The first thing one is bound to notice upon stepping into the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel–before the swaying ceiling fans, swaying back and forth in perfect mechanical synchronicity–before the prevalence of Western speech echoing across the wood and wicker and tile–before the array of brightly colored cocktails adorning the tables–is the crunch of peanut shells. As the waiter led us to a table, the shells crunched underfoot like autumn leaves, the only reminder that it was late September. I had come to this place to track down the birthplace of the Singapore Sling. Supposedly, the cocktail was created in 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon and quickly became a popular with the colonials, merchants, artists, and others who had the fortune to take their leave of the chaos in Europe. And in the roughly hundred years since its creation, its popularity certainly doesn’t seem to have waned. Lining the bar is a constant display of Anglo-Saxon backsides, whose masters jovially suck the rose-colored concoction from glass after frothy glass.
The Long Bar’s menu lists two slings: the “original” Singapore Sling and a gin sling of similar but heavily modified construction. As a quick side note, the Singapore Sling was originally classified as a gin sling, which, in turn, is classified by the OED as a gin cocktail that is sweetened, flavored, and served cold. We decided to get both as a matter of comparison. According to the Long Bar’s menu the “original” consists of
- 30 ml Gin
- 15 ml Heering Cherry (cherry brandy)
- 7.5 ml Cointreau
- 7.5 ml Benedictine
- 10 ml Grenadine
- 120 ml Pineapple juice
- 15 ml Fresh lime juice
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters.
Supposedly, Sarawak pineapples (from Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo) are the preferred pineapples for the juice. Fresh juice is also best, since it is the freshness of the juice that gives the cocktail its frothy head. By far, the “original” was sweeter and easier to drink, but the gin sling ended up being almost incomparable, as it turned out to have a completely different taste to it.
A few hours later, at a riverside Japanese restaurant, a cocktail of a different sort passed my lips, offering my tastebuds a truly incomparable experience. Uni, seaweed, green onion, quail egg, ponzu sauce, roe, and cold sake: all the protein of your Japanese mother’s Thanksgiving dinner with fifteen percent alcohol. Honestly, it’s like drinking a tide pool that, for some reason, has started to ferment. If there’s any advice I can offer, it’s “don’t.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m always happy to try new foods, but I’m equally as happy to never eat them again if they create a David Cronenberg movie in my mouth.
To take the shiver out of my spine, I ordered a Singapore Sling, and was taken aback. This version of the cocktail was superior by a significant margin. Among its virtues was that it was not as crushingly sweet, and the tastes of the gin, Cointreau, and Benedictine were present, allowing for more complexity. But it seems silly, playing the comparison game about a fruity cocktail and trying to find the most authentic.
Or perhaps that’s the rub. I had an opportunity to seek out a point of origin, a sacred, fixed space where the spark of inspiration caught and spread, and when I arrived, I found only a place. I had not been so naive as to believe that I would find the real, original thing. The authentic item disappeared the instant the last drop rolled down the gullet of whichever lucky expatriate, colonial, or fop had the fortune of sitting in the Long Bar on a sweaty afternoon one hundred years ago and telling Ngiam Tong Boon to surprise him. Yet, tugging at the soul, there remains a desire to be in a place where something big happened. We could call it religious, perhaps, but I think in this instance it gives too much weight to the object. Magical is maybe a better term, and certainly goes along with the potion-like properties of the Sling. This magic is what brings people to old battlefields, possesses them to seek out-of-print books, and on a larger scale, drives them to find the origins of humanity, the Earth, and the universe.
It certainly brings hundreds of tourists per day to the Raffles Hotel. But when they get there, can that be a truly authentic experience? To get it out of the way, let’s start with a familiar question. Is seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre equally as authentic as looking at a reproduction, say, online? If you go to Paris to see the genuine article, you’re likely to see this, but a simple Google search will get you this. So which one is better? Obviously, going to the Louvre, you’ll never get to see the painting close up and unobscured by glass. As far as the image goes, you’re unlikely to do better than a high-resolution photo reproduction, unless you’re the lucky person whose job it is to restore and maintain Leonardo’s original. Yet millions of people have made the trek to see the object on the wall. Why? It’s the magic of the place, a shared cultural experience of I was there in that place. Is it more authentic? No, because only the experience can be authentic. Objects are imbued with whatever significance we give them. The authenticity of an experience, then, is entirely relative to the person.
Singapore as a place is a prime example of this. The city is a world hub of business and capital, and if business is your game, then your experience in Singapore is going to be highly authentic. But it is also a culinary melting pot, housing everything from typical Southeast Asian street food to European haute cuisine. I swear, I even passed a coffee shop that could have been teleported from Cambridge, Massachusetts–all plaid, beards, and pasty, noodle-like hipster arms. There are also crumby flea-bag hotels (as flea-bag as the highly OCD Singapore regulations will allow–seriously, this city seems to be scrubbed down with lye at the end of every night) and hotels that cater to people who require you to undergo a credit check before they’ll even tell you their names. There is often a tendency to think of an authentic experience as raw and unmediated, but in a place that is so unabashedly mediated, the authentic must be relative.
At Raffles Hotel Long Bar, it is clear that the place still retains its magic, despite any changes to the recipe of its famous cocktail over the last century. When I planned the trip, I said that I wanted to have a Singapore Sling in the place where it was invented, and I highly recommend you do this. And then go out somewhere else and have another, and another, and another until you find the perfect one. Do it all in one night. They only get better.