Asia's best bars / by shane eaton

Most people in the industry are aware of the World's 50 Best Bars, the most prestigious ranking of the world's best cocktail bars. This year W50BB has joined forces with the World's 50 Best Restaurants, and shakeups are expected to improve the fairness in voting. In speaking with editor of World's 50 Best William Drew at a recent symposium at the Rome cocktail week, the changes mainly influence the voters. In the past, W50BB published the names of the voters, potentially influencing the voting process. In the future, W50BB will likely keep the voter list a secret. Also, the voter makeup will be tweaked by including the impartial opinions of voters without financial interests such as journalists, bloggers and jetset drinkers. There will be no voting criteria for W50BB, as it's completely subjective what a ‘best bar’ really is. 

Some of these changes have already be implemented in the recently released Asia's 50 Best Bars. The fact that no other region has a similar list underscores Asia's importance in the cocktail industry. Leading the pack in Asia is Singapore, featuring powerhouses 28 Hong Kong Street, Manhattan and newcomer ATLAS. Japan maintains their relevance thanks to Sensei Hidetsugu Ueno of Bar High Five in Tokyo.

But the big news in Asia are the emerging markets. In Bangkok, the scene is blowing up thanks in part to Ronnaporn Neung Kanivichaporn at Backstage. In Shanghai, Speak Low, headed by industry heavyweight Shingo Gokan, is leading the way in the up-and-coming chinese market. Proof and Company, SE Asia's leading liquor distributor, has recognized the potential of China, recently beginning operations there. Even Seoul has become an important player in Asia, with a handful of imporant bars opening up recently such as the beautiful Charles H led by Lorenzo Antinori.

Below I give my impressions on some of these bars, mainly focusing on Singapore, which I often visit thanks to my researcher job. I've organized the list based on their ranking in the just released list of Asia's 50 best bars.

 

1. Manhattan (Singapore)

Manhattan Bar at the Regent is an elegant hotel bar designed by the team at 28 contains the world's only rickhouse, where Philip Bischoff and his team barrel age cocktails. You will even see signature barrels, with cocktails that have been formulated by the biggest names in the cocktail world. At Manhattan, they even have a stylish ingredient lab, where you see an amazing assortment of exotic ingredients that the team is studying for the cocktail menu. The highlight of the bar however is bar itself, where each bottle is individually lit, making for a dramatic experience each time you enter Manhattan Bar.

On my second visit to Manhattan this December, I had the pleasure to meet the floor manager Roland Dimaano and the awesome bar team including Bacardi Legacy finalist Cedric Allen MendozaTim RoseteGabriel Martin Escoto Carlos and Frank Hoo Gee

 The beautiful back bar at Manhattan

The beautiful back bar at Manhattan

 

3. High Five (Tokyo) - Review by Toney Teddy Fernandez 

Headed by Hidetsugu Ueno who is famous for the hard shake and his ice talents, you can’t miss out on Bar High Five when in Tokyo. The bar is beautifully decorated with thick and dark wooden panels, with at least a dozen bar stools, all of them facing the long counter. The bottles on display behind the bar were beautiful, with an amazing selection of spirits from Japan and rest of the world. 

Up at the bar, you will be impressed with the Japanese hospitality. You can tuck your bag under the chair in a small drawer. The bartenders provide you a fresh white towel to wipe your hands and they even gave me a large cloth so I could rest my D750 on the bar counter. Since the bar counter is really long, one would doubt where to sit to get the perfect view of Ueno's cocktail making. Actually, you can sit where ever you want as Ueno alternates between two strategically placed stations, so that everyone gets a good view. There is no menu at High Five. The order is based on your preference, style, taste and mood.

Bar High Five is worth a visit and is definitely a place to hang out with other cocktail appreciating tourists in Tokyo. Ueno is a busy man and could very well be on tour, so make sure you consult his travel schedule located on the bar’s web site. If you are lucky enough to catch him at the bar then prepare to marveled by his elegant cocktail making and his signature hard shake.

