In Search of the Singapore Sling

Singapore Sling. Wait. No fruit salad?
Singapore Sling. Wait. No fruit salad?

Let’s get some known facts out of the way first, shall we? The Singapore Sling was probably invented some time between 1913 and 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon, who worked at the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. It certainly had gin. And ice. It may have had “cherry brandy” (by which we mean a cherry liqueur ... or perhaps not) and Benedictine. It may have also had lime juice, lemon juice, pineapple juice, grenadine, sloe gin, crème de cassis, orange bitters and/or the all-mysterious “bitters”.

Furthermore, let’s set some things straight. First, this drink, whatever it is, isn’t a sling. A sling is a lightly sweetened and chilled spirit, lengthened with water of some sort. This drink, with its citrus, bitters and liqueurs is much more like an early English Tiki drink than a proper sling.

In fact, so little is known about this drink’s ingredients that David Embury, writing in “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” (1948) claims that he’d never seen two recipes with the same ingredients. I would extend this, and say that we should differentiate between the Modern Raffles Hotel Singapore Sling, the Original version of the same drink, and the more generic “Singapore Sling”, which may or may not have a lot in common with the version served at the Raffles.

Raffles Singapore Sling

Shake vigorously with ice to build a nice head of foam. Strain into an ice filled Collins glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry and a chunk of pineapple.

If you are so lucky as to sit down at the Long Bar at the original Raffles Hotel in Singapore, you’re likely to get a blended drink that suffers greatly from “Bad Tiki” syndrome — it’s a lot of juice and a bunch of strident flavors made from a mix and doled out to tourists in a souvenir glass. It is better if made according to what is now the official Raffles recipe, which was reinvented with a big slug of pineapple juice by Mr. Boon’s nephew some time in the mid-1970’s. But I’d like to go back. Way back.

In the beginning was the gin sling. A simple little drink, tossed off by “Professor” Jerry Thomas as a drink “…made with the same ingredients as the gin toddy, except you grate a little nutmeg on top.” This is easy: 1 wineglass of gin (about 2 ounces), ½ wineglass of water, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 small lump of ice, stirred with a spoon. Grate some nutmeg on top.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, was Singapore. Not yet a Crown Colony, in 1862 Singapore was part of the Straits Settlements, which came about as a result of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. Singapore was administrated by the British East India Company, which controlled English trade to and from Asia, minted its own money, had armies and was effectively a shadow government until civil unrest and famine splintered its empire.

Even after the end of East India Company rule in 1874, Singapore was a fascinating place to live. There was still strong Dutch influence in that part of the world, but on top of it was all the expectations of an Englishman living abroad. There would be tea, there would be servants, and oh yes, there would be drinking.

Around the turn of the 20th century, lots of alcohol was available in Singapore. Clarets, Rhine wines, Sherries, stout and gin were advertised in newspapers. The first mention in paper of a gin sling was a poem written in the May 15th, 1895 Straits Times by someone calling themselves “The Chutney Man” which tells the story (in shockingly bad 19th century style) of a rebellion in the state of Kachang Gorang, ruled by the wonderously named Sultan Abdul Moocher Alley bin About a Beer and his rebellious cousin Mustapha Gin Sling. All this means is that people were drinking something called a gin sling at the end of the 19th century, and while it was assuredly enjoyed in the tropical heat and humidity pre-air conditioning as a morning drink (I kid you not), this was not yet a Singapore Sling.

I would be remiss at this point if I did not acknowledge the research that Dave Wondrich has done on this subject for the July/August 2011 edition of Imbibe. He is correct on most of the palpable points, and not only that, he points the way to the primary newspaper sources in the Singapore National Library. My only quibbles? He’s two years off in dating the first usage of “gin sling”, and he uses an obscure quote in a society piece from the October 2nd 1903 Straits Times in which both “fizzy wine” and “pink slings for pale people” were served at a going away party for one “Daddy” Abrams to prove that whatever was in this proto-Singapore Sling was not clear cherry eau de vie, but red cherry liqueur. I’m not as convinced as Mr. Wondrich that this pink sling was the forerunner to the Singapore Sling, but it’s one piece to the puzzle.

On the side of “the original Singapore Sling was pink” are two things. First, the Danish Cherry Heering was certainly available in Singapore during this time. They’d been advertising since 1847. An ad from this period calls the stuff “Heering’s Cherry Brandy (kirsebaer)”. The first ad for Bols cherry brandy dates to January 11th, 1916. Secondly, bartenders knew the difference between “cherry brandy” which was red colored and sweet and “kirschwasser”, or cherry eau de vie which was clear and dry.

Only ten years later, some angry cricketers, upset that they could not get a gin sling at the very proper Singapore Cricket Club found that they could make do with “…one cherry brandy, one domb (sic), one gin, one lime juice, some ice and water, a few dashes of bitters…” It’s easy to take those as one ounce measurements, and “domb” as Benedictine DOM. At least they wrote of their good fortune in the September 20th, 1913 edition of the Weekly Sun. And we’re now in the time frame in which the mysterious Mr. Boon created his famous, misinterpreted drink.

