The history of the classic Singapore Sling cocktail, from the bar where it all started

When in Rome…

There’s something about women and cocktails. Perhaps it’s the fun fruity flavours or the warming concoction of liquor as you sip it out of a chilled, salt-lined glass.

Whatever it may be, it signifies celebration and festivities.

Perhaps we can thank shows like “Sex in the City” for the commercialisation of the Cosmo or the Appletini, but for one popular cocktail in particular there is only one person we should be praising — a man by the name of Ngiam Tong Boon.

Before the turn of the century in Singapore it was not considered appropriate for women to drink alcohol in public –- let alone in a bar. While men sipped on gin and whisky, women sat in a separate parlour and waited until they were done.

In 1915, bartender Ngiam Tong Boon, who was working at Raffles Hotel Singapore, saw this opportunity in the market and decided to create a cocktail for the ladies that looked like a fruit juice. He mixed gin with pineapple and lime juices, grenadine, Dom Benedictine, Cherry Heering brandy, and Cointreau. The Singapore Sling was born.

A welcoming sign as you head to where it all started.

According to the information told on the walls of Long Bar in Raffles, the birthplace of the Sling and where it is still served today, masking it with the pink grenadine gave it a feminine flair that led people into thinking it was a socially acceptable punch for women to consume.

This year, Raffles is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Sling –- and I visited to try it out.

Arriving at the colonial hotel, in the warm muggy air of Singapore and surrounded by palm fronds which brush against the stark white pillars of the hotel’s lobby, I feel as though I have been transported into an old world, where I should be carrying a parasol and fanning myself as I stroll through the courtyard.

From the main entrance I walk the external halls of the hotel’s main building until I reach a ground floor bar, and travel up two flights of stairs. This is when my dream-like state disappears and I am welcomed by a long line of tourists.

I guess it’s pretty standard anywhere for 3pm on a Friday but still, I must admit it’s not what I was expecting. Friends and family had told me that it was a luxurious, sophisticated bar – so far, not my first impression.

It’s full of tourists.

I wait in line for 10 or so minutes, being nudged along by larger parties of other tourists wanting to get a taste of the original Sling. Before me is a dark room with no open windows or balcony for a view. I can already see I was not going to get the experience I anticipated.

Still, I was not in the venue yet and I’m ready to reserve my judgement until that first sip of fruit cocktail reaches my lips.

As a party of one, I am seated at the bar –- this is great, because I can see where the magic happens. I perch myself on the tall stool and dust off the peanut shells from the table left by the person before me.

Rubbing shoulders with the people on either side of me, I take in the view of the bar while I wait to be served.

Where I’m seated.

Seeing the dark mahogany wood bar restored to original condition, paired with antique green glass lampshades, large plantation ceiling fans and a wall of every kind of liquor imaginable, I’m starting to get it.

I have to admit here that I don’t frequent traditional pubs. Living in Sydney we’re spoiled for choice with rooftop bars, bars on wharfs and bars in courtyards. It’s not often that I sit in such a bar and drink – particularly not alone – but there is something that makes this experience more than just that. You can literally feel the history of the place.

My drink arrives. It’s the original Sling. Like a sunset in colour, lined with pineapple and a cherry, it’s chilled and sweet and easy to drink. It’s not something I would normally order, and you couldn’t have too many due to the sweetness. But it’s thirst-quenching in the Singapore heat and a fun novelty.

The original Sling.

Listening to the jazz music being softly played in the background, barmen shaking cocktails and the hum of chatty patrons, I can imagine what it was like back in 1915: Gentlemen smoking cigars, others stooped over the bar, whiskey in hand.

I’d like to say the women were there too, sitting in the quaint green glassed-off booths that line the circumference of the room, quietly sipping on the newly-invented Sling while gently patting beads of perspiration from their foreheads. But this was not case.

In fact women weren’t allowed in pubs and bars around the world until decades later. In Australia, women weren’t permitted access to the “public bar” until the 1970s, at which point they were segregated to the “ladies bar”.

I ask the bartender where the women drank these delightful concoctions. According to him, the cocktails were made for women to drink at banquet dinners.

Now, I may be sitting here next to Frank and Margaret from Scotland and being served by Kiver instead of Ngaim Tong Boon, but I am enchanted.

The only thing that would have made the experience more authentic would have been coming in at 9pm when a live band plays on the second level of the bar, but that’s being picky.

A nice touch.

And if it’s anything to go by, I am even eating the bar peanuts. For me this is a big deal. (I was brought up with the idea that such shared bowls were the breeding ground for germs and therefore you were never to touch them – ever.)

But today is the exception to the rule. Everyone around me is doing it and I’m a sucker for tradition (but, don’t worry dad, they still have their shell on them).

I settle in and ask Kiver what the second most popular cocktail is. He tells me it’s the Tropical Singapore Sling — a little less sweet version mixed with passionfruit and ice. It would be rude not to, right?

I enjoy my last sips of the tropical delight, the perfect way to end a trip before I head to the airport to return to Sydney.

I prepared to leave and I ask for the bill.

My drinks were $SGD30, roughly the same is Australian dollars.

EACH.

Well, it was a wonderful experience, but for price tag I think I’ll put this bar down as a one-off visit. I’m glad I did but will not being doing so again.

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