Singapore Sling: rebirth of an iconic cocktail

It is one of the world's most iconic cocktails, but sometime in the last century, the Singapore Sling lost its way.

Cocktail enthusiasts who made their way to the Long Bar at Singapore's Raffles Hotel regularly recounted the experience of a drink that failed to live up to the lavish venue's storied history. "Everybody's whinged about it," jokes bar industry veteran Mikey Enright, owner of Sydney cocktail bar The Barber Shop.

He remembers fondly the atmospherics of the Long Bar, but said the drink he was served had evidently been made from pre-batched, low-quality ingredients. It was poured out of a jug over cubed ice and garnished with pineapple and maraschino cherry, served with a straw.

"It was just poorly made, really. It was cheap," he says.

Rebirthing a legend

Similar stories may soon be consigned to history. The 100th anniversary of the Singapore Sling at the Raffles coincides with an alliance being forged between the hotel and cocktail historian Jared Brown and his business partner Sam Galsworthy, the co-founders of London gin distillery Sipsmith Independent Spirits.

The relationship evolved from a chance meeting in Singapore. The Raffles food and beverage team was very intrigued to learn that Galsworthy is a descendant of Sir Stamford Raffles, the British founder of modern Singapore, after whom the hotel was named.

What eventually followed was an offer for Sipsmith to create a special gin in honour of the Sling's 100th milestone, and also to reprise the original 1915 Sling. Given his emotional connection with the Raffles, Galsworthy jumped at the chance.

"We got the offer to help them to recreate the Singapore Sling, to bring it back to when it was a great drink," Brown says.

"To research this, the first thing I did was I started reading The Straits Times from Singapore, focusing on any mention of any drink."

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"I started reading in 1856 and I read up to the 1980s. That was a lot of time spent reading The Straits Times!"

Unslung

The Sling served at the Raffles in recent times is a sweet, fruity concoction served in a tall glass; a drink that bears very little resemblance to the namesake drink first made at the Long Bar by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon in 1915.

At some point the original recipe was lost, and what followed were many iterations that variously contained bitters, grenadine, sloe gin, pineapple, coconut - "all sorts of things", according to Galsworthy, who is diplomatic when asked to comment on the drink's decline.

"I went there and when I drank it I just felt a piece of history. I tried not to judge it too much," he says.

Confusion surrounding the Sling's ingredients is certainly not a new phenomenon. In 1948's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David Embury wrote: "Of all the recipes published for this drink, I have never seen any two that were alike."

The real Singapore Sling

Based on their research, Brown and Galsworthy say the original Singapore Sling was comprised of gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine and lime juice, topped with soda.

"That is a very spirit-forward drink, exactly as it was intended, not this long drink that's come about," said Galsworthy.

"It was a 'built' drink, meaning that you build it in the glass vessel that you're going to consume it in and you get a mixing spoon and stir it together; that is how it would have been constructed."

The Sipsmith interpretation of the 1915 Singapore Sling will use the new Raffles 1915 Gin, created by Sipsmith exclusively for Raffles Hotels & Resorts.

Brown, Sipsmith's master distiller, has based the new gin on ingredients that the hotel would have had available to it in 1915.

"I challenged myself to make a traditional London Dry Gin with botanicals from the Malay basin, because there was a war on, so they weren't getting British gin at that point," he said.

True to the era

The recipe, therefore, features Malaysian botanicals such as jasmine flowers, fresh pomelo peel, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaf, nutmeg and cardamom, distilled alongside some of the classic gin botanicals found in the Sipsmith London Dry Gin.

Galsworthy says the result is a "stunningly smooth and inspiring spiced gin", though arriving at the final product was not straightforward.

"It took six or seven months of research and lots of different batches that went down the drain," he reveals.

Galsworthy will attend the Raffles Hotel Singapore on November 5 to launch the Sipsmith interpretation of the original 1915 Singapore Sling.

"There will be another piece of history made as we re-introduce and stir down the Singapore Sling just as Ngiam Tong Boon, the original bartender, made it, to mark the next wave of iconic drinking at Raffles," he says.

From then on, Galsworthy believes the Sipsmith version will be offered as an alternative to the "everyday" Singapore Sling. Time will tell whether it ultimately replaces it.

It's unclear yet whether any of the Raffles 1915 Gin will ever make its way to Australia, a rapidly emerging market for Sipsmith Gin. From mid-October it is available for sale in London and will be served exclusively at Raffles bars and lounges worldwide.

"It is something which undoubtedly would make Ngiam Tong Boon and my great, great, great uncle, Sir Stamford Raffles, very proud," Galsworthy declared.