Today, the Singapore Sling shows up on bar menus all over the world – usually the sort that feature sugar-laden drinks along the lines of the Long Island Iced Tea or strawberry daiquiri, or at tiki bars alongside Zombies and Mai Tais. You’re unlikely to find it on a craft cocktail menu, despite the fact that Singapore Sling is actually among the older cocktails ever invented – concocted a few years before U.S. prohibition and decades before the first tiki bar was created.
The Singapore Sling isn’t just a fruity cocktail full of booze; it’s brimming with history, too – originally invented as a way for high-society women to keep it classy while covertly imbibing. It’s a drink that smacks of classism, colonialism and aristocracy, but one that also tells the story of Singapore in the early 20th century.
Though it had been inhabited by indigenous Malay peoples for nearly two millennia, Singapore was first claimed by the British in 1819 with the aim of creating a trading port and making a dent in the Dutch trade monopoly in the Malacca Strait, the all-important maritime route between India and China.
At first, the British “founder of modern Singapore,” Sir Stamford Raffles, signed agreements with indigenous settlers for shared governance, but within five years Singapore and its surrounding islands were fully in the hands of the British East India Company and essentially functioned as a British colony. Merchants and traders from across Asia flocked to Singapore, as did more wealthy English keen on profiting from the booming port.
Named for the colony’s long-deceased “founder,” Raffles Hotel opened its door in 1887, and found a ready client base in moneyed Brits looking for a suitably posh haven to take up residence and pass their leisure time. It was the first hotel in Singapore to have electric lights and fans, and its elegance and modernity drew residents and visitors alike.
By the early 1900s, Raffles was the social center of colonial Singapore. The hotel’s Long Bar had all the appeal of a proper British club, and functioned as the hub of life at Raffles, where gentlemen patrons could drain highballs and snifters from elevenses until last man standing. In keeping with a bar tradition that persists to this day, they’d snack on peanuts and toss the shells on the floor.
But what were their wives to do? Proper English ladies didn’t drink alcohol (at least not in public), so they were relegated to sipping tea or punch and watching their husbands get hammered. Ngiam Tong Boon, the savvy bartender at Raffles, saw a market and seized on it, and in 1915, he created the first Singapore Sling – a gin heavy drink made with pineapple juice, lime juice, cherry liqueur, Cointreau, Benedictine, grenadine and bitters.
The pleasantly pink mix of juice and clear gin meant that the ladies could hit the punch bowl as often as they liked without fear of committing social suicide – just as long as no one got close enough to smell their breath. One can’t help but imagine a tacit agreement among the ladies of the Long Bar: the children are with their governesses, our husbands are smoking cigars and playing billiards; let’s just sip punch – pinkies out, of course – and lie back and think of England.
Through the early 20th century, Raffles’ reputation grew, and its list of guests and patrons was a who’s who of the literati and glitterati of every decade, from Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway to Charlie Chaplin and various members of the British Royal Family. The Singapore Sling was no longer just a sweet cocktail for the ladies; it had reached iconic status as the cocktail to quaff in Singapore.
While WWI left Singapore largely unaffected, World War II ravaged the entire region. When a bombarded Singapore surrendered to Japanese forces in 1942, British military and remaining civilians, including some women and children, were taken as prisoners of war. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, the hotel became a staging area and reunion point for war prisoners. Gin may have been in short supply during those difficult days during and after the war, but the recipe for the Singapore Sling survived the conflict.
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By the 1950s, Raffles had been restored to its prior glory. Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner were post-war guests, as were more recently, Michael Jackson and Kate and Wills. In the ensuing years, the hotel has undergone several renovations and expansions and added more luxury amenities. Yet it still retains that air of colonialism and old money of its heyday, and it still serves that signature drink.