The picture starts to become muddled almost immediately. In 1922, Robert Vermeire’s book “Cocktails – How to Mix Em” has the Straits Sling, “a well known Singapore drink” which has 2 dashes each of orange bitters and Angostura bitters, the juice of half a lemon, 1/8 of a gill each (a gill is 4 ounces, so this is ½ oz) of Benedictine and “dry cherry brandy” (which was still red and somewhat sweet), and a half gill of gin. All this is poured into a tumbler and topped with soda water.

By 1930, the Savoy Cocktail Book had both a Straits Sling and a Singapore Sling. The Singapore version is 1 ounce of cherry brandy, ½ ounce dry gin, and the juice of ¼ of a lemon, shaken, strained into a “medium” glass, topped with soda water and a lump of ice. The Straits Sling on the other hand is for six people, and has 8 ounces of gin, 2 ounces  each of Benedictine and cherry brandy, the juice of 2 lemons, and a teaspoon each of orange and Angostura bitters.

Both Frank Meier’s “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks” (1936) and the “Café Royal Cocktail Book” (1937) mimic this more minimalist Singapore Sling: Meier calls for a half-glass (theoretically a bit more than an ounce) of gin and cherry brandy, with the juice of half a lemon and water (let’s call it 2 ounces) to fill a tumbler with “three or four pieces of ice” in it. The Café Royal uses ½ gin (say 2 ounces), ¼ each cherry brandy and Benedictine (1 ounce), and the juice of half a lime, shaken and poured unstrained into a tumbler, then topped with what might be 1.5 ounces of soda water.

Finally, in his 1939 classic “Jigger, Beaker and Glass”, Charles H. Baker, Jr. declares that the original recipe for the Singapore Sling is one third each gin, cherry brandy and Benedictine shaken or stirred with a few lumps of ice and filled with soda water, then garnished with a spiral of lime, but that he prefers a drier version which is a 2:1:1 ratio.

This Baker recipe is the most stripped down version of the Singapore Sling, and he claims it is the original recipe,  which he first encountered in 1926. While technically this is still a gin sling, Professor Thomas might have recognized it as an “improved” or “fancy” gin sling, where the plain white sugar was replaced by flavored liqueurs, albeit in much larger amounts that is typical. Sadly, this version is heavy and overly sweet, not tropical or refreshing. But it may be as close as one can get to what was first served at the Raffles.

Interestingly enough, Trader Vic agrees with Baker in his “Bartender’s Guide” (1947), calling the same recipe the “Raffles Hotel Sling”. Strangely, he gives two variants: Number Two is 2 ounces of dry gin, ¾ ounce of cherry brandy, a dash of Benedictine, and the juice of half a lemon stirred with ice, filled with seltzer and garnished with orange slices and mint. His Number One variant is bizarre, with 1 ½ ounces of dry gin, ½ ounce cherry brandy and lemon juice, the juice (and shell) of ½ lime, and then a teaspoon of grenadine, ¼ ounce sloe gin, and ½ ounce crème de cassis! This concoction is stirred with some ice and topped with seltzer.

Singapore Cricket Club Gin Sling

In an 8 ounce highball glass build over ice and stir until chilled.

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about where to put down my marker on this drink. Looking back at the 1913 article, the people who frequented the Singapore Cricket Club were obviously perturbed that the Club refused to make their gin sling, thinking it was low-brow. I take that to mean that this drink, using the ingredients listed, was widely popular in Singapore at the time. This is the recipe I like.

Not only that, but it’s a really good drink that is quick and simple to make and which touches the points that most  sources agree on: gin, cherry brandy, Benedictine, lime. I also think it’s important that the acidity be lime juice, as it provides more punch to get through the half of the drink that is sweet liqueurs better than lemon. All the recipes with extraneous ingredients (bitters, pineapple juice, grenadine) turn this into an amorphous mess, including what they serve now at the Long Bar.

A final word on the subject comes in an article in the Straits Times from July 14th, 1969. Chew Ah Mit, the bartender at the Selangor Club was due to retire, having worked behind the bar there since 1908. He fondly remembered the gin slings that by his retirement were out of fashion as “a little gin, a dash of cherry brandy, a drop of liqueur, a splash of DOM, and some lemon” – a simple drink for a simpler time.

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Comments

Many thanks!

Your care for accuracy, love of knowledge, and passion for cocktails are much appreciated. I think I learned as much about Singapore as I did about the Sling. More, more, more!

Excellent article!

As soon as I saw the title, I was intrigued. I was hoping someone would finally be able to unravel the enigma of this drink. Great job!

Great article. Thank you.

DrunkLab's picture

Great article. Thank you. This is the most thorough and detailed account on the Sling that I've read.

You're welcome

Zachary Pearson's picture

I really like writing this kind of article - it's a drink that everyone knows but no one knows where it came from, it's sort of lost in the mists of time, and there's enough information out there about it where I can put it in a cohesive state. If you have any suggestions for other articles like this, I'd love to hear them.

Thanks,

Zachary

I think the Gimlet could make for a good article.

DrunkLab's picture

It's a very old cocktail, of longstanding popularity, and yet