When the Mandarin Oriental Singapore was pondering a new bar recently, it knew it had better be special. After all, the luxury hotel gazes over Marina Bay, symbol of all that is hip about contemporary Singapore, a city with a rapidly evolving bar scene, and boasting five of the world's 50 best bars – not to mention the best bar in Asia.
The hotel pulled out some impressive stops. It called on Blueplate Studios, offshoot of an acclaimed American interior architectural-design firm. It poached manager and cocktail creator Michele Mariotti, who previously worked in bars at The Berkeley and The Savoy, two of London's top hotels. And it created sophisticated light bites with regional flavours, such as prawns with spicy masala mayonnaise, and a hotdog with Nonya sausage, dried shrimp and sambal.
Anyone in the bar business in Singapore has to up the ante, and when MO bar opened in September, it rose to the occasion. It's a sophisticated space of etched metal panels, wooden sculptures and scattered travel artefacts, with an earthy colour palette and huge slabs of window angled to catch sunset over skyscrapers. The bar counter is at one end. The rest feels like a lounge, in which pinkish sofas add a welcome feminine touch unusual in bars.
The cocktails are spectacular. The Sea Beast mixes squid ink, coriander, yuzu and soju into a savoury fizz served in a tall glass topped with an amuse-bouche of salmon. The cachaca-inspired Mother of Dragons is Instagram perfection, dragon-fruit red and topped with a red-and-yellow Chinese dragon pattern. No surprise that it's the most ordered cocktail in the bar.
If you're after one of the world's best bar scenes, slide into Singapore. Don't expect raucous bar streets such as Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fong or the weird experiences of Shibuya in Tokyo, whose bars feature penguins and robots. What you get is a sophisticated, upmarket – and admittedly expensive – experience that has improved dramatically in recent years. Newly adventurous locals are fuelling a demand for ever better bars, which are hiring internationally renowned bartenders and creating ever more innovative drinks.
Think wine bars and leather-bound whisky bars offering ancient vintages and hundreds of choices. Think astonishing gin bars in a country where gin – thanks partly to the city's good whisky scene – is often drunk neat rather than with tonic. Singapore has even acquired its first two distilleries, both dedicated to gin. Look out for Tanglin gin, available in many top hotel bars, and at the duty free in Changi airport. It uses an old 1790s English gin recipe but adds local botanicals such as orchid, ginger, vanilla and green mango. Its Mandarin Chilli Gin makes for a great digestif or aperitif.
Among excellent gin bars in Singapore is the sleek, Prohibition-styled Cin Cin Bar (100-odd labels, some rare) and The Spiffy Dapper, which offers masterclasses in gin-and-tonic pairing. The Lobby Lounge at the Conrad Centennial Singapore allows you to mix your own premium gin with tonic and more than 30 herbs, spices and other garnishes, from rhubarb to plum and walnut.
The ultimate, though – perhaps the best gin joint in the world – is Atlas Bar, overseen by Aussie master of gin Jason Williams. The bar isn't just a gobsmacking architectural wonder that recalls New York art deco – the vast hall looks like a stage set from Gotham City – but stocks 1300 gins. Browse your way through esoteric gins from unexpected places such as Switzerland, Vietnam and Peru. The Spectre Martini, which contains Japanese gin, vodka, white port and absinthe with a splash of mint oil, is a knockout.
There are few nods to local ingredients in Atlas Bar's cocktails, which is surprising. Singapore's innovative cocktail joints don't just mimic Chicago or Rio in their offerings, but often explore local flavours. The Miss Joaquim (named after the national orchid) from edgy Bar Stories uses Chinatown flavours such as red date, osmanthus syrup and ginger, mixed with pisco and goji-berry liqueur. If you want to get really alternative, take yourself off to the renowned Native Bar, often cited as one of Asia's best, and order up its Antz cocktail with rum, coconut yoghurt, tapioca, soursop and – you guessed it – weaver ants.
If it isn't the cocktails wowing you, it's the views. Another newly opened bar, SKAI, perches atop Swissotel The Stamford. The decor is unadventurous, but who cares? Press 70 on the dedicated lift and it beams you up to a look-at-me panorama over the city's colonial-era monuments, backed by light-strung skyscrapers and Supertrees.
