I was first told about ATLAS over drinks at 28 HongKong St in December, where Paul, Neil, myself, and 1930 bartenders Benjamin and Marco were enjoying an aperitivo before a flight back to Milano. Paul told me had something really special to show us before we left. “Shane, you guys won’t want to miss this.” With those words, and the sparkle in his eyes, I knew he was about show us something big.
We packed our suitcases into two taxis and drove towards the unknown destination, which turned out to be Parkview Square, a few minute ride northeast into the Bugis neighborhood. As we pulled up the curved driveway, and glimpsed the breathtaking golden crane sculpture out front, I felt like I was entering a Scarface movie set. Looking up, I was in awe of the majestic building just outside the central business district, which was designed by the US firm James Adams Design together with DP Architects of Singapore. Originally completed in 2002, Parkview’s design follows classic Art Deco style, inspired by New York City’s 1929 Chanin Building. The exterior of the building is clad in brown granite, bronze, lacquer, and glass. Many locals refer to Parkview Square as the Gotham building because of its resemblance to the fictional city in Batman.
Paul jumped out of the car, and spoke with one of the workers on the construction site. After getting an OK for the visit, Paul opened the main door for us at ATLAS. As I entered, I hardly noticed the 50-odd workers frantically doing the last touches on the monumental lobby. That’s because when you enter, your eyes will be uncontrollably drawn towards the 15-metre high ornate ceiling. Paul brought us over to the 3-storey high tower, which in the previous incarnation of the lobby was a backbar for holding wines. A wine fairy was hoisted up the tower to retrieve wines using a pulley system. Paul explained that the Hwang family, the owners of Parkview Square, had asked Proof & Company to assist them in renovating the lobby, transforming it into a vibrant, memorable all-day venue for dining and drinking.
The wine tower would now become a gin tower, holding over 1,000 bottles of gin, the largest collection of its kind. Instead of the wine fairy, there would be a spiral staircase and a ladder for bartenders to fetch the bottles. Paul explained all the details of the venue to come, including an amazing staff, DJs and dancers on the raised stage at the opposite end of the lobby. It all sounded like a dream. Fast forward three months later. I’d cleverly timed my return to Singapore to coincide with the gala opening of ATLAS on March 25. I felt extremely lucky to have been given an invitation to the event, surely the most important event of the year in the cocktail world. Plus Paul arranged for me to sit down with Vicky Hwang, the woman in charge of the ATLAS project.
Vicky explained to me that Parkview Square building is very important to her family because it was the last one built by her grandfather, the late CS Hwang. Before entering real estate, Vicky’s grandfather had been a member of the Nationalist Kuomintang army in China, and was responsible for screening Chinese Nationalists retreating to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. Through his humanistic approach, he managed to form friendships with many of his interviewees, some of whom were former generals or high-ranking officers. These powerful figures went on to form the new Taiwanese government and partly through the connections CS Hwang had made, he founded the Chyau Fwu Corporation, securing government contracts for large-scale infrastructures projects such as airports, dams, railways and schools. The family then shifted its focus to residential and commercial properties in Taiwan before moving to Hong Kong in 1980, where they developed their most famous property, Hong Kong Parkview, a luxury residential/recreational complex on Hong Kong Island. With political and economic uncertainty in the turnover of Hong Kong to China, CS Hwang decided to diversify the family’s assets, extending operations to Beijing, London and Singapore.
In his 70s at the time, CS Hwang wanted to do something truly special as his foray into South East Asia. He decided to build Parkview Square just outside the CBD of Singapore. People thought he was crazy for developing in a less than prime area for real estate. However, the money that was saved on land was put towards constructing one of the most impressive buildings in the world, a common strategy employed by the Hwang family. The gamble that Vicky’s grandfather made on building Parkview Square in Bugis had paid off – the district is now popular with developers, with the Duo skyscraper about to open just in front of Parkview Square. However, after 14 years, the interior lobby at Parkview Square was due for a refresh, which is where Vicky comes in.
Vicky was raised in Hong Kong and has degrees from Stanford and Georgetown. She was previously the leasing director of the Battersea Power Station, the iconic decommissioned coal-fired power station in London. She holds that property dear to her heart, but her family eventually sold it in 2006. She then worked on rebuilding Chateau de Coligny in France along with her husband Vincent Pieron. With the slowdown in the European economy, they moved to Singapore in 2013, where Vicky was given the staggering task of renovating her grandfather’s passion project. Through a friend, she was put in touch with Spencer and Paul of Proof & Company, who presented her two options for the lobby: do a minor refresh of the Divine wine bar or go all out, and build a completely new bar. Vicky and the Proof team decided that a gin bar would be appropriate, given the elegant and majestic James Bond-like space, ideal for sipping a gin martini.
One of the biggest tasks of the lobby makeover was given to Master of Gin Jason Williams, who was responsible for curating and accumulating the largest collection of gin in the world. He told me many gin distillers, inspired by the vision of a great gin bar in Asia, personally contributed bottles to the collection. In addition, many other gins were transported to Singapore by “gin mules”, a.k.a. loyal friends and family. Proof & Company estimates there are now at least 2,000 gins in the world and as of the gala launch, ATLAS bar had secured 1,011 of them, including one from Buitenverwachting wine farm in South Africa, delivered by yours truly.
