Lifestyle / Alcohol

Craft Cocktails: Refining the Art of Mixology

From salacious speakeasies to dessert-inspired drinks, the new era of mixology sees elevated cocktails and decadent flavours tantalise the tastebuds.

Jun 27, 2023 | By Max Sin
French Toast, a cocktail by Double Chicken Please.
“French Toast” by Double Chicken Please, New York City. Photo: Double Chicken Please

Fancy a Sip of French Toast?

Dive deep enough into the mixology section on Instagram and you will find Lance Wong (@moresavorygoods), one of hundreds of digital creators who make cocktail-mixing content for an ever-growing global audience of cocktail and speakeasy aficionados. In one such video, Wong details his own attempt at the “French Toast”, an exclusive item off New York City’s representative for number six on The World’s 50 Best Bars’ list — Double Chicken Please. The original menu is bare, typed simply in unassuming serif italics.

French Toast

Grey Goose

roasted barley

brioche, coconut, milk,

maple syrup, egg

Yet, Wong’s own start-to-finish attempt at an accurate recreation was anything but. Steeping barley tea and vodka — 90 minutes. Pasteurising eggs — 75 minutes. French toast syrup: extracted after blending and sous-viding burnt brioche buns with the rest of the ingredients — a few hours. Wong jokes in the caption that the takeaway from his attempt is to “leave this drink to the professionals”.

Video: @moresavorygoods

While a great tutorial for aspiring home mixologists, creators like Wong make an important case for the artistry behind cocktail-making. Customers only see the few minutes it takes to pour a collection of liquids into a Boston shaker. If they are lucky, perhaps a bottle tossing stunt or two, but most will never be privy to the hours (or days) of preparation leading up to serving those delicious drinks. 

Faye Chen, Double Chicken Please New York City cocktails at the bar
Co-founder of Double Chicken Please, Faye Chen, hard at work. Photo: Double Chicken Please

Naysayers lament that the cocktail world of today is adorned with secret passwords and hidden doors but lacking in substance, lost to the relentless waves of gentrification and privatisation. Still, amazing new players continue to show up on the scene. DCP’s menu is a prime example with drinks like “Mango Sticky Rice” and “Japanese Cold Noodle”. The name of the game seems to be “liquid meals” — mixologists today are pushing the frontiers of cocktail-making by repackaging flavours from our favourite foods into single, elegant drinks. The result was an explosion of flavors in that tiny, excited first sip. Or perhaps the original summer cocktail, which comes in the form of the classic Pina Colada. Discovering how to make pina colada could be as simple as elevating its humble ingredients.  From desserts to literal diamonds, is it any wonder that some of the most exclusive cocktails today cost upwards of 20,000USD?

cocktail freshly squeezed lime
Photo: Laure Noverraz on Unsplash

Illicit Origins: The Birth of a Culture

Yet, the internal antagonism of cocktail culture could not have preceded its criminal history. The dawn of speakeasies can be traced back to the 1920s, during The Prohibition Era in the States which banned the manufacturing, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors (beverages that contained more than 0.5% of alcohol). The American alcohol industry was virtually closed down, though people still managed to find their ways.

People entering speakeasies in the 1920s, in the United States, exchanging passwords via a peephole in the door.

Private, unlicensed bars both illegally manufacturing and selling alcoholic drinks soon became commonplace. Liquor was often combined haphazardly with flavoured drinks like ginger ale or Coca-Cola to mask the taste and smell of alcohol — some of history’s first attempts at cocktail-mixing. Some reports reference how passwords whispered at the front door kept out snooping law enforcement while others point to the practice of “speaking softly” while inside to avoid detection — giving rise to the name “speakeasy”. While many speakeasies were makeshift back room bars and decrepit basements, the Prohibition Era was not without its fair share of glamour with fancier clubs offering ballroom dance floors, jazz music and private parties. It was the “Roaring Twenties”, after all. 

Back to today, times have changed and speakeasies are focusing more on brand development rather than secret passwords. Yet, there is still something to be said about the mood of that era. When drinks were not just about drinking, but more so a secret gathering in the dark. The thrill behind consuming illegal and possibly dangerous goods in hidden, intimate “third spaces”. An almost careless attitude to life, juxtaposed against a necessary kind of precision for such risk-taking. 