Unconventional cocktails are inspired by altitudes. Start at sea level with a Samphire (gin, vermouth, citrus oil, samphire and oyster leaf) and finish amid the alpine peaks with The Summit (Icelandic vodka, absinthe, strawberry and oak smoke). If you get the munchies, small plates provide octopus with wasabi leaf, seared foie gras with apple, and miso black cod delicately flavoured with coconut.
You get another brilliant view of Marina Bay, though from a lower perspective, at rooftop Lantern Bar at The Fullerton Bay Hotel. It's adjacent to a mosaic-lined swimming pool and anchored by a glowing, circular bar counter, and gazes over the giant Ferris wheel and lotus-flower architecture of the ArtScience Museum. It has great mojitos and vodka cocktails, and reimagined versions of the Singapore Sling, one of which blends dragon fruit and passionfruit. Wagyu sliders, parmesan-truffle fries and Peking duck pancakes make for classy nibbles on the side. Kick back in a cabana to the mellow sounds of laidback Latin house music, and raise a glass to a bar scene hotter than Hades, and twice as suave.
FIVE SINGAPORE COCKTAILS YOU HAVE TO TRY
MO Bar manager Michele Mariotti's minty favourite is a peppermint gin julep inspired by the Philippines' golden beaches and served in a shiny gold goblet. "I love juleps, because they're refreshing but quite spirit-ful at the same time, which is relatively rare in a cocktail," says Mariotti.
If you have a taste for adventurous cocktails, try this rum-based drink at SKAI. It contains dark plantation rum, syrup made in house from shiitake mushrooms, white grapefruit, lime and chuchuhuasi bitters from the bark of a South American rainforest tree, said to boost the libido.
This signature cocktail at Lantern Bar is named after an old Malay word for Singapore and contains gin and bitters with pineapple and lime juice and pulped raspberry, with a cinnamon stick added. It has a lively contrast of sweet and sour, with the cinnamon adding an unexpected edge.
Described as "strong, cold and floral, with a little lick of the wild", this is the cocktail choice for Atlas Bar's master of gin Jason Williams. It uses a London dry gin, Italian vermouth, orange bitters and champagne vinegar for a touch of acidity. It's served in a Waterford crystal glass.
You could argue Singapore has simply rediscovered gin, since gin-drinking dates to colonial times with cocktails such as the gin pahit (gin and bitters) and Singapore Sling, invented at the Long Bar of legendary Raffles Hotel. It's a sweet, fruity gin cocktail with orange and pineapple juice and cherry brandy.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Visit Singapore, Mandarin Oriental Hotels and Fullerton Hotels.
Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Scoot and Emirates Airlines fly direct from Australian cities to Singapore.
Mandarin Oriental Singapore has a great Marina Bay location, excellent spa and restaurants and resort-like swimming pool. See mandarinoriental.com
The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore is a contemporary, boutique counterpoint to colonial-era The Fullerton, with which it shares excellent restaurants. See fullertonhotels.com
Atlas Bar, 600 North Bridge Road, see atlasbar.sg
Bar Stories, 57A Haji Lane, see facebook.com/barstories.sg
Cin Cin Bar, 100 Peck Seah Street, see cincin.com.sg
Lantern Bar, 80 Collyer Quay, see fullertonhotels.com
MO Bar, 5 Raffles Avenue, see mandarinoriental.com
Native Bar, 52A Amoy Street, see tribenative.com
SKAI, 2 Stamford Road, see skai.sg
The Spiffy Dapper, 73 Amoy Street, see spiffydapper.com
The Lobby Lounge, 2 Temasek Boulevard, see conradhotels3.hilton.com
Have a taste of Singapore's nightlife at The Rooftop Sydney (February 20, 21) and The Albion Rooftop, South Melbourne (February 23, 24) with cocktails from Singapore bars Native and Operation Dagger, both on the World's 50 Best Bars List, plus a menu created by Masterchef Australia 2018 winner Sashi Cheliah and performances by leading Singaporean artists including DJ KoFlow. See therooftop.com.au; thealbion.bar; visitsingapore.com