The Baffling Case of the Singapore Sling

Paul Blow

Whenever we visit New York, my wife says, "When you're in Manhattan, you've got to drink a Manhattan." I was going to Singapore, so I figured I'd follow the same logic: drink Singapore Slings. But I discovered that it would not be as easy as it seemed.

"Of all the recipes published for this drink," wrote David Embury in 1948's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, "I have never seen any two that were alike."

In other words, nobody knows what a Singapore Sling really is. There are many versions, much debate, and the drink remains a mystery. I was determined to solve it.

My research began at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. I ventured to this sprawling, beautifully manicured colonial hotel, and up a flight of stairs to its Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling was supposedly invented in 1915 by a bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon.

In this beautifully crepuscular wood-paneled room, I learned for myself what everyone had warned me about: that the Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel is terrible. Two versions are available: the sickly-sweet premade one, and the not-quite-as-nauseatingly-sweet version that they'll make on request from scratch. I tasted both. Made with pineapple juice, cherry liqueur, grenadine, Cointreau, Bénédictine (an herbal liqueur), lime juice, bitters, and soda water, this pink fruit bomb is a joke of a cocktail—more like Hawaiian Punch than something that would have whetted the dry wits of Noël Coward and Somerset Maugham, both of whom spent time here.

Most cocktail enthusiasts agree that this cannot be the original drink. The base ingredients—gin, sugar, lemon or lime juice, and soda water (a gin sling)—have never been in question; it's the modifying ingredients that are the subject of controversy. Most cocktail books from the 20th century list the Singapore Sling as being nothing more than a gin sling with the addition of Cherry Heering. But if that's the case, then how and why did all these other modifiers come into the picture?

Time to dig into the archives. Jason Wilson of the Washington Post discussed these issues in a piece back in February. He came to the conclusion that the Singapore Sling we know today is a conflation and probable descendant of the Straits Sling (which includes kirschwasser—dry cherry brandy—Bénédictine, and bitters, with "Straits" being a local name for Singapore), with the mysterious inclusion of pineapple juice happening somewhere during or after the 1970s.

Wilson also notes that a 1922 book's formula for the Straits Sling—the recipe's first appearance in a book—calls not for Cherry Heering, but for "dry cherry brandy," which suggested to some that the actual ingredient might have been something more akin to cherry eau de vie or kirschwasser. If this were indeed the true recipe, as Wilson—who is not a fan of the cloyingly sweet Cherry Heering version—hoped, it would profoundly change the nature of the drink, making it more tastefully dry and causing it to lose its pink color.

But, in an Imbibe magazine piece back in July, cocktail historian David Wondrich put this argument to rest. Thanks to the modern miracle of scanned, searchable newspaper archives, Wondrich told me, when in Singapore this year, he was able to visit the National Library and look back at contemporary accounts of the Singapore Sling going back more than 100 years. He found, among other things, that the first mention of the Sling was in 1897, 18 years before the Raffles supposedly invented it. He also saw a 1903 reference to it as pink, ruling out the notion that it was originally made with clear, dry cherry eau de vie (kirschwasser). Finally, while he didn't find an exact print of the recipe, Wondrich did happen upon an account of the drink, which mentioned cherry brandy and Bénédictine.

But thankfully for those of us like Wilson and me, holding out hope for a drier, more urbane version of the cocktail, Wondrich did log one other interesting detail: The only cherry brandies that turned up in contemporary liquor ads were Heering and Bols. But, Wondrich notes, at the time Bols did also sell a dry version of its cherry brandy. Perhaps this is the "dry cherry brandy" of the 1922 book.

Excited by this notion, I took the idea to Michael Callahan, who had just opened 28 Hong Kong Street, a new cocktail bar that, only days old, was unquestionably already one of Singapore's best. Not a particular fan of the drink, Callahan, who moved out from San Francisco earlier this year, wasn't promoting the Sing' Sling (unlike most other places in Singapore). Nevertheless, he agreed to make one for me, along with an interesting suggestion. Instead of Cherry Heering or kirsch, he offered a bit of Luxardo's Sangue Morlacco (or Blood Morlacco), a crimson, medium-dry cherry brandy from Italy that might be similar to the product Bols used to offer. Using that, Callahan mixed me his approximation. Far from a sweet cartoon of a drink, it was pale pink, as pleasantly crisp as a new linen shirt, and vigorously refreshing—a drink I could well imagine pith-helmeted Brits sipping in the Raffles's Long Bar while discussing tiger hunts and the empire.

Singapore Sling from 28 Hong Kong Street bar, Singapore
1 ounce Luxardo Sangue Morlacco
1.5 ounces gin
1 ounce Bénédictine
1 ounce lime juice
2 dashes angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
Ice
2 ounces soda water
Lime peel, for garnish

Shake everything but the soda and lime peel with ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a collins glass filled with ice cubes and top with the soda water. Garnish with a lime peel.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.