Spread the love

Most of what you know about the Singapore Sling is wrong. And also maybe right. It’s hard to say. Some cocktails have a history so contested, so laden with switchbacks and apocrypha, the general experience is like opening a compass to find the needle spinning freely in place.

Let’s start with what we know: Everyone seems to agree it’s a gin drink, so we have that going for us. Almost everyone also agrees that it has citrus, so there’s that too, so long as you don’t mind that half say lemon and the other half say lime (Charles Baker Jr. says neither, while Trader Vic, just to be annoying, says both). There’s definitely cherry involved, but whether it’s the sweet red liqueur or the punchy clear distillate is contested. Some have soda and some others have bitters—minor tweaks, perhaps—but then some have three full ounces of pineapple juice and many have none at all. Indeed, one of the very few uncontestable things that can be said about the Singapore Sling is that it’s from Singapore, but even in that, unsurprisingly, people will quibble about how, when and why.

On the south end of Singapore just a few blocks northeast of the downtown core sits the grand Raffles Hotel, as it has since 1887, a beautifully restored relic of the city’s colonial history. Inside, you’ll see many references to the hotel’s Long Bar, and the Singapore Sling, which everyone will tell you bartender Ngiam Tong Boon invented there in 1915. When I was at the Raffles in 2016, you couldn’t go 50 feet without seeing a reference to the famous cocktail and its recently celebrated 100th birthday.

The problem with all of this is that it’s not true—“a bunch of malarkey,” according to diligent cocktail historian David Wondrich—who discovered that by 1915 the Singapore Sling had been ubiquitous on the island for nearly 20 years and was more popular at the bar of a local department store than it was at the hotel. Nonetheless, the Raffles’ claim stuck and stuck early, and writers refer to the drink as belonging to the hotel as early as the mid 1920s.

Furthermore, the current recipe used by the Raffles—the cough-drop-red fruit punch churned out in terrific quantities to hordes of thirsty pilgrims—has little to do with the original. Today, you’ll get a tropical gin cocktail, with cherry and orange liqueurs, Bénédictine, pineapple and grenadine, whereas nearly all early recipes omit the grenadine, orange and pineapple, and some omit the Bénédictine and bitters. This was, by all accounts, a patch job done in the ‘70s, a Bahama Mama-like recipe concocted to please contemporary tastes, which found and appropriated the old story. And because this is all we knew, even the best modern recipes build on that latter Singapore Sling, as opposed to the original.

So we’re back to the foundations, and our spinning compass. Someone wants a Singapore Sling: Do we excavate the original recipe and give them what they’re not expecting and perhaps don’t want? And which “original” do we use anyway? Or do we make the best we can from the recipe that’s been the default for the last 50 years, inauthentic as it may be?

Personally, I do the latter. Though what you’re served at the Raffles Hotel leaves something to be desired, the bones are there to indeed make a terrific drink—bracing with gin and high-proof liqueurs, juicy with cherry, with Bénédictine’s cinnamon and nutmeg giving the pineapple a seductive spice.

Is it what Charles Baker Jr. would’ve had, writing in 1939 of “the Immortal Singapore Raffles Gin Sling, met in 1926, and thereafter never forgotten?” No, it’s not. But in this, another cocktail author David Embury, writing of the Singapore Sling in 1948, offers rare comfort: “Of all the recipes published for this drink,” he says, “I have never seen any two that were alike.”

Singapore Sling

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake for eight to 10 seconds. Strain over fresh ice into a tall glass. Garnish with a pineapple wedge, pineapple fronds, a cherry, an orange slice, a little umbrella, a colorful straw, mint or really whatever you want.


Beefeater London Dry Gin

Photo: courtesy Beefeater

Gin: I’d pick the London Dry version—Beefeater or Tanqueray are the cheapest, best and most readily available. You want something with the proof to stand up to all this juice, so I’d say 44 percent ABV minimum. Honestly whatever you use would be fine, but a stouter gin will make its presence known in a pleasant way.

Pineapple Juice: My standard advice is that while citrus juice must be fresh, with pineapple juice, fresh is better but non-vital. I’ll keep with that here, but just also note that the pineapple juice helps define the character of this drink more than it does in say the Painkiller, so while I’d still make it with canned pineapple juice, it’s quality will have a ceiling.

Lime: needs to be fresh, as always. If you have lemon instead of lime, go ahead, it doesn’t matter very much.

Cherry Heering: As mentioned, some early versions of the Singapore Sling use a distillate of cherry, rather than a liqueur. We do not advise this. Without re-litigating the provenance, Cherry liqueur is what makes this drink what it is, and the Danish bottle Cherry Heering is the best of the bunch.

Bénédictine : It’s only used in a small quantity, but the Bénédictine is one of the principal charms of this cocktail. It’s an 80 proof French herbal liqueur made from 27 ingredients and sweetened with honey, and is plainly one of the best cocktail liqueurs ever made. Pick up a bottle for this, and then you can make a Vieux Carre and a Bobby Burn and a Monte Carlo and a Widow’s Kiss and a Fort Point and on and on and on.

Orange Liqueur: Orange liqueur is here to help the strength, so make sure it’s 80 proof. Most recipes call for Cointreau by name, which is indeed an excellent choice. A few call for Grand Marnier which, with its cognac base, adds a slight oaky texture that I enjoy, but don’t necessarily prefer.

Angostura Bitters: Most modern recipes insist on it, as do I—the spice and depth from the bitters work with the Bénédictine to make sure the whole project doesn’t get too juicy and basic.

Other Ingredients: One thing you see in many modern recipes that you don’t see here is grenadine. My goal with the Singapore Sling is to avoid the “bucket of juice” phenomenon that takes over whenever you have too many different fruit juices in a cocktail. I think the Cherry Heering, with its brooding cherry notes, satisfies all the red fruit I require. The grenadine’s pomegranate, for me, is unnecessary and counterproductive.

Every week bartender Jason O’Bryan shares his favorite drinks recipes. If you missed it, catch up on last week’s featured cocktail.