When it comes to the world of alcoholic spirits, I’m a very boring drinker. I prefer drinks that don’t taste like alcohol. Daiquiris blended with lumps of fresh pineapple, caipirinhas muddled with lime and spoonfuls of raw sugar, or sour-lemon margaritas (sans the salt) are a few of my favourite tipples. So I was not expecting to enjoy Gin Journey as much as I did.
Gin is made by distilling a neutral grain alcohol with juniper berries and other botanicals. A standard gin may contain more than 10 different ingredients producing a very fragrant drink. I remember getting drunk on gin about ten years ago. All those botanicals wreaked havoc on my stomach. The next day, I experienced one of the worst hangovers of my young adult life. I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say that after 24 hours chained to the toilet I vowed never to drink gin again.
Last weekend, however, I purchased two tickets for the Gin Journey as a birthday gift for my partner. Despite my personal reservations, I was intent on being a good sport. The tour promised a fun yet knowledgable experience sampling five acclaimed gins and touring some of the best bars in Singapore.
Our journey begins at Kafe UTU
We kicked off the Gin Journey by meeting at Kafe UTU near Telok Ayer. Kafe UTU is Singapore’s only authentic African restaurant owned by a chap named Kurt Wagner. Kurt spent most of his childhood living in different African countries including Liberia, South Sudan and Kenya. His restaurant is a vibrant collection of African colours, textures and flavours that are snuggly compacted within a three-story shophouse. I instantly felt at home as a sat back on a comfy armchair next to a striking portrait of an African woman.
A bubbly lady named Simone introduced herself as our guide for the day. Simone originally hails from Chicago in the US and is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to gin and the Singapore cocktail scene. Simone revealed early on that contrary to popular belief, gin actually originated in the Netherlands. Back in the 1600s, early gin was a concoction of juniper berries, herbs and spices colloquially referred to as “Dutch Courage”, since the Dutch soldiers would drink a nip or two before going into battle. William of Orange eventually bought gin to the U.K. where it really took off. At one point, the English were drinking more gin than water!
The first gin we sampled was a Norweigan gin called Harahorn. We were served elegant shot glasses and Simone instructed us to smell the spirit with our mouth open. This enables the botanical flavours to flow through the nostrils to the tastebuds. Harahorn won the Gin of the Year Award in San Francisco in 2016 and has a palate reminiscent of a Norweigan forest. It tastes wonderfully of pine, blueberry and juniper.
To complement these unique flavours, the bartender made us a stunning cocktail using Harahorn gin mixed with strained berries and lemon juice, topped with sparkling wine and garnished with a violet. Truly superb!
Wheels on the bus
Our group had a dedicated mini-bus to ferry us from one bar to the next. After downing our yummy cocktails, all ten of us bundled in the bus and listened to Simone tell us some fun gin anecdotes. For instance, during prohibition in England, bootleggers would sell gin using an ingenious cat vending machine. Captain Dudley Bradstreet, the man behind the invention, said
I . . . purchased in Moorfields the sign of a cat and had it nailed to a street window. I then caused a leaden pipe, the small end out about an inch, to be placed under the paw of the cat, the end that was within had a funnel to it … When the liquor was properly disposed, I got a person to inform a few of the mob that gin would be sold by the cat at my window next day, provided they put money in his mouth . . . at last I heard the chink of money and a comfortable voice say, ‘Puss, give me two pennyworth of gin!’ I instantly put my mouth to the tube and bid them receive it from the pipe under her paw.
Gin and tonic at 1880
The bus dropped us off at the exclusive members-only club 1880 by Robertson Quay. 1880 is only two years old and has a bar, restaurant and novelty store. Here we learned of the healthy origins of gin and tonic. During the 17th century, colonists in South America discovered that pulp from the bark of the quinaquina tree relieved malaria. Quinine was extracted and mixed with water to produce a tonic. The clever British took things a step further by mixing tonic water with gin and a wedge of lime so it tasted better. Gin and tonic not only eased malaria but the vitamin C found in lime helped prevent scurvy.
The bartender at 1880 made us a gin and tonic with Bombay Sapphire, which was one of the first premier gins marketed in which the botanicals are added to the spirit through vapourisation. The bartender mixed our drink with cardamom, cinnamon, lemon peel and a spring of rosemary for extra kick.
More importantly, we were also served some food here. We sipped our drinks whilst pecking at wooden boards laden with gourmet nibbles like artichokes, tempura prawns, mozzarella arancini, parma ham and toasted sourdough.
Our next venue was the incredibly trendy Employees Only, located along Amoy Street. This place gets packed from 10pm with young ragamuffins and older has-beens sipping on pricey cocktails and dancing the night away. It was around 5pm when we turned up so we had the rare privilege of enjoying the rich decor and bartender’s witticisms all to ourselves.
On arrival, we were served delicate tumblers of Hendricks gin, which is the ultimate British spirit. The recipe for Hendricks took almost 10 years to perfect and contains cucumber and rose botanicals in a nod to cucumber sandwiches and English rose gardens. Hendricks is also one of the few gin’s made by a female distiller.
The bartender also mixed us each a Giblet cocktail, which is a classic concoction of gin, tonic and lime syrup garnished with kefir leaves.
Delicious Aviations with Citadelle
At the second-last stop on our Gin Journey we went to the elusive HongKong Street bar near China Town. This place is so cool they do not even put their name on the door! It is intentionally hard-to-find to help deter any riffraff from entering. This high-end speakeasy wins award after award for its delectable cocktails.
Our gin cocktail here was the highlight of the tour. The gin featured was Citadelle, which is a French gin made with 19 different botanicals including lavender, juniper, pepper, nutmeg and citrus. The Citadelle bottle is blue and stylised with 19 vertical ridges to represent each ingredient. The spirit possesses a delightfully floral fragrance.
Our bartender at HongKong Street made us Aviation cocktails. This is an absolute legend of a cocktail that most modern-day bars have long forgotten. An Aviation is made with gin, lemon juice, maraschino liquor, crème de violette and lavender bitters garnished with a cherry. Yum, yum, yum… the cocktail was a delicate balance of summertime freshness and European springtime. Citadelle is the perfect gin to mix an Aviation cocktail.
Final stop at Idlewild
Our Gin Journey drew to an inevitable end at Idlewild Bar in Bugis, part of the Intercontinental Hotel. The bar has a unique travel concept. The walls are adorned with vintage photographs from around the world and the signature cocktails on the menu are named after various international airport codes. By now, a few of us were a little unsteady on our feet having already consumed four gin cocktails.
The last gin introduced to us was something quite novel. Widges Gin is made by Gin Master Jason Williams who originally set up Atlas Bar in Singapore. Widges is a London Dry Gin with a rich base flavour. Botanicals include coriander and star anise. Widges is also the official gin used to make a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel today. The bartender at Idlewild made us the house special, which was a mix of Widges gin with home-made lime cordial and a side of deep-fried curry leaves.
I thoroughly enjoyed Gin Journey. Simone was an engaging young host who shared a lot of history about gin and cracked a few jokes along the way. I learned how to appreciate the complex flavours of gin and added a few new cocktail recipes to my repertoire. More importantly, Gin Journey was an affordable way to drink delicious cocktails at some of Singapore’s trendiest joints.
If you are interested in going on a Gin Journey in Singapore, check out the official website here. Tickets cost $140 per person and you can go on as many Gin Journeys as you fancy because they are always changing the gins, cocktails and venues. Cheers, cheers!