In 2017, we indiscriminately drank mezcal, highballs, and for reasons we won’t dwell on, Instagram-worthy cocktails. What should we look forward to for the rest of the year and the next? We sit down with the panel of the inaugural #50BestTalks at Members Club 1880 to unearth the year’s likeliest bar trends.
Beckaly Franks of The Pontiac, Hong Kong
Cool, edgy and highly opinionated, the Portland-native and owner of The Pontiac (number 31 in Asia) is a true believer in anti-waste and authenticity. Her passion runs deep in hospitality because of her sincere love for the community, activism and of course, tipple.
Do you think this year is the year for cocktails?
No, I think we need to disassociate from cocktails and start associating with hospitality. It’s not about the actual cocktail, but the actual exchange. I understand it’s really a westernised approach, but the reason why I have such conviction in saying this is because I own a bar that I was told was going to fail. But I do know the bell curve. The transfer of energy and people being able to connect with one another is where things are going. It doesn’t mean that mixology is going to fall out, but that hospitality is going to come to the fort at a good time. We haven’t reached the pinnacle, but we are about to reach a fulcrum where it transfers into different aspects of hospitality.
Some say the future in bartending is sustainability. Do you agree?
I am more anti-waste than sustainability. I’m very much a product of my environment. There’s a big difference between aspiring to be sustainable and to be anti-waste, and I’ve met some really incredible people on my path to help me learn what the difference is. At The Pontiac, we use less. Yes, we use less straws, and yes, all our straws are biodegradable. We don’t even offer coasters or napkins. But the point is, we use less, period. That also means less mental time, monetary time and personal time.
So how will consumers view the bar experience?
You’re going to start to see more authenticity and understanding what’s happening inside the glass. For instance, people aren’t just understanding about gin. Like, oh! Botanicals, yay! That’s cool, but they are going to understand a bit more than that, like cultural influence and why it tastes like that. Bartenders are going to be more educated, customers are going to be more educated, and so, vested interest rises. You’ll see all that false imagery start to decline, because people don’t want the false experience.
That means no more fluffy cocktails. You won’t need a polaroid clipped to your cocktail to drink it. It might look cool, but does it taste good? People are going to wise up. You’re going to see daiquiris that are actually well-made. You’re going to see more basic cocktails done right and people are going to ask for balanced drinks. What’s out is fake and what’s in is authenticity. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s super figurative, but it’s also the truth. People want the truth.
Suwincha “Chacha” Singsuwan of Rabbit Hole, Bangkok
Suwincha Singsuwan is everything a bartender should be: Charming, genuine and down-to-earth. She was born and raised in a family of bartenders, and is best known for her crafty, silky-smooth concoctions at the Rabbit Hole, which was recently presented with the “Campari One To Watch” award.
What’s in and what’s out?
Nothing’s out. Cocktails are like fashion; the trends go around in circles. But what you are going to see more of is a different way of experiencing the bar. You will see bartenders focusing a lot more on their philosophies, the guests and their palates. You will also start to see a lot more micro-distilleries and amaro coming out.
Is there gender inequality in bartending?
It is true that women are still underrepresented in the higher-profile bartending positions, but I would say it will improve in the next five years. I don’t see any big organisation that’s taking this situation seriously at the moment, but within the bar community itself, we are trying to get women involved in every activity as much as possible. Asia is still conservative about this, let’s face it, but we simply need to work hard and show the new generation that bartending is, in fact, a career.
How do you and the Rabbit Hole stay ahead of the curve?
We are not trying to be ahead. We care more about doing what we love, which is to create the harmony of the cocktail. We don’t waste time thinking too much about other things. Bartending is not just about mixing; it’s about being mindful and good hospitality. Set the bar for yourself and never lose it.
Philip Bischoff of Manhattan, Singapore
The man behind Asia’s reigning number one comes from humble beginnings. He started out as a waiter in the aughts and worked his way up through Germany and Switzerland, before landing himself a job as a bar manager at Manhattan, a swanky spot known for its love of simple, classic cocktails. Here he elaborates on sustainability, low-ABV tipple and hospitality.
In the realm of mixology, what should we take note of in the next two years?
Sustainability is something that will continue to grow. In a city like Singapore, it is important to source as locally as possible and start with the small things like cutting down on plastic straws or paper napkins. Imagine every hotel in the world saying no to plastic straws. That would be an amazing feat.
You are also going to see more American whiskey and lower-ABV alcohols in your cocktails. Essentially, it is about creating full-bodied tipple that’s enough to pack a punch. There are so many ways to increase flavour without it having to be too strong.
What do you think has been overdone?
Nothing. Every drink that has ever been invented has its role in history. It is what you as a bar make out of it. People still love their espresso martinis and Long Island Iced Teas. So if people like it, why shouldn’t we make it?
What’s the difference between bartending and serving drinks?
Hospitality. Bartending is a people’s business, and besides knowing your craftsmanship, it’s all about the way you treat your guests. The future is about creating experiences and moments. A former boss of mine once said, “the drink has to be perfect on the side”. Experience is what guests look for, from the moment they step into a bar and leave. Time is precious and people entrust that to us, so that’s our responsibility to make the best out of it. You know, I can have a beer at home, but I don’t want to. I want to go somewhere, where there’s familiarity and I can feel welcome. I don’t like people taking themselves and their drinks too seriously. Even serving a beer can be a class act. It can come with a smile and that’s a perfect feeling.
Vijay Mudaliar of Native, Singapore
Asian-made spirits get top billing at his bar. Vijay Mudaliar, co-owner and head bartender at Native (number eight in Asia), is big on sustainability, offering spirits and flavours that are found closest to home. He believes in serving with heart and honesty, and hopes more bars will follow suit.
Are there bar trends we should be looking out for?
I think the idea of trends and riding on the waves is slowly fading. We are looking at a new style of bartending that’s based on identity – who we are, where we are from, and what’s around us. Before, it was bartending based on trends. If someone did a speakeasy, everyone did a speakeasy. But now, bars are trying to be a lot more honest and transparent, and that’s something the customer appreciates. I see a lot of bartenders coming out of their shell, and in a way, that provides a lot more options for customers.
What is the next big craft spirit?
Arak, I believe, is going to be huge in the next five or 10 years. You can find it across India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Philippines. It’s very much produced the same way as mezcal, but depending on where it’s from, it can be made from either the coconut flower sap, molasses or Javanese red rice. It’s a versatile spirit that’s finding its foothold now, but it’s only a matter of time that people refine it.
What do you think is making a comeback?
For the longest time, it was all about getting the most exotic, obscure ingredient and making it into a cocktail. Now, it is about taking everyday, common ingredients (like the jackfruit or calamansi) and bringing the best flavours out of them. Simple stuff, but with a lot more substance and meaning. That being said, the over-garnishing game is done. Nobody cares about the theatrical stuff anymore. People just want to get into their drink.
Sustainability is a growing talking point. As someone part of the bar scene, how do you think we can get real results?
It has to be a communal effort. As an industry and as a whole, it’s very new for us. It’s been just a couple of years, so there are many questions unanswered. Yes, we are recycling, but is it the best possible way? Recycling takes up a lot of energy. We have to come together and find new ways to go about it. You don’t just see bars becoming sustainable. You start to see them selling bamboo straws and sourcing more responsibly, and more importantly, passing the message on.
Opening image by Vernon Wong; venue at 1880