May 3, 2007
The Taste of History is Sweet

As I understand it, a visitor can't leave Singapore without first getting his passport stamped in the Long Bar of the legendary Raffles Hotel, and then only after buying a Singapore Sling. Though we have a few more days in Singapore, we thought we'd check that obligation off the list last night and headed over to the hotel.

The Singapore Sling, also called a gin sling, is one of the world's more enduring cocktails. A Hainanese barman, Hgiam Tong Boon, invented the drink at the Raffles on a hot afternoon in 1915, so the story goes, though some say he actually was serving it a decade earlier.

I've been seeing the Singapore Sling on some cocktail menus in Sacramento, but that may be because I've been looking for them in preparation for this trip. I don't think there's a new surge in demand for the drink, though there is for cocktails generally. I tried a few of the Singapore Slings here and there in Sacramento but didn't find them especially refreshing, their big selling point, especially in a tropical setting.

I figured if any place could make a Singapore Sling that would explain its stature it would be the Long Bar at the Raffles, but I also feared that today's barmen at the hotel long ago would have become jaded by requests for the cocktail and no longer had their heart in it. As soon as we were seated, our server asked, "Singapore Sling?" She knew why most patrons had paused in the large and dark bar. Practically everyone in the place had ordered one, and then switched to beer, a margarita, a martini or some other cocktail. The $20 price, plus a 10 percent service charge and 6 percent in assorted taxes, might have had something to do with that, though not much else in the Long Bar is any less expensive. (Those are Singaporean dollars, currently trading at around $1.50 for each American dollar.)

Made largely with gin, cherry-flavored brandy, Benedictine and pineapple juice, and served in a collins glass topped with a wedge of pineapple and a maraschino cherry, it was mostly sweet, without much of the yin and yang of sweetness and sourness that has explained its appeal when it is made correctly. One guidebook dismisses the Singapore Sling as "cough syrup," but it wasn't that thick and sticky. My second beverage was a Tiger beer. For being refreshing, that was more like it.

The Long Bar, incidentally, is the one place in Singapore where you can litter without facing a hefty fine. Each table is topped with a wooden box of peanuts, and guests are urged to just toss the shells on the tiled floor. This is a tradition that apparently has persisted for most of the hotel's 120 years.

Though hemmed in by high-rises today, and no longer offering a panoramic view of the sea, the Raffles nonetheless remains a grand colonial structure, with high ceilings and wide balconies. It's always had its detractors - Herman Hesse grouched that it was "horrible accoustically and echoes like a drum in its vast corridors and stairways" - but after a brief closure and $160 million restoration in the late 1980s looks to be as busy as ever.

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