The Clarifying Bloody Mary I'm imbibing at Singapore's SKAI bar resembles liquid gold with the city's glittering skyline as a backdrop. The drink is beverage manager Rusty Cerven's take on the classic drink at the 70th floor bar in the Swissotel the Stamford Singapore. Served in a martini glass, it's a spicy mix of tequila, ginger, coriander, cherry tomatoes and lime. With a kick of chilli and ginger, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the traditional red version that slays hangovers.
Cerven hails from Slovakia and worked at some of London's most famous hotel bars, including The Connaught and Gibson, before making the shift to Singapore in 2017. "I came to Singapore as a guest bartender in 2015 and realised the bar scene was booming. Suddenly, Singapore was attracting high-end bartenders from around the world who were pushing the boundaries and bringing cocktail culture to places it didn't exist."
While the pioneer of Singapore's cocktail bar scene is considered to be 28 HongKong Street, an edgy New York-inspired bar, Cerven credits the Manhattan in the Regent Hotel, for putting the Lion City on the map. The Manhattan, Cerven says, pushed the boundaries and flipped the notion of the staid dull hotel bar on its head. "Manhattan got the attention of overseas bar tenders, and made Singaporeans realise that bar tending could be a profession. It single-handedly changed the culture".
Remarkably, until the opening of Manhattan, considered one of the world's top bars, Cerven says there wasn't a single decent hotel bar in Singapore.
While on the streets there was a massive surge of hip, cutting edge cocktail bars, the hotel industry remained behind the times, he said.
"Unlike London or New York, where hotel bars are constantly evolving and on top on their game, Singapore hotel bars were very old-fashioned without a sense of glamour and luxury that people love.
"The Manhattan woke the industry up to the potential of the hotel bar. Hotels had bigger budgets for fit-outs, quality ingredients, crystal glassware, and could attract highly experienced bartenders rather than offering something thrown together on a tight budget."
Now a new wave of hotel bars in Singapore are making a name for themselves with inventive menus offering top-shelf ingredients, exceptional service and expertly executed themes and concepts. This includes SKAI where Cerven wound up after a stint as manager of the members club 1880 at Robertson Quay.
At SKAI the thoughtfully curated menu sends imbibers on an experiential cocktail journey via four contrasting altitudes. From sea level though to tropical rainforest, desert and alpine, cocktails are concocted from ingredients typically found at each altitude. "At sea level the ingredients are quite salty while those found in the rainforest are dark, earthy and woody," Cerven says.
Those looking for a nautical nightcap will love the ocean level's Samphire, a blend of London dry gin, Noilly Prat, samphire, oyster leaf with rich umami flavours and a citrus finish. Tropical tipples include the Shaman, a dark rum concoction with shiitake mushroom, chuchuhuasi bark tincture and burnt white grapefruit. Camu Camu is a nod to lush Amazon rainforests with a blend of pisco, soursop syrup, lime and camu camu powder, while thirst-quenchers such as the Desert Rose, a smoky mezcal libation with prickly pear cordial, wild liquorice, lime and mesquite hit the spot on a sultry Singapore day. The menu pushes the cocktail boundaries in exciting new ways.
Cerven recommends punters arrive by 7pm to take in SKAI's superlative sunset views. And his drink of choice? Surprisingly, given the depth and breadth of the inventive menu, he's a fan of the classics. "For me, I like a classic gin martini with a twist."
Singapore now offers several standout hotel bars. These include the Origin Bar at the Shangri-La, Mo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental and Jigger and Pony, which moved to the Amara Hotel after operating as a successful street bar. After two decades the Intercontinental Singapore closed its Victoria Bar and will unveil a glamorous new cocktail bar this year.
Most anticipated, Cerven says, is the new Writers' Bar at Raffles, which will open in August following a top-to-toe refurbishment of the 132-year-old hotel. While Raffles has spruced up its legendary Long Bar, famous for its Singapore Sling, the Writers' Bar will be expanded and become a bespoke craft cocktail bar tastefully decorated in curated mementos and books, a nod to Raffles' lengthy literacy legacy. It's a place you can imagine secret liaisons and cloaked conversations will go down, along with expertly crafted cocktails.
Cerven says Singapore's bar scene continues to evolve and is growing at a staggering rate. One of the advantages of being a small city, he says, is the bar scene is concentrated in a relatively small radius and there's a strong community of bartenders. When he sends a guest to someone else's bar, he knows they'll be looked after and vice versa.
"Singapore's hotel bars are once again at the top of their game. The sky is the limit," he says without a trace of irony from the bar atop the city's tallest hotel.
FIVE OF THE BEST HOTEL BARS
The art deco-inspired Manhattan is not only one of the world's most beautiful bars, it's also ranked No. 3 on the World's 50 Best Bars list. Paying homage to New York, with throwbacks to Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties, Manhattan spawns inventive cocktails inspired by the great city's past. See regenthotels.com
Taking its cues from Singapore's colonial era, the classy new Origin Bar at the Shangri-La pays tribute to Singapore's five key districts with cocktails reflecting the flavours, colours and historical narratives. The signature Orchard cocktail is inspired by Orchard Road's plantation history and references the original home of the Shangri-La brand. See shangri-la.com/singapore
KNOCKOUT MARINA BAY VIEWS
In collaboration with award-winning collective Proof and Company, Mo Bar's plum position on the fourth floor of the Mandarin Oriental, affords spectacular vistas of the Marina Bay waterfront and Singapore skyline. But Mo doesn't rest on its ocular laurels. Expect lush, Pacific Ocean-inspired interiors and surprising Asian tipples. Most Instagrammable drink? The fiery Mother of Dragons will get the likes rolling in. See mandarinoriental.com/singapore
Sit back and watch the night unfold at Lantern, a stylish rooftop bar and pool within the Fullerton Bay Hotel. Try the Red Lantern made from tequila, watermelon, cucumber, Cointreau and lime, paying homage to the lanterns that adorn the room. See fullertonbayhotel.com
Can you even say you've visited the Lion City without knocking back a Singapore Sling and throwing peanut shells on the floor of Raffles' famed Long Bar? Fully restored, the plantation era Long Bar has reopened ahead of the historic hotel's unveiling of its squillion-dollar makeover, scheduled for August. Also new will be Raffles' reimagined Writers' Bar. Expect major old school glamour. See rafflessingapore.com
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Swissotel Hotels and Resorts and Qantas.
Qantas flies from Sydney to Singapore twice a day with three flights on Sundays, Mondays and Fridays. From Melbourne, Qantas offers twice daily services. See qantas.com
Vitality Rooms at Swissotel The Stamford Singapore start from $358 a night and include circadian lighting, in-room yoga station and wake-up bio adaptive light settings. See swissotel.com/hotels/singapore-stamford