The Singapore Sling cocktail is regarded by many as Singapore’s national drink. But how did thirsty women, colonisation and word of mouth play a role in the creation of this fruity concoction over a hundred years ago?
Picture this: it’s 1920s Singapore and you are the disenchanted wife of a British man who owns several plantations and is usually too busy to bother with you. The tropical weather is punishingly muggy and you could really do with a nice cocktail to cool down and relax with your girlfriends. That is, except for all the disapproving frowns you are sure to receive if you drink anything other than tea in public.
But Singapore’s upper-class ladies had a secret: they knew exactly where to go to get their much needed libation (or two, or three). It was a fashionable spot, where they could drink the day away without anyone the wiser about their indulgence: The Raffles Hotel.
This legendary hotel along Singapore’s Beach Road is described by famed British writer W. Somserset Maugham as standing “for all the fables of the exotic East.” It was once a beachfront property (until land reclamation shifted the coastline back) built by the Armenian Sarkies brothers in 1886. With its Neo-Renaissance architecture, The Raffles Hotel was a firm favourite of the Colonial upper class in Singapore. Globetrotting luminaries from Rudyard Kipling to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II have graced the Raffles Hotel with their presence.
Raffles Hotel is home to the Long Bar, which is where the hotel claims that Ngiam Tong Boon, a talented Hainanese bartender, created the Singapore Sling in 1915. At the time it was considered a socially acceptable ‘punch’ for ladies to drink in public. History is a bit hazy on whether these are actual facts or just a savvy marketing story. There have been pink drinks and gin slings documented in Singapore in earlier publications, but it is no doubt that the Singapore Sling has endured. Over a hundred years later, it has become a quintessential part of Singapore’s brand and a must-do for tourists today.
What’s more clear about the cocktail is its legendary reputation. The Singapore Sling has accumulated many famous fans – it was described by Charles Baker, author of the 1939 drinking guide and memoir The Gentleman’s Companion, as “a delicious, slow-acting, insidious thing.” It featured as the drink of choice in American writer Hunter S. Thomson’s famous 1971 novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where the characters spent a boozy afternoon waiting for a call: “sitting there in the Polo Lounge — for many hours, drinking Singapore Slings with mescal on the side and beer chasers.” American singer Tom Waits sang about how he “talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore Sling” in his 1983 song, Shoreleave.
The Singapore Sling is a pink, tropical concoction that looks like a deceptively modest fruit punch. However, drink past its juicy exterior and you will find a potent alcoholic mix of cherry brandy, gin, cointreau, grenadine and Dom Benedictine, topped off with lime and pineapple juice – or at least that’s what the official Raffles Hotel version states. Singapore Sling recipes have varied greatly over time and location, and its actual ingredients have been hotly debated. For instance, other recipes have called for lime, orange and other types of cherry liqueurs.
If you head over to the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, it is almost mandatory to order one of these fruity drinks that will cost you over SGD 36.50 (USD 26) – it was once just $2.50. Enjoy the novelty of sipping your drink at the bar while throwing peanut shells on the floor, a tradition inspired by the plantation lifestyle of the 1920s.
You can get the same original premix concoction at the Duty-free shop in Changi Airport, but if you are looking for that romanticised colonial atmosphere, you will have to wait till late 2018. That’s when The Raffles Hotel and Long Bar are scheduled to reopen after major refurbishment works have been completed.
In the meantime, many other bars and enterprising companies have created their own versions of the Singapore Sling to quench your thirst. Chow H.S. is the owner of True Heritage Brew, who claims that his Singapore Sling is the true version served at the Raffles Hotel from the 1980s to 2005. In an interview with The New Paper, Chow explains he was inspired to create the premix so that more Singaporeans taste this iconic drink. He found it “ironic that most Singaporeans have never had a Singapore Sling themselves.”