drinks – and the aptly named Beer Garden ($22). He starts by making his own biryani whiskey, which blends spicier, punchier Southern biryani spices with the sour, tangy profile or Northern biryani. “It gives the drink real personality,” Yugnes shares. Spices and ghee are thrown into the mix, before it’s fat-washed, and barley and brine are added. The final act of carbonation “opens up” the cocktail. And a cured-egg papadum garnish replicates the meal.
“My concoctions are an extension of my experiences and stories,” he explains, which has led to seven bold cocktails that celebrate various parts of Little India and Indian culture. “I hope that people walk away from The Elephant Room with a better understanding of the culture I am so proud to be a part of.”
From Nutmeg and Clove
While most find the study of Singapore’s history uninspiring, Nutmeg and Clove uses it to create drinks. Its latest menu explores our cultural melting pot, and pays homage to the five races – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan, Eurasian – and their cuisines.
As owner Colin Chia explains: “What we want is for our customers to understand Singapore a little better through the lens of delicious cocktails.” Chilli crab, a national favourite, was an obvious choice. But to capture the flavours of the dish in a drink, Colin and his team had to first learn how to cook it. So they went into the hawker centers to learn from the best.
The biggest challenge, however, was to retain the core elements of sweet, spicy, and umami – without having it be too loud and “in your face”.
“You don’t want it to taste too much like food, so the balance in flavours is the toughest to get right,” says Colin. A complex line-up of ingredients goes into making This Is Crab! ($23). Fresh and dried chillies, tomatoes, and seaweed are mixed with seafood consommé to lend an umani note. Monkey Shoulder gin lends a hint of complementary fruitiness, and a finishing splash of Port Charlotte whisky imparts a smoky, wok hei perfume.