While the vast majority of us remain stuck where we are, writer, traveller and drinker Harry Seymour invites us to do a bit of armchair travelling with a new series focused on iconic cocktails, and the hotel bars that invented them. First up, a Singapore Sling at the legendary Raffles.
Illustration by Amanda Berglund.
Raffles, Singapore’s landmark hotel — otherwise affectionately known as the ‘Grand Dame’ — is a low-slung, all-white, colonial-era complex of terraces and gardens founded in 1887 by four Armenian brothers.
The hotel quickly became the watering hole for rubber and palm oil plantation owners, colonists from French Indochina and Hong Kong, and merchants en route to Japan. But while the men were free to drink themselves into oblivion every night on the hotel’s veranda, etiquette dictated women stuck to fruit juice.
During my last visit to the hotel I was greeted by Raffles’ longest serving employee and resident historian — a debonair man called Leslie Danker who patrols the corridors in a sharply-pressed suit armed with photographs of guests from Michael Jackson to Queen Elizabeth II. He told me that their signature cocktail was born from this injustice.
‘In 1915 our bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created the Singapore Sling for these ladies. It looked like fruit juice but was actually infused with gin,’ says Danker. ‘The splashes of grenadine and cherry liquor gave it a feminine, pink flair.’
Thankfully today, the cocktail is freely enjoyed by all, and in 2019 the Long Bar installed a beautiful dark-green cast iron, hand-cranked contraption that can shake up to 18 Slings in one go.
Leaning back into a rattan chair near the dark-wood art deco counter, between potted palms and underneath a low timbered ceiling covered in punkah (fabric ceiling fans originally powered by cords tied to the toes of hotel attendants), I sipped the tall, sweet, rosy beverage served with a chunk of fresh pineapple, and Danker told me more stories from the bar.
He began by recounting how in 1902, the last tiger to be killed in Singapore was shot here. ‘It escaped from a local circus and hid under the floor. A local headmaster known to be a sharp-shooter arrived with his rifle, drunk and in his pyjamas. His first three attempts missed, but the fourth caught it right between the eyes,’ he said tapping his forehead.