The Singapore episode
First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2012 edition).
Singapore never fails to impress me. Looking down as one approaches from the air it’s no stretch to believe that this is one of the top three busiest ports in the world. The Straits of Singapore is a bustling bottleneck – densely peppered with naval traffic from one horizon to the other. The island city also happens to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Singaporeans are not struggling for drinking money and it shows in the whisky scene.
In an overall Asian whisky context, Singapore would be classed as a mid-mature culture. It sits somewhere between the refined palates evident in Japan and Taiwan, where demand for vintage whisky is de rigueur, and the still raw uptake in crazy China, where whisky drinking is karaoke-inspired mixology. The place regularly ranks amongst the leading markets for Scotch whisky exports, and whilst most of that stock is filtered into the wider region its presence alone must be infectious. Things are happening here. I visited no fewer than three top-quality whisky bars during my short eight hour layover and I was so enthralled by the experience that I came within a barley whisker of missing my flight home. My whisky-addled, panic-stricken dash to the airport, involving no fewer than three modes of transportation (four if you include the trip on the airport skytrain needed to correct my arrival at the wrong terminal), must have been quite something to behold…more amusing to onlookers than it was to me.
La Maison du Whisky (LMDW)
This legendary French whisky business was founded in 1956 by Georges Bénitah, one of the true whisky pioneers of the modern era. Its bar in Singapore – based at the vibey Roberson Quay on the banks of the eponymous river – is a little different, not only from its other outlets but from most other bars: it is both a shop and a bar.
I didn’t quite know what to make of it. It’s an appealing concept in theory, if a country’s regulations allow for it. Imagine browsing whiskies and then being able to sit down and test drive one’s options before committing. Generally I dislike shopping but this I think I could grow to enjoy. I also like the idea of a total whisky zone, where I can ogle whisky, talk whisky, taste whisky, and then, to make the experience complete, take-away whisky.
But in reality can anything really be all things to all men? LMDW Singapore, in keeping with its heritage, is more shop than bar. I’ve been there once, early-ish on a weekday evening, so take my opinion from whence it comes, but with its face of plate-glass and severe lighting that it projects to the world, it wouldn’t be my first choice for an intimate evening of mellow dramming.
Ambience aside, it ticks all the boxes with a flourish. LDDW boasts a selection of 400 distinct Scotches and 200 other whiskies, including some rare bottlings (to which the closest we would have come here in SA is a fleeting glimpse in one of the international versions of Whisky Magazine), and some dedicated bottlings. GM Jeremy Moreau introduced me to a Strathisla 1965 Single Cask, specially bottled for the group by Gordon & MacPhail, whose rich, bite-into sherry flavours I savoured at length…yum. Worth the visit? It goes without saying.
A short stroll down the river and a bite of supper later I found myself at a bar named after Scotland traditional drinking vessel. The Quaich, according to owner Khoon Hui, was Singapore’s first genuine whisky bar. It also appears to be the most genuinely Singaporean whisky bar. Whereas the other two I visited seemed somewhat expatified, this was refreshingly local – Khoon pointed out a radio celebrity and some government heavyweights enjoying the undisputable pleasures of his establishment.
The Quaich’s menu numbers a highly respectable 300 fine whiskies, with a focus on the distilleries that it represents as a distributor in Singapore. These include Bunnahabhain, Springbank, Glenglassaugh, and Bowmore, amongst others. I noticed, and was duly impressed, by a 1964 Bowmore 46YO and three dedicated single casks bottled by Springbank (Longrow) and Glenglassaugh for The Quaich.
My most lasting impression however was of the great hospitality. Khoon and I chatted whisky over a Kavalan (a name with which the chaps at Macallan are none too pleased by the way), and then he insisted on giving me a lift to my next appointment. The man is a gentleman and a scholar and his bar is a gem.
The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel created the Singapore Sling, and has since been regarded as the bar in Singapore, fads aside. Well, now there’s a new king in town and its name is Auld Alliance (a reference to the close military relationship which existed between pre-Union Scotland and monarchic France). Let me not mince words: in my opinion this may well be the king of all whisky bars worldwide.
To say that I was blown away is an understatement. This whisky cathedral – to call it a bar seems inadequate – is utterly, utterly (repeated for good measure) magnificent. Auld Alliance is the brainchild of Emmanuel Dron, a whisky expert of long standing, and, as I set about acquainting myself with his spot, his expertise became explicitly evident: it is quite simply a league apart from anything that I’ve ever experienced.
Located in Chijmes, a charming entertainment complex built within the grounds and amidst the architectural structure of an old convent, the venue offers a breath-taking bar area, an elegant lounge, and two private tasting rooms. Its collection of whiskies currently numbers 1500; so many in fact that there’s just not enough space for all of them, thus requiring 500 odd to be rotated in and out of storage periodically. The highlights include a mint-condition first-edition 1993 Black Bowmore (S$ 12 990 ≈ R84 955 per bottle), and a Yamazaki 50YO, of which there are only a handful of bottles accessible outside of Japan. I was particularly captivated by a menu which offers flights of the “same” whisky bottled in different decades, allowing customers to explore the evolution of the style over time. I could go on and on. Quite simply Auld Alliance lacks for nothing…except for South African whiskies. One has to leave room for improvement I guess.
The moral of this story, in case you haven’t arrived at the same conclusion already – a whisky pilgrimage to Singapore is well in order. May the dram be with you!
Sounds like an absolutely fantastic visit Patrick! You mentioned a few special whiskies in your post – did you get to try them? What was your favourite dram of the trip?
Hey Mark, good to hear from you. Yes, the visit was totally, unabashedly spectacular. I wish I could do this type of thing for a living :). I sampled a Gordon & MacPhail 1965 Strathisla bottled (in May 2011) especially for LMDW Singapore, which was delicious but which beyond that was also particularly meaningful for me. Once upon a time I was the brand manager for Chivas Regal, so Strathisla is close to my heart. I was also lucky enough to try some other notable drams, the highlights being Kavalan and a 1976 BenRiach.