If you didn’t know who Ethan Leslie Leong was, you’d guess immediately he was a rock star. Grinning warmly, he struts into a Japanese izakaya at the start of our cocktail crawl clad in casual blazer, black-and-gold striped T-shirt, black pants and pointy silver shoes. He’s riding a wave: the right side of 40 and married only weeks ago, he’s preparing to open the elegant Fort bar in a colonial park, where I visited him the night before.
This cocktail king is all easy charm and quiet intensity, a soft-spoken grafter who took the hard-knocks route to success. Leaving his native Malaysia in 1993 with just a suitcase and S$300, he was already a respected bar-biz veteran by the time Singapore saw its first wave of mixology mania. Ethan has stayed at its vanguard ever since, making him the ideal guide to a scene that’s now blossomed into one of Asia’s most vibrant.
The Horse’s Mouth
The izakaya where we meet, The Horse’s Mouth, has a setting that’s both incongruous — in a mall opposite Orchard Towers, the city’s best-known house of sin — and highly discreet. Pull back a brown curtain and you enter a sombre room marked by the minimalist, linear styling that defines Japanese interior design. It’s a space conducive to hushed cocktail appreciation, and my fruity Aviator – Tanqueray mixed with maraschino, lemon and egg white – contrasts starkly with Ethan’s Summer Solstice, a potent amalgam of rum, vermouth and schnapps.
Having gained senior management experience, by the mid-2000s Ethan wanted to follow his own path. “I said, ‘I’m so tired of working for people.’ I resigned, took my money and opened up a bar. I failed the first time. You learn to overcome that, then you rise again.”
His determination to bring a classier drinking experience to Singapore soon saw him become a pioneer of the incipient cocktail scene as he co-founded the swanky Drink Culture. “In 2010 the consumer would say, ‘Can I have a rum and Coke, a gin and tonic?’ I explained that we were a cocktail bar. I learned consumer education was very important. If you educate the people around you, your passion will be sustained. The place became packed… and Singapore became the next cocktail city.”
Affluent, cosmopolitan and thirst-inducingly humid, the Lion City seemed the ideal testing ground for a social experiment like this. “In Singapore people come from all over the world,” says Ethan. “There’s a lot of networking and you meet people all the time [who are] sophisticated in taste and expectation, like London or New York. A market that is hard to satisfy!”
But he succeeded triumphantly, for now cocktail culture is rife, and Ethan is everywhere. He represents and consults for major brands; he created the world’s most expensive cocktail for Marina Bay “ultra-lounge” Pangaea; and he runs workshops to impart his passion to newcomers. In the wake of Fort, he plans to open in New York next year.
Forum The Shopping Mall, 583 Orchard Rd; +65 6235 1088; horsesmouthbar.com
Nighttime falls rapidly in Singapore, and like everything else here it’s precise and efficient, cloaking the city in black at 7.30 every evening. Our first after-dark CBD stop is &SONS bacaro, a smart gastrobar that serves comparatively affordable cocktails ($10–15) in a city known for costly boozing. Ethan only needs one cursory look at the menu before ordering his, and my, favorite classic, the Negroni. A straight 1-1-1 mix of gin, Campari and vermouth on paper sounds foolproof, yet Negronis can often be cloying, bitter and heavy. Ethan’s verdict on &SONS’ rendition? “It’s pretty good!” It’s hardly gushing, but from this man, that counts as high praise.
Angling for tips, I ask Ethan where he’d take his wife for a night out, but he tells me he tries to avoid the scene altogether in time away from his principal bar, Maison Ikkoku, which he started in 2012. “If we are going out, we drink wine. You don’t want to tell other bars how you want your drink — it’s rude, right? It’s supposed to be an enjoyable moment, just [to] relax.”
20 Cross St, China Square Central; +65 6221 3937; sons.com.sg
Next on Ethan’s itinerary is the enfant terrible that kickstarted the craziness: Tippling Club, whose avant-garde gastronomy and experimental cocktails have earned international acclaim. Though set in an old shophouse, its interior is captivatingly modern, all Abstract Expressionist art and colored bottles dangling at odd angles above the bar. Bartender Yugnes Susela is our host, a firm-but-friendly guide to the wacky new creations.
First up, Purple Drank is designed to resemble cough syrup in texture. The vanilla and raisin spirit mixed with Curaçao achieve this aim, but when it’s served in a medicine bottle, it’s hard to feel you’re drinking for pleasure. Bubble Tea — not the Taiwanese beverage, though it sure is bubbly — looks like its melon- and mangosteen-infused gin base is taking a soothing bath; and Sartorial, a whisky-based collaboration with English perfumer Penhaligon’s, has a heady scent intended to smell like cigar smoke. The new Tippling Club is an odd clash of high polish and irreverence, but a cosy night out with your favorite cocktail this is not.
38 Tanjong Pagar Rd; +65 6475 2217; tipplingclub.com
Resolving to end the night with something more familiar, Ethan and I drive off to Maison Ikkoku, and the moment we walk in, everything feels different. Bartenders laugh with customers, other patrons slump on sofas, jazzy sounds fill the air. Ethan may be no stranger to experimentation — even the odd Chocolate Flambé-tini — but despite his showbiz aura and ready humor, he’s a classicist at heart. And where better to start than his all-time favorite? I ask him what makes the perfect Negroni. “Easy,” he replies. “The proportions!” Just that? “Well, this is French vermouth, so it’s more herby and floral.”
His Negroni has such a light mouth-feel I wonder whether it contains any alcohol at all (though when I stand up, it’s immediately apparent that it does). Ditto Ryan Hon’s super-citrusy Ice Lemon Tea: “It’s much more awesome than Long Island Ice Tea!” the 25-year-old bar manager says buoyantly. “It looks similar but tastes very different.” Ethan explains: “It tastes like tea; [there’s] no Coke inside.”
Through a process of deconstruction, fastidious ingredient selection and refinement, Ethan has a knack of making even traditional cocktails his own, including the most famous Singapore drink of them all. “Factory juices, coloring, flavoring… it became a tourism gimmick,” he says of the immortal Sling. “So I made my own. Everything fresh: the cherry brandy I make myself, pomegranate, sugar, nice gin [London dry]… I find the right balance.”
Technical excellence is a given here, but the camaraderie and showmanship are infectious. Ryan’s concocting a new drink for us now, a deep-brown affair he invented with colleague Aiken Cabagui, originally from the Philippines. “It’s everybody’s signature!” proclaims Ryan. “We created a cocktail with gin, vodka, orange, passionfruit and vanilla, and everybody loves it. It doesn’t have a name yet — I’ll name it after you!”
“Aiken came to Singapore from Macau,” says Ethan, ever forthcoming with a great story. “He was recommended by an agency that was taking a big cut of his salary, and [he was] having trouble finding a work pass. I got him a job, and after a few weeks, his pass was approved. And he didn’t know how to make a cocktail!”
The day before our meeting, Aiken won the prestigious Peter F Heering mixology award. Now that’s vindication.
20 Kandahar St; +65 6294 0078; maison-ikkoku.net
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Smile magazine.