I caught wind of Singapore’s coolest bar that “doesn’t exist” from a young woman in the Taipei airport. I was en route to Singapore, the island city state just off the southern coast of Malaysia, when she mentioned that there was a secret bar in the middle of the city she was going to seek out. Apparently it made some of the best cocktails in Asia.
A secret bar that makes killer cocktails? Sounded like my kind of party. Needless to say, I was intrigued, and decided I needed to track down this mysterious watering hole as well.
After a little research, we discovered that the name of the bar was simply the address: 28 Hong Kong Street, and it has since become one of the most famous addresses in the bar scene worldwide.
I was scheduled for a dinner at Jumbo Seafood restaurant the next night to have my first sampling of authentic Malaysian Chili Crab, and Hong Kong Street was right around the corner. Sounded like as good a place as any to cap off my meal. I usually preferred my desserts to be in liquid form anyway.
Over the last decade there has been a major resurgence in prohibition-style speakeasy bars all over the world, tucked away in back alleys or in buildings previously thought to be unoccupied. Many consider the pioneer of the new-age speakeasy to be Please Don’t Tell, hiding in New York, famous for its entrance being through an old telephone booth in the back of a Lower East Side hot dog joint.
28 Hong Kong Street, in traditional speakeasy fashion, is very unassuming from the outside. There are no signs and no windows, just the number 28 above the well camouflaged door that matches almost seamlessly with the rest of the outside wall.
Upon closer inspection, a small handle is present, which, when opened, gives way to a tight corridor with thick black velvet curtains and a small host stand. On the night I arrived, it was tended to by a heavily tattooed hostess.
Reservations are not required but highly recommended, as seating is very limited. The hostess quickly glanced at her book and ushered me past the curtains to a small round table in the compact but cozy interior. Dimly lit tables and booths lined the left wall and a long dark-wooden bar ran almost the length of the right.
The back of the bar immediately caught my eye – a wall of spirits resembling a shrine to the gods of alcohol. Bottles of every shape, size and color from all over the world lined the beautifully lit shelves that reached from floor to ceiling, telling an intricate story of history, tradition and travel that brought them all, and myself, together inside these four walls.
Magicians behind the bar
The bartenders, dressed in denim aprons with polished leather accents, danced effortlessly behind the bar like a well choreographed ballet; grabbing, pouring, shaking, and stirring up perfect libations for thirsty patrons.
The menu, which changes frequently, is a well balanced offering of classic cocktails and unique creations with drinks such as “Chevy to the Levee,” which blends the flavors of High West Campfire whiskey with house-made applejack, salted caramel, spiced pear and walnut bitters; and “Blow a Kiss, Fire a Gun” – an ode to the contemporary Major Lazer song that is an updated version of a Planter’s Punch made with mezcal, hibiscus and chartreuse.
I like to let the masters work, so I informed the lead bartender of the night – Brandon – that I would like a tequila-based cocktail, not too sweet. With that tidbit of information, he spun on his heels and went to work.
While Brandon was working away at my cocktail, hand chipping the ice and putting it into the glass, I had a chat with Christian, the general manager, and quickly ascertained that these guys were not playing around. They possessed all the professionalism without any of the pretention that comes with many snooty cocktail bars found all over the world.
“It’s a family here,” he said, “and we want to bring that family atmosphere.”
Just a group of guys (and girls) that get together and make good drinks. I respected that.
Sampling the wares
Brandon unceremoniously handed me my drink in a Collins glass, explaining that it was a take on the classic Paloma – a margarita-esque cocktail that uses grapefruit juice – and he had rimmed the glass with hickory smoked salt. The aroma was sweet and tart; the grapefruit shining through with an essence of smoke in the background.
It was refreshing and crisp with a good amount of tequila. I also respected that.
In 2014, 28 Hong Kong Street won World’s Best Bar and Best International Bar Team at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans; and in April of this year, it earned the title of Best Bar in Asia, bestowed by World’s 50 Best Bars, beating out the likes of Speak Low in Shanghai and High Five in Tokyo. Christian admitted, “We’ve been fortunate enough to win a bunch of awards and it’s great, makes me happy. The team goes out and celebrates, but when the dust settles, it’s always the same story for us: we’re just bartenders who love what we do.”
I finished my Paloma and while I contemplated my beverage future, Brandon asked if he could take the reins and choose my next cocktail. Of course, I obliged.
Without another word, he turned and ducked out of the bar area to the back to grab what I only imagined was some rare and obscure spirit from their private collection.
As I watched him through the partially opened curtain, intently rummaging through one-off and bin-end bottles, I imagined I was back in prohibition-era 1930s, evading coppers and risking hefty fines or imprisonment just for a sip of a well-crafted cocktail. Today, thankfully, bars like these are celebrated instead of raided, but if this had been prohibition era, coming to 28 Hong Kong Street to be tended to by Christian and Brandon would certainly have been worth the risk.
For reservations at 28 Hong Kong Street, email [email protected]
Chef Dylan Benoit is the former chef at Craft Food & Beverage Co. on Seven Mile Beach.