Walk into the bar at Singapore’s colonial-era Raffles Hotel and you’re bound to see pink-faced tourists sipping an equally pink beverage known as the Singapore Sling, the city-state’s national cocktail. The gin-based concoction, made with cherry brandy, orange juice, lime juice, and fresh pineapple, was invented at the hotel in the early 1900s and it’s since become synonymous with the city-state’s image, mostly thanks to heavy marketing by the tourism board.
While it isn’t exactly awful (it can be ridiculously sweet), it’s basically a tourist gimmick. Hardly any locals drink it and most bars don’t even serve it. A country’s iconic drink, such as Brazil’s caipirinha and Italy’s negroni, should be widely consumed by its people so it’s about time Singapore revisit its national tipple.
Bartender Zac Mirza of Kult Kafe, a friendly watering hole housed in a white colonial mansion on a lush hill in central Singapore, is the perfect man for the job. He’s created a range of bespoke refreshments using Southeast Asian ingredients that actually do the region proud (as opposed to harken back to our colonial history). Seasoned with herbs grown in Kult’s garden, these libations (also known as "kultails") are based on the recipes of well-known classics but with a local twist.
The "Bloody Belachan," a riff on the vodka-based bloody mary, replaces Tabasco with sambal belachan (a Malaysian/Indonesian condiment made from chili, shrimp paste, and lime juice) and celery with basil and cucumber. The American South’s mint julep, meanwhile, is re-invented as the "Kult Julep," which swaps mint for kaffir lime and sugar for gula melaka, palm sugar with a smoky taste that can be found across the region.
The "Jamu Sour" plays with the whiskey sour by incorporating jamu, an Indonesian medicine made from turmeric, ginger, tamarind, lime, and honey. Meanwhile, the "Dill & Tonic" adds fresh dill, salt, pepper, and elderflower to the signature gin and tonic.
Coming up for 2019 is the "Kopi Dangdut," Mirza’s take on the espresso martini. The base is salted caramel vodka and Singaporean coffee (colloquially known as kopi) in whichthe beans are wok-roasted with butter/sugar and brewed with a cotton strainer in watering can-like vessels. Kopi is usually had with condensed milk but Kult’s take uses macadamia nut milk instead. A perfect pick-me-up before a night out, this is guaranteed to make wallflowers bust a move to any tune, even dangdut (a style of Indonesian working class music).
Each one is basically a tribute to nusantara culture, an old term for maritime Southeast Asia. That, to me, makes Mirza’s concoctions way more representative of local culture than the Singapore Sling. And unlike the Sling that’s a considered a girly drink, Mirza’s creations are gender neutral.
“We use ingredients that have a deep cultural history in this part of the world,” Mirza explains. “Before the bar opened in late 2015, I went foraging and found wild herbs growing in Kult’s garden so I incorporated them into my recipes because I wanted our drinks to reflect our surroundings.”
Through each kultail, he hopes to educate people about the region’s culinary traditions: “I think of it as ‘kultural’ enrichment,” Mirza says.