 Ueno

Ueno

 

4. 28 HongKong Street (Singapore)

Owners PaulSpencer and Snehal met 10 years ago while doing law gigs in NY. They all shared a common passion for cocktail bars, and were particularly inspired by the drinking institution Employees Only. Pursuing various new ventures in booming Singapore, they decided to put some cash together to come up with 28 Hong Kong Street, a NY style cocktail bar in a country with almost zero drinking culture. The big risk paid off. In the first year they made the World's 50 best and are currently sitting in 14th spot. 28 paved the way for many new cocktail bars in Singapore, even if Tippling laid the initial ground work. At 28, you can be sure to have amazing drinks, delicious american-inspired comfort food, friendly people and the most beautiful bar team in the world.

Behind the stick you will find an amazing array of talent starting with head bartender Charmaine Ann ThioAshwin Raj, the most gangsta bartender in Asia, is huge for 28 - not only does he make great drinks, he owns the room, making friends with everyone who walks in. Yoma Rivera, a master of flair, brings a beautiful style to the 28 team. On my recent trip I finally met Syafiq Rahim, another star in the making at 28. 

JJ does a great managing the floor at 28. He is also great taste in shirts I can't thank him enough for finding my sunglasses. The main reason 28 continues to be the most beautiful bar team in the world are the waitresses Shaheera, Mary and Lisa who always make you feel at home 28. 

Thanks to Kathleen Wong, 28 has always had great food, perhaps the best of any cocktail bar in Singapore. Her closest competition is sister bar Crackerjack.

 Ashwin aka Lebron

Ashwin aka Lebron

 

6. Operation Dagger (Singapore)

To find Operation Dagger, look for a rectangle and inverted crown symbol. Once through the door, a seedy cement staircase will lead you down to the minimalist basement speakeasy. The light bulb installation will have you gazing up toward the ceiling but bring your focus back to the man behind the bar, Luke Whearty, a bartender who has taken mixology to the next level.

Luke’s menu at Operation Dagger makes no mention of the spirits, so the customer can focus instead on the other ingredients that provide the soul of a cocktail. You will also notice nondescript brown bottles behind the bar, some of which contain spirits that are redistilled and infused with new flavours. Just like his menu, Luke’s goal is to take the emphasis away from brand names and preconceived biases, allowing his customers to better experience the intricately woven flavours that make up his drinks.

Here are some of my favorite drinks at Operation Dagger:

Hot and cold – you need to sip through the warm coconut/white chocolate cream before you get to the cooler base of tequila infused with pineapple and lavender. This drink is a pleasant surprise your palate and happens to be Luke’s best seller. Here is the amazing recipe of this drink

Milk and Honey (milk, honeycomb, tonka bean). The sweetness from the honeycomb is in perfect harmony with the creamy milk and vanilla-like earthiness from the tonka bean. A must try.

Mexico Manhattan with tequila, stirred with coffee beans and served with a brandied cherry. This is an elegant tequila Manhattan that concludes with a subtle but pleasant coffee finish.

Cabbage wine. This hypnotic and pleasantly tart natural wine is made with naturally fermented red cabbage, rose vinegar and red apples.

 Cabbage wine

Cabbage wine

 

11. Tippling Club (Singapore)

Tippling Club opened during difficult financial times in 2008. But star chef Ryan Clift perservered, and has inspired a new revolution in cocktail making which he has paired with his creative cuisine. Tippling is now located in the trendy chinatown, and has a beautiful and well lit bar space. My first trip to Tippling was a few years ago. I only had an hour at Tippling, but I was blown away by the cocktails I tried. The highlight was the Lime and Tofu Daiquiri, which was also the best cocktail I tried in Singapore (co-invented by Yugnes Susela, currently at Smoke and Mirrors). The drink includes rum, sake, tofu, lime, togarashi chili pepper and a dried bonito fish on the side. The freshness of the sake and tofu together with the classic rum-lime match provided the tartness, which married beautifully with the salty bonito fish, meant to be nibbled on while consuming the libation. It was an amazing sensorial experience that convinced me that Clift has really managed to the impossible - pair a cocktail with food. 

