Fancy a Sip of French Toast?
Dive deep enough into the mixology section on Instagram and you will find Lance Wong (@moresavorygoods), one of hundreds of digital creators who make cocktail-mixing content for an ever-growing global audience of cocktail and speakeasy aficionados. In one such video, Wong details his own attempt at the “French Toast”, an exclusive item off New York City’s representative for number six on The World’s 50 Best Bars’ list — Double Chicken Please (DCP). The original menu is bare, typed simply in unassuming serif italics.
brioche, coconut, milk,
maple syrup, egg
Yet, Wong’s own start-to-finish attempt at an accurate recreation was anything but. Steeping barley tea and vodka — 90 minutes. Pasteurising eggs — 75 minutes. French toast syrup: extracted after blending and sous-viding burnt brioche buns with the rest of the ingredients — a few hours. Wong jokes in the caption that the takeaway from his attempt is to “leave this drink to the professionals”.
While a great tutorial for aspiring home mixologists, creators like Wong make an important case for the artistry behind cocktail-making. Customers only see the few minutes it takes to pour a collection of liquids into a Boston shaker. If they are lucky, perhaps a bottle tossing stunt or two, but most will never be privy to the hours (or days) of preparation leading up to serving those delicious drinks.
Naysayers lament that the cocktail world of today is adorned with secret passwords and hidden doors but lacking in substance, lost to the relentless waves of gentrification and privatisation. Still, amazing new players continue to show up on the scene. DCP’s menu is a prime example with drinks like “Mango Sticky Rice” and “Japanese Cold Noodle”. The name of the game seems to be “liquid meals” — mixologists today are pushing the frontiers of cocktail-making by repackaging flavours from our favourite foods into single, elegant drinks. The result, an explosion of flavours all in that tiny, excited first sip. From desserts to literal diamonds, is it any wonder that some of the most exclusive cocktails today cost upwards of 20,000USD?
Illicit Origins: The Birth of a Culture
Yet, the internal antagonism of cocktail culture could not have preceded its criminal history. The dawn of speakeasies can be traced back to the 1920s, during The Prohibition Era in the States which banned the manufacturing, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors (beverages that contained more than 0.5% of alcohol). The American alcohol industry was virtually closed down, though people still managed to find their ways.
Private, unlicensed bars both illegally manufacturing and selling alcoholic drinks soon became commonplace. Liquor was often combined haphazardly with flavoured drinks like ginger ale or Coca-Cola to mask the taste and smell of alcohol — some of history’s first attempts at cocktail-mixing. Some reports reference how passwords whispered at the front door kept out snooping law enforcement while others point to the practice of “speaking softly” while inside to avoid detection — giving rise to the name “speakeasy”. While many speakeasies were makeshift back room bars and decrepit basements, the Prohibition Era was not without its fair share of glamour with fancier clubs offering ballroom dance floors, jazz music and private parties. It was the “Roaring Twenties”, after all.
Back to today, times have changed and speakeasies are focusing more on brand development rather than secret passwords. Yet, there is still something to be said about the mood of that era. When drinks were not just about drinking, but more so a secret gathering in the dark. The thrill behind consuming illegal and possibly dangerous goods in hidden, intimate “third spaces”. An almost careless attitude to life, juxtaposed against a necessary kind of precision for such risk-taking.
This burgeoning excitement which marked the birth of speakeasies in the last century continues to define the best bars today. A feeling of something just on the precipice of; an in-between where day passes into night; a drunken gathering of community and friends. There is a reason people default to their favourite bars for first dates and important birthday parties — the speakeasy is a special place which has the ability to let people come just as they are.
Behind the Bar
A big part of a speakeasy’s magic comes from the very people standing behind the bar. In between carving out space for their own unique brands of hospitality in the sector and the hours of prep and R&D, these mixology professionals have their work cut out for them. It is not too far a stretch to claim that we visit speakeasies for the hospitality just as much as we do for the drinks. We speak to some of our favourite bartenders on what makes their bar the best place to be for a drink.
“Making cocktails is not only my profession. It is also my passion. Whether it is a classic, a variation of a classic or something completely new — I enjoy it all,” professes Akshar Chalwadi, founder of Southeast Asian cuisine bar, rākh. “As cliches as it sounds, I do this because I enjoy watching the customers’ reaction to a great drink. And that’s what it is all about.” Meaning “ash” in Urdu and Hindi, rākh was started with the idea of being “born from flame”, an ode to the bar’s Indian heritage. Chalwadi recommends getting “The Rasam”, a vodka-based reimagining of the classic South Indian soup, infusing flavours of tamarind, tomatoes, chilli pepper, and cumin. You can visit rākh in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Further down the Malay Archipelago in Singapore, seasoned mixologist, Zachary Ibrahim, tells us, “what a good cocktail actually is varies from person to person.” He proudly states that “it is a bartender’s job to figure out what their guests enjoy and are looking to have.” Seems like we agree that the best cocktails are the ones that are made specially for you. You can have Zac whip up something special at the rooftop bar of the Lion City’s only East African cuisine lounge-bar, Kafe Utu. Warm, ambient lighting and tastefully rustic decor give off the atmosphere of home. Sounds like the perfect getaway from the busy throngs of city life.
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