Published on April 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:
As I sipped a bliss-inducing Lemongrass Collins at the Miss Wong Cocktail Bar in Siem Reap, I wondered: Just what is it about bars devoted to the past? A speakeasy can now be found in just about every major city – from Raine’s Law Room in New York to Milk & Honey in London to R2 Supperclub in Tokyo. If I had to choose two reasons why, I would say it’s partly the nostalgia for a straightforward form of glamour and partly the luxurious, hand-crafted cocktails. For anyone bored of the standard mixer/spirit combo, these bars’ bespoke recipes, freshly-squeezed juices, and house infused liquors are a godsend. And while these drinks will obviously cost more than your average rum’n’coke, the rich ambience makes up for it. These bars invite you to step out of your daily troubles and experience life as a member of the exclusive elite from a time past. The vintage Shanghai atmosphere of Miss Wong is a soothing and seductive counterpoint to Cambodia’s dry heat and Pub Street’s pulsating clamor, but don’t worry if you’re not swinging by Siem Reap any time soon. There are a couple of speakeasies to be found right here in Singapore.
However, Abhishek Cherian George would be reluctant to brand his cocktail bar, The Spiffy Dapper, as a speakeasy. With its tables plastered in vintage comic book covers and a pair of colonial Indian fighting staffs on the wall, the establishment is more of an homage to the creative and irreverent spirit of the 1920s. Originally from South India, George calls himself an “insufferable capitalist” and is an enthusiastic advocate of trial-and-error. Many of the custom ingredients on the shelf behind the bar (which bear labels such as Turkish Black Tea Gin and Cayenne-Citrus Himalayan Pink Salt) are the result of mistakes. For instance, accidentally over-dehydrating some tomatoes led to a reinvented Bloody Mary called the Ossified Mrs Grundy, which translates to ‘The Drunk Prude’ in 1920s lingo. Every beverage on the menu sports a jazzy name and a rich description because, George says, “A product is only as good as the back story.” For him and his lead bartender Hilda, the creation and consumption of a cocktail is nothing short of art. The idea behind the drink is vital to the process and the beverage must convey the artist’s thought or emotion to the drinker.
House of Dandy in the Tanjong Pagar area also has a proclivity for the irreverent. Despite being a temple to the dandy (a middle-class man in the 1800s who highly valued his refined appearance, aristocratic mind, and leisurely hobbies), the upscale cocktail bar hasn’t limited itself to top hats and aristocratic superiority. As their menu explains: “A dandified life is one that is refined and tastefully in excess. Keeping an edge without sacrificing neither style nor standards.” Thus, among the myriad of hedonistic idols that the lounge pays tribute to are Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde, and Andy Warhol—see the Dandy Warhol cocktail, an inimitable and delicious blend of vodka, Midori, Limoncello, lemon juice, sugar syrup, and egg whites.
While the Miss Wong Cocktail Bar in Siem Reap seeks to emulate 1930s Shanghai, both The Spiffy Dapper and House of Dandy allow themselves to follow the spirit of an exalted era through the years. The bathroom at The Spiffy Dapper is a maddening tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange and the walls at House of Dandy feature portraits of women wearing revealing outfits and Stormtrooper helmets. Singapore isn’t searching for a flawless recreation of a past decade, but rather for a taste of the irreverence that was once possible. The speakeasies of today strive to provide that old, gossamer spirit of carelessness in a world where now every foolish act can be splattered across the internet in seconds. So if you find yourself nostalgic for a time when leisure was uninterrupted by mobile phones and secrets remained secrets, slip into the dim interior of a speakeasy. Bring high expectations for a quality cocktail. Remember to sip slowly.
Where to Find:
Miss Wong Cocktail Bar
The Lane, Siem Reap
The Spiffy Dapper
2/F 61 Boat Quay
House of Dandy
74 Tras Street