These days, we have superstar Joe Schofield behind the stick, who may have come up with the most inventive cocktail menu in history where you pick your drink based on perfume sticks placed on a cocktail strainer. Choose between aromas like leather, forest, jasmine, caramel, and earl grey. The accompanying cocktail will give you a similar sensorial experience as the perfume stick. I adored the Caramel cocktail featuring aged rum, Myers, leond, salted caramel, egg yolk and salt. 

 The bar area at Tippling

The bar area at Tippling

 

12. ATLAS (Singapore)

ATLAS is the Mecca of cocktail bars. Every cocktail enthusiast in the world must visit this elegant lobby bar holding over 1000 bottles of gin in the monumental gin tower. ATLAS will surely find its way at the top of the best bars lists next year. Check out my article of the gala launch event.

 ATLAS by day

ATLAS by day

 

17. Employees Only (Singapore)

You want a sign that Singapore has an important cocktail scene? Employees Only. The highly-lauded NY institution has opened up shop in Chinatown thanks to Steve Schneider and Igor Hadzismajlovic. When I visited EO SG, Igor was managing the floor - and what a job he does. He gracefully glides from one table to another, making sure all of his patrons are jovial.  He's an adorable guy and is without a doubt, the key to EO Singapore's success. 

Although the drinks are very good, Igor and the party-like atmosphere is what makes Employees Only tick.

 Good times at EO with Ben, Marco, Joe and Dario

Good times at EO with Ben, Marco, Joe and Dario

 

20. Native (Singapore)

The most exciting new opening in Singapore is Native, headed by talented Vijay Mudaliar (ex-Operation Dagger). The concept at Native is daring but refreshingly original. Their idea is to source spirits and ingredients exclusively from SE Asia. That obviously means no Agave-based drinks here. However as Vijay and bartenders Leon Tan and Kye Seng Ang explained, there are great spirits in the region, including Chalong Bay Thai rum, Paper Lantern Gin from Singapore, Ceylon Arrack from Sri Lanka, and Amrut Whisky from India

Vijay was inspired to work with ingredients he grew up with like mango, turmeric, cinnamon, and tapioca. He is also into foraging new ingredients for his creative drinks with one interesting example being the weaver ants used in the Antz cocktail (Chalong Bay Thai rum with aged sugarcane vinegar, coconut yogurt, salt-baked tapioca and soursop topped with ants on a frozen basil leaf). Believe it or not, this drink is delicious. The ants add a pleasant acidity (and crunchiness) to the savoury drink. 

Vijay's decision to source locally goes against the grain in Singapore, where restaurants and bars too often use ingredients that are shipped from lands far away. The regional concept at Native extends even beyond the drinks, with bar aprons, decorations and music all provided by local artists. If you are in Singapore, Native is a must visit!

 

35. The Other Room (Singapore)

The Other Room is a totally original concept for a cocktail bar. Even though it's located in the Marriott Tang Plaza hotel, it took us a while to figure out where the entrance was. But that's part of the excitement, isn't it? Once inside the beautiful and dimly lit space, you will be treated to world-class hospitality and delicious drinks made with house made ingredients and cask finished spirits. Dario Knox is a true innovator in the industry and with The Other Room, he has the coolest new bar in Singapore. Joining him are bartenders Davide Boncimino and "Cazzo Duro" Yang. Managing the floor is the delightful Chloe. 

My favorite drink from the current menu is the Sir Winston Churchill with Guatemalan Coffee Beans finished Dictador 12 Rum, Angostura Bitters, Chocolate Bitters, Sugar, Wide Churchill Romeo y Julieta Smoke.

 Davide and Dario

Davide and Dario