Built to Order: This Bar’s Customizable Cocktail Has Cracked the Singapore Sling Code
During the early years of the cocktail renaissance, there were a lot of broken classic cocktails. Some carried a reputation for excellence that didn’t jibe with the corrupted way they had come to be made. They needed fixing.
But, with some research and tinkering on the part of bartenders, many of those busted drinks were repaired. The Old Fashioned dumped its muddled fruit and soda water and was returned to its simple, boozy 19th-century self. The El Presidente didn’t taste good until research revealed that the vermouth required to make it was not dry, but the lesser-known blanc. The Zombie became palatable again once tiki archivist Jeff Berry uncovered the original recipe. As for many of the sours, all that was needed to restore them to health was good-quality spirits and fresh juice (not sour mix).
Other cocktails remained broken, unsolved mysteries. One of these was the Singapore Sling.
The Singapore Sling may be the most famous unknown recipe in cocktail history. Everyone knows the name of the early 20th-century concoction, with its catchy, fun-to-utter alliteration and assonance. And all cocktail scholars and geeks know of its long association with the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, where it was supposedly invented in the 1910s. But no one knows, to an absolute certainty, how to properly make one. Early recipes have Benedictine in them. Later ones feature pineapple juice. Other juices that sometimes play a role include orange, lemon, and lime. Sometimes grenadine is used, sometimes Angostura bitters. The only constants in every formula are gin and Cherry Heering.
And so — as was once the case with the Zombie — what you will end up with when you order one depends entirely on the bar you’re in and the bartender who’s serving you.
Colin Stevens, beverage director at the Manhattan bar Singlish — a snug saloon with a Singapore focus that opened in May 2022 — knows this. Years ago, before he won his current position, in a sort of Machiavellian move, he made the Singapore Sling his drink.
“Every time we’d go out, I’d order a Singapore Sling,” he said. “It was awesome, because no one made it the same way.”
The going story is that the drink was invented in 1915 by a bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon at the Long Bar inside the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, for decades a stopping place and watering hole for actors, writers, diplomats, jetsetters, and tourists — though there is plenty of reason to doubt Raffles’ story. In its early years it was sometimes called a Singapore Gin Sling; and it’s called a Straits Sling by Robert Vermeire in his 1922 book “Cocktails — How to Mix Them,” in which he writes that it’s a “well-known Singapore drink.” By the 1930s, the drink was being served stateside. An indication as to how often it was made poorly is the number of ads and articles from the time that attested to certain bars making it “correctly.”
Because of its uncertain formula — who knows if you’re ever drinking it as intended? — the Singapore Sling holds little currency in today’s cocktail market. I personally never order it, because I consider the entire proposition a sort of con job. But I made an exception recently at Singlish, where Stevens may have finally solved the conundrum of the Singapore Sling.
He has accomplished this by taking apart the drink’s likely components and refusing to put them back together. Instead, he hands the puzzle over to the customer.
He calls the drink the BTO (Built to Order). When you order one, you’re brought a small silver tray laden with ingredients. Inside the various glasses and carafes on the tray are lime juice; a mixture of pineapple and orange juice; a house-made version of Cherry Heering cut with fresh pomegranate juice; gin (Stevens uses Tanglin, which is made in Singapore); and, in an eyedropper, a pandan tincture. Two additional dishes contain cherries and pineapple chunks — potential garnishes.
Next to the tray is placed a large ice-cream sundae glass filled with one big ice cube and a straw. What goes in that glass is up to you.
“I give them an intro, walk them through the ingredients,” said Stevens, referring to his customers. “The only encouragement I give them is to take it slow and use a little bit of everything. It’s such a robust recipe that even if you overdo it at all, it’s still going to taste good. There are endless variations.”
I used my knowledge of classic sour ratios to put my Sling together. I started with what my eyeballs considered a solid two ounces of gin. Singapore Slings can be overly sweet and I didn’t want that. So I added an ounce of the Cherry Heering, which is considerably less sweet and more spice-forward than the liqueur sold under that name. Then came a half-ounce each of lime juice and pineapple/orange juice. I ignored the pandan tincture, which I considered a fanciful elective. Garnish-wise, I went to a skewer of three cherries and three pineapple chunks each.
Surprisingly, it was solidly good out of the gate. I made no adjustments.
The exercise was fun and oddly satisfying. I like to make cocktails and tinker with recipes. Stevens said I wasn’t alone. The drink is a popular order. “That surprised me, to be honest,” he said. “I thought people would be more intimidated by it.”
Still, I had to ask. Why didn’t Stevens just serve what he considers the best version of the Singapore Sling? Given his long experience with the cocktail, he surely had an excellent recipe in his possession.
“I could make you a Singapore Sling and it would be very tasty,” he explained. “But that’s not any more valid than anyone else making the drink. It’s just my best guess.”
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