Sipping a Sling in Singapore

A Singapore Sling. Photo by Flickr/Xa.
A Singapore Sling. Photo by Flickr/Xa.

As I drew a slow sip of pineapple juice infused with gin and syrupy liquors through the slender straw, the intense sweetness made me shudder. But perhaps it wasn’t the sugary, pink concoction that shook my center.

Maybe, it was knowing that Rudyard Kipling could have lingered on this very barstool. Maybe, Somerset Maugham had pondered plots for his novels over a whiskey at the bar. Maybe, Alfred Hitchcock, puffing on a Cuban, imagined this setting of intrigue and grandeur at the — Singapore as the ideal location for his next film. All these luminaries and others had graced this spot and now I joined the list of patrons.

Raffles Hotel Singapore

I have read that this experience is considered ‘one of the truest rites of passage of travel.’ I have also read that some visitors call it a tourist trap, ‘a place for parting people from huge sums of money with little value in return.’ What site, what monument, what natural wonder of the world that commands historical significance is not a tourist trap, I thought. Would a traveler bypass Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, or Havana’s Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway threw back Daquiris, just because hordes wanted to see it, feel it or taste it?

I suppressed the blatant realities: that my cocktail had been premixed, that this famed, second-floor bar had been relocated from its original street-level venue, that the price for one 8 oz. drink measured $36S (Singapore Dollars)- about $28 US. Instead, I closed my eyes and let visions of the past surface.

The Raffles Hotel Singapore. Flickr/Sergey
The Raffles Hotel Singapore. Flickr/Sergey

History of Raffles Hotel Singapore

Exotic tales seeped from the mahogany lined walls and rose up from the tiled floors. One of the few remaining 19th century guest lodges in the world, the Raffles Hotel Singapore, inspired by Malayan plantation life of the late 1800’s, still stands as a grand dame, dwarfed on four sides by the gleaming, glass skyscrapers of this modern, sleek city. The hotel’s colonial architecture, marble colonnades, polished teak verandas and lush tropical gardens have offered a slow paced, luxurious stop-over for the well-heeled for over 130 years.

Although located two blocks from the waterfront due to land fill extensions, the hotel was originally built directly on Singapore’s harbor. Armenian hoteliers, the Sarkies Brothers opened a 10-room guest house in 1887 to provide residence for the wealthy in transit and a watering hole for the community’s elite.

Having celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Sling in 2015, this sign greeted us at the door to the Long Bar. Photo by Carol Bowman
Having celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Sling
in 2015, this sign greeted us at the door to the Long Bar. Photo by Carol Bowman

Within the first decade, three additional buildings were added, and by 1899, the only hotel in Singapore with electricity had expanded to include the two-story main structure built around a verdant courtyard. They named it after the founder of Singapore, British Statesman, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.

As I took another sip of my decadent libation, I imagined the barroom filled with handsomely dressed sugar and rum traders and their Gibson Girl look-alike companions. The gentlemen nursed gins and whiskeys, as they stood at the Long Bar, so named for the teakwood shelf that ran the length of the hotel’s tavern. Proper British decorum prohibited the ladies from consuming alcohol in public, so boring fruit juices and teas were offered to the fairer sex.

Raffles Hotel Singapore Legends

 Legend has it that women who traveled to Singapore and frequented this bar at the Raffles Hotel around the turn of the century can thank the Chinese Bar Captain, Ngliam Tong Boon, for freeing their shackles of culturally imposed abstinence. Historians quibble about the exact date, but around 1915, Ngliam created a cocktail that looked like pink fruit juice, but which packed a punch from invisible clear gin and colorful liquors.

The birth of the Singapore Sling gave ladies a socially acceptable way to soothe the sharp, ‘Wild West’ conditions of the Far East. Any woman who had been at the hotel that memorable day in 1902, when a stray tiger sauntered into the Billiard Room, was cornered under the pool table and shot by a gentleman sporting his rifle, needed something stronger than grapefruit juice to calm her nerves.

For decades, sipping a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel Long Bar has topped the bucket list of ‘must-dos’ in this city-state on the southern tip of Malaysia. The cocktail is now regarded as the national drink and the building complex was declared a National Monument in 1987. With dutiful determination to experience this traveler ‘rite of passage’, we arrived before the 11 A.M. opening. We wanted to soak up the ambiance of times gone by and swill down the famed potion before the tourist throngs descended.

The lustrous wooden bar stretched across the back wall and despite the early hour, the bartender lined up tulip shaped glasses ready for the onslaught. On average, they serve 2000 Singapore Slings a day, and at $28US per drink, that adds up to a pretty pink $56,000 daily take. We gave the price a passing sigh with the knowledge that in 40 years of travel, we never paid that much for a cocktail. But what price, history!

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