I can think of no better way to celebrate Singapore National Day than with a tropical drink actually created in the tropics – the Singapore Sling.
Raffles Hotel in Singapore lays claim to the cocktail’s invention. Its origin story – that it was invented in the 1910s by a bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon at the hotel’s famous Long Bar – is almost certainly apocryphal, but there is still plenty to suggest that the drink originated there. In any case, there can be no doubt that Raffles has become the King of Sling. The hotel serves up on average about 700 of its signature cocktail a day, according to the hotel’s digital marketing manager, Wella Chiang. And at S$27(about US$21) a pop, the Sling brings millions to the hotel’s revenue stream.
The cocktail being served at Raffles around the time of its invention was nothing revolutionary, says Eric Felten, author of the book How’s Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well (Agate Surrey, 2007).
“It was not a unique drink – which is to say, it is a house variation on a basic drink known as a Gin Sling, a drink that was popular throughout British-ruled Far East. The Gin Sling at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore was widely recognized as the best of the bunch,” Felten says in an email.
By the 1980s, the Singapore Sling served at Raffles would have been wholly different to the one served in the 1930s, he adds.
“Back in the ’30s, the drink would have been equal parts gin, Cherry Heering and Benedictine in a tall glass with lots of ice and some club soda, with a spiral of lime peel.”
The drink probably started adding ingredients in the 1970s, when subtlety in cocktails took a holiday. The recipe served at Raffles includes the aforementioned ingredients plus a (very) healthy dose of pineapple and lime juices, Cointreau and grenadine.
Cocktail purists might rightly shudder. Pineapple juice should generally be used sparingly. Indeed, you won’t find many Slings – a generic term for a cocktail that contains liquor, sugar, citrus and carbonated water – that has a 4-to-1 ratio of a sweet juice to gin, as the recipe at Raffles calls for. This may help explain why no two recipes for the Singapore Sling seem to be the same.
Even in the 1930s, the drink might have been a cure for the sweet tooth, Felten says.
“According to the great pre-war drinks traveler Charles H. Baker Jr., some people would take their Singapore Slings with ginger ale or ginger beer instead of club soda. If so, though, I find the drink becomes pretty sweet and needs to be balanced with some fresh lime juice. I also agree with Baker that the drink is better if you use two parts gin to 1 part each Heering and Benedictine,” he says.
While the Post wasn’t going to spring for a trip to Singapore, I did the next best thing: a visit to its sister hotel in Phnom Penh, the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, and in its Elephant Bar, I ordered the Singapore Sling, which costs about $14.50 after service charges and VAT. Using a similar, if not identical recipe, the drink arrived accompanied by a tray of nuts and chickpeas. The foamy concoction, a frilly pink, was delightful. But I will be the first to admit my tastes in cocktails run sweet. I can say confidently that most cocktail connoisseurs would have found it too treacly. If that’s you, ask to add more lime juice. Or, because there are several different recipes online, experiment at home and find a mixture that meets your taste.
Karen Nielsen, a Danish journalist who writes about cocktails on her blog The Ginhound, says the Singapore Sling, if it isn’t a true “classic” cocktail – a term she reserves for a list of a half-dozen chosen by David A Embury, author of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948) – it has become classic in its own right.
“The Singapore Sling became a classic in much the same way great literature becomes classic: By surviving all the changes of the time. In the [Singapore] Sling’s case that means it has survived since it was created, on the cusp of the 1920s,” she tells the Post in an email.
“Basically any cocktail book claiming to be about classic cocktails since the bible of bartenders, The Savoy Cocktail Book, was published in 1930 – you could not leave it out. Could this happen to a gawd-awful drink – or book? Probably not.”
While there may be more than one great recipe for the Sling, there is still a lot that can go wrong in mixing one up.
“In my opinion the Singapore Sling is the kind of cocktail that you can use to judge the quality of a bar: Is it mixed from scratch or are there parts of it premixed to shave time off both preparation and staff education teaching staff?” says Nielsen. “So yes – a bartender using premixed pineapple, grenadine and lime juice in my opinion short-changes this drink.”
And sometimes the top shelf is the only shelf, she adds.
“The taste of the drink is both complex and simple – or it would probably not have stood the test of time. Much depends on the type of gin you use, as the gin certainly makes its presence known.”
So whether or not you will be celebrating Singapore’s National Day on Saturday, you could do worse than to spend some time on a balcony with the cocktail named in the country’s honour. But be careful. Like the ghastly Long Island Ice Tea – a drink that should only be consumed on 21st birthdays and then forgotten – it is a strong drink. In its case, deceptively so.