In addition to the vast collection of gin, ATLAS has over 250 bottles of champagne, stored in a walk-in cellar below the gin tower. The collection includes many rare bottles from the family’s personal collection including the 1907 Heidsieck & Co Monopole “Gout Americain”, which is securely locked in its own case. These rare bottles were recovered from the shipwrecked Jonkoping schooner that was sunk in the Baltic Sea in 1916. Originally destined for officers of the Imperial Russian army during World War 1, the bottles were found to be perfectly preserved, with the deep-sea being ideal conditions for aging the champagne.
The gala event on March 25th was fittingly a black tie affair, so I rented a nice tux from the local mall and took an air-conditioned cab over to Parkview Square to avoid the hot and humid Singapore climate. As I entered the lobby, I had a similar feeling compared to when I first glimpsed the majestic space while it was under construction. First goosebumps, then complete awe, as I marveled at the gorgeous ceiling and huge blue drape covering the gin tower for the unveiling.
At the event, I was happy to see Paul, his delightful wife Sabrina and the one and only Giancarlo Mancino, who was sporting a dapper white suit from his earlier bartending days. Although there were few bartenders at the gala, it was great to meet some of the Proof & Company upper brass like Snehal, Joe, Nicole, Erin, Micaela and Chris, the MC of the gala. There was also Jeremy Chua, one of my favorite 28 HKS bartenders, who was helping cater the event. Everyone was dressed to the nines for the industry event of the year. Vicky stole the show, wearing a gorgeous long blue dress worthy of the Oscars.
The champagne was free flowing, with MiMi filling up my flute what seemed like every couple of minutes. It all felt like a scene from the Great Gatsby. In addition to the unlimited Roederer Brut Premier, there was an awesome cocktail menu prepared by head bartender Roman Foltan, previously of the Artesian in London which won World’s Best Bar for four consecutive years. Roman’s drink list for the gala included the signature ATLAS martini (London Dry Gin, Mancino Bianco Ambrato Vermouth, orange bitters and champagne vinegar). There was also the Imperial Fizz Nouveau (modern French gin, rose cordial, angelica, orange blossom, cream, citrus, soda) which was prepared using the innovative Imperial shaker machine designed by Jason Crawley. Mr. Crawley himself attended the gala to shake Imperial Fizzes for the guests.
And then there was the food. I had already been given a preview of talented Daniele Sperindio’s outstanding cuisine on a previous visit to ATLAS, which included a heavenly topinambur risotto and a slow braised short rib that was so tender, it melted in your mouth. The ex-Tippling Club chef designed a menu more suitable for the 300-person event, including delicious spaghetti wrapped around a fork with black truffle. I was happily surprised there was a buffet area which included my favorite cold cuts and cheeses from Italy and Spain. I spent much of the evening there, conveniently located next to the main bar.
The highlight of the night was of course the unveiling of the gin tower, which included a countdown by opening 8 lucky bottles of champagne which were used to fill a champagne tower. As the blue curtain dropped, I marveled at the splendor of the tower, which clearly had been stocked with even more bottles, further adding to the visual impact. Photos of the backbar at ATLAS can do it no justice. Its true beauty is something that can only be experienced in person.
Rounding out the world-class experience at ATLAS are the staff. Professional, courteous but also not afraid to crack a joke, you can tell these guys are the best in the game, and have been trained by the best, which includes Carla Soares (Maître D’), another talent from the award-winning Artesian in London. In addition to head bartender Roman, you will find banker turned world-class bartender, Sim Sze Wei. I suggest pulling up a bar stool in front of Sim, who will blow you away with his technical skills. I enjoyed several great cocktails from Sim, especially the Young Churchill (salty smoky islay single malt, herbal liqueur, orange bitters) from the “Bright Young Things” section of the cocktail list, inspired by “The privileged, fashionable and bohemian set of relentless London party-goers during the Gilded Age.”
The actual menu at ATLAS is beautiful, with a soft PhD thesis-like cover and heavy stock pages. The most exciting page on the menu is surely the vintage Martini section. At ATLAS, you can sample Martinis made with vintage vermouths and gins from each decade dating back to the 1910s. Another cocktail that caught my eye was the Florentine Negroni, featuring 1920s florentine london dry gin, 1930s italian sweet vermouth and vintage Campari. Count Camillo may have enjoyed a similar concoction in 1919 when he asked the bartender Fosco Scarselli of Caffé Casoni to strengthen his favorite cocktail, the Americano, by adding gin rather than soda water. Adding to the elegance of the menu is the fact that it doesn’t mention brands, a rarity for a cocktail bar menu. FYI, the previously mentioned London dry gin, Modern French gin and Salty smoky islay single malt are Fords, Citadelle and Laphroaig, respectively.
When Vicky was given carte blanche to renovate the ATLAS lobby, you can tell she put her heart into it. She was inspired to refresh the space in a way that would have made her Grandfather truly proud. During her speech at the gala Vicky stated that “ATLAS has been created by ambition, passion, respect, and most importantly a whole lot of heart by a team of truly incredibly people.” And it shows. From the hand crafted design elements and top quality spirits, to the happy and courteous staff, ATLAS is the perfect place to drink, laugh and live.
Every self-respecting cocktail enthusiast should visit Singapore to experience the magic of ATLAS, the Mecca of cocktail bars. When the World’s 50 Best Bars list is released next October, expect ATLAS to take one of the top spots.