At the turn of the twentieth century in colonial Singapore, the Raffles Hotel was a highly regarded property owing to its exceptional service and proximity to the beach. It quickly became popular in the community and was a place where wealthy traders rubbed shoulders with wealthy visitors to the capital of the British Crown Colony of the Straits Settlements. The hotel was named after the founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.
Past the courtyards, where palm trees brush against the bleached white facade, and through the open air corridors lies the social centre of the hotel, the ballroom. Inside that one finds the Long Bar where the gentry once mixed in polite society during banquets and balls. On how long the Long Bar actually was! A plaque on the site of the current bar describes it as having been “rather longish.” Other documentation suggests it was a full 40 feet, the breadth of the ballroom itself.
It is easy to picture the scene of those days: large plumes of smoke filling the air while gentlemen propped up the bar, a glass of whisky in hand, and ladies chattered as they enjoyed gin and tonics. Just kidding, in actual fact, etiquette prohibited ladies from drinking in public for the first half of the twentieth century. Their vice was instead the wild passions of fruit juice… or so they wanted you to think.
Just over 100 years ago, the talented Raffles barkeeper Ngiam Tong Boon concocted an eloquent “fruit punch” that greatly appealed to the ladies. Rich sunset in colour, this sweet mix of pineapple, lime and grenadine was actually laced with a lot of clear alcohol—primarily gin—and a liberal dash of cherry liqueur, Cointreau and DOM Bénédictine topped off with a couple of specks of bitters served over ice with a pineapple and cherry garnish. And thus the Singapore Sling was created. This way females could enjoy chilled relief from the muggy city outside but could also to endure their male counterparts, for as even Ernest Hemingway, a guest at Raffles, once said, "I drink to make other people more interesting.”
The Long Bar has moved many times during the last century since Ngiam Tong Boom first served up his classic cocktail. The bar continues to exist today as a reconstruction of the original. It still retains a charm that acts as a testament to its rich heritage. Under the motorised wicker fans hanging from the ceiling all walks of life come to drink and crack open peanuts, throwing the shells on the ground in the local custom. Like the original location of the bar itself, the recipe for the Singapore Sling was lost over the years degrading to nothing more than just gin and pineapple juice. The current recipe used at the hotel has been recreated based on the memories of former bartenders who wrote notes on all that they discovered while trying to recreate the original recipe.
While the Long Bar may be the traditional place to cool yourself down, personally I prefer to sit in the open air courtyard below. The bar there isn’t as busy and the cocktails are freshly prepared before your eyes, unlike the Long Bar where they are prepared in batches. Sit at the bar if you can and soak up the atmosphere as you watch the waiters mixing the ingredients before vigorously shaking them in front of you.
Whilst some may argue that there are better places to have a Singapore Sling, it is hard to deny that the history of the place is palpable. For me, Raffles is the only place in the world you can sip on this refreshing cocktail and be transported back to its heyday. It is a cocktail that remains a standard at bars across the world and is practically the national drink of this city-state, but it's at Raffles that one can best appreciate it. The Singapore Sling is not just a cocktail, it's a snapshot of the early colonial days of the far east. It is exotic, refreshing, and deceiving, and all with a slice of pineapple and a cherry on top.
Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours which run tours in Singapore and across the globe. A professional photographer for over a decade, Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.