The interior of ATLAS bar, Singapore.
Photo: ATLAS Bar

This burgeoning excitement which marked the birth of speakeasies in the last century continues to define the best bars today. A feeling of something just on the precipice of; an in-between where day passes into night; a drunken gathering of community and friends. There is a reason people default to their favourite bars for first dates and important birthday parties — the speakeasy is a special place which holds the ability to let people come just as they are. 

The crowded back room of Double Chicken Please.
A busy night at Double Chicken Please. Photo: Double Chicken Please.

Behind the Bar

A big part of a speakeasy’s magic comes from the very people standing behind the bar. In between carving out space for their own unique brands of hospitality in the saturated sector and hours of prep and R&D, these mixology professionals have their work cut out for them. It is not too far a stretch to claim that we visit speakeasies for the hospitality just as much as we do for the drinks. We speak to some of our favourite bartenders on what makes their bar the best place to be for a drink. 

Co-founder of Double Chicken Please, GN Chan, preparing some cocktails for guests.
Co-founder of Double Chicken Please, GN Chan. Photo: Double Chicken Please

When asked about the secret behind making the best cocktails, GN Chan put it short and sweet: “As long as the person who consumes the cocktail enjoys it — as simple as it is!”

GN Chan and Faye Chen are the co-founders behind one of New York City’s busiest bars — Double Chicken Please. Before their brick-and-mortar home which they endearingly call “the coop”, the duo served drinks out of a yellow 1977 Volkswagen minibus across the US. Talk about keeping it cosy! After over 16000 kilometres and 1200 iterative cocktails, Double Chicken Please finally made the Lower East Side its home at the height of the pandemic in 2020, quickly rising up the ranks of the bar scene ever since.

GN Chan and Faye Chen serving cocktails from their yellow 1977 Volkswagen minibus before setting up Double Chicken Please in New York City.
Early days on “tour”. Photo: Double Chicken Please
GN Chan of Double Chicken Please preparing a drink on the go in a converted campervan/ minibus.
Photo: Double Chicken Please

“Prioritising service is crucial… Paying attention to the finer aspects of service such as clear brand messaging that resonates with guests, meticulously designed interior and menus, overall ambiance, a curated music playlist…”, shares Tako Chang, the bar’s communications manager, “Every touch point serves a purpose, an intention in crafting a comprehensive guest experience at a bar.”

We also asked GN and Faye to name their personal favourite cocktails for us. Try and catch them during a shift and ask for their version of it. For Faye: “Dirty Martini, I enjoy the savouriness and it doesn’t contain much sugar.” For GN: “Michelada. Savoury, refreshing and fizzy are my favourite to-gos.”

Reservations at Double Chicken Please are snapped up six days in advance. Our tip: try a walk-in as early as possible.

Akshar Chalwadi preparing a drink at his bar, rākh.
Akshar Chalwadi adding the final touches. Photo: rākh

“Making cocktails is not only my profession. It is also my passion. Whether it is a classic, a variation of a classic or something completely new — I enjoy it all,” professes Akshar Chalwadi, founder of Southeast Asian cuisine bar, rākh. “As cliches as it sounds, I do this because I enjoy watching the customers’ reaction to a great drink. And that’s what it is all about.” Meaning “ash” in Urdu and Hindi, rākh was started with the idea of being “born from flame”, an ode to the bar’s Indian heritage. Akshar recommends getting “The Rasam”, a vodka-based reimagining of the classic South Indian soup, infusing flavours of tamarind, tomatoes, chilli pepper, and cumin. You can visit rākh in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Zachary Ibrahim preparing drinks at Jekyll & Hyde.
Zachary Ibrahim pulling a guest shift at Jekyll & Hyde, Singapore. Photo: Jekyll & Hyde

Further down the Malay Archipelago in Singapore, seasoned mixologist, Zachary Ibrahim, tells us “what a good cocktail actually is varies from person to person.” He proudly states that “it is a bartender’s job to figure out what their guests enjoy and are looking to have.” Seems like we agree that the best cocktails are the ones that are made specially for you. You can have Zac whip up something special at the rooftop bar of the Lion City’s only East African cuisine lounge-bar, Kafe Utu. Warm, ambient lighting and tastefully rustic decor give off the atmosphere of home. Sounds like the perfect getaway from the busy throngs of city life. 

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