Singapore is no stranger to specialty coffee. It has become increasingly easy to find a good cuppa. The city has also taken a liking to cocktails, and while the New York influence is inescapable, many of these "speakeasies" and cocktail bars bring their own originality, both to the cocktails and the space.
This is a list of some old favorites and some new ones from our most recent visit.
The Populus Coffee & Food Co.
An all-day café with an extensive food menu, they make espresso drinks and pourovers using locally roasted coffee from their very own Two Degrees North Coffee Co. Perpetually crowded, The Populus Coffee & Food Co. became one of my favorites to work out of during non-peak hours.
Located in the Duxton Hill area of Tanjong Pagar, Mavrx is a tiny, cozy coffee shop serving espresso drinks using coffee beans sourced from New Zealand’s Allpress. During peak hours they get super busy, which led them to institute a trust-based payment system: you simply drop the money you owe in a jar (and take change you are owed from the jar).
Nylon Coffee Roasters is one of my favorite coffee shops in Singapore, one that makes my regular rotation during each visit: they go to great lengths to source great coffee; they are very consistent; they are truly a small business (during a recent visit, the sign outside said they would be closed for a few days while they source beans from Colombia); they are a great example of a hole-in-the-HDB-wall.
It’s a great scene pretty much any day, but particularly communal on weekends, when you’re bound to see neighborhood parents with young kids, coffee pilgrims, teenagers and riders ending their bike rides, all hanging around, sipping on coffee, perhaps along with some bao, from the food stall next door, to snack on.
Chye Seng Huat Hardware Coffee Bar
Another Singapore favorite of mine, Chye Seng Huat Hardware Coffee Bar (or, CSHH, as it is normally referenced) owes its name to the heritage of the Jelan Basar area that the café is located in: the neighborhood was (and to a large extent, still is) home to several hardware stores. CSHH is the café of local roastery Papa Palheta, that also has a location in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
Unlike Nylon Coffee, the space is cavernous. The espresso drinks and pourovers are on-point and make up for the less intimate space. Like Nylon, CSHH features in my regular coffee rotations in this city.
Old Hen Coffee Bar
A shophouse with a variety of curiosities divulges a conspicuously hidden door. “All eyes point to the clue”, I was told. Four magnifying glasses, two of them roosting over a glass skull, and the other two veiling unidentifiable objects pointed to “toy soldiers”. I was in!
The cocktails tend to be creative takes on classics. I was happier imbibing a take on Negroni, perhaps one of their more sedate creations, that used a different kind of amaro (I think it might have been Amaro Averna).
The Library is located at 47 Keong Saik Rd, Singapore
One week night, the passionate and affable bartender, Roger Yeap, made me The Prohibition: Cutty Sark scotch, Antica Formula, grapefruit and orange Campari and cold-brewed coffee ice — a happy variation on the Boulevardier.
Located within the opulent Regent Hotel in Singapore, Manhattan is the center piece on level 2. Extremely spacious, plush and grand, it’s not exactly the kind of space I’m fond of. Also, for someone living in that city, the obeisance paid to New York in the form of a deluge of New York lexicon can feel a little gimmicky.
That said, their cocktails are wonderful. They age several cocktails in oak barrels, in-house. I had the Solera-aged Negroni, made using Citadelle Original Gin, Mancino Bianco Rosso Vermouth and Campari — very much on point. The rock ice used in the drink is cut from solid slabs of ice, and etched with an M.
Shin Gi Tai
Work, more recently interpreted as production of value in exchange of something else of value (most often, money), has all but lost any sense of dignity due itself. Craft, then, is simply a reaction to this perverse understanding of work — it is an invitation requesting a different interpretation.
It’s not easy to find many people who might share that same kind of passion, so until that time Shin Gi Tai is literally a one-man operation. Anthony Zhong trained and worked at a cocktail bar in Tokyo before moving back to Singapore where he worked at Jigger & Pony. At his own bar, he hand-cuts ice rocks, cooks the udon (served with smoked duck), makes everyone’s drinks and during moments of quiet, squeezes limes. Anthony’s movements are gracious and deliberate and he pays attention to every drink he makes — and he does all of this with incredible humility and respect.
Located in perpetually crowded Haji Lane, a nondescript door leads you up to Shin Gi Tai. You are likely to come here for classics, if you want an unpretentious, gimmick-free experience and know what you want; there’s no cocktail list. You might get to see some theater when Anthony employs a Japanese Hard Shake. On a weekday I enjoyed an expertly made Negroni, while chatting with a regular who comes in every Monday for a quiet after-work drink.
Unlike Shin Gi Tai, Operation Dagger strongly wants to stay away from classics. I admire the desire to innovate, and for someone like me, who would normally stick to a Negroni or a Manhattan, it’s a great opportunity to try something different. I had a drink called simply “Corn + Oil”, which was made using charred corn and smoked agave and topped with hazelnut and lime oil. It was spicy, syrupy, smoky and sweet (maybe a little too sweet for my liking). Very cool.
The basement space, with a discreetly marked entrance on an alley in busy Ann Siang Hill, is refreshingly different: a beautiful, dimly lit cloud of bulbs hangs over the bar. Other than that, there is no visual noise here; instead of liquor bottles adorning the shelves, unmarked bottles stocked with liquors and house-made liqueurs bring visual harmony, kinda like an Aesop store. There is, however, auditory noise — this is very much an “it” place and weekends can get very busy.
See all of these locations, and more, on our Singapore, Fall 2016 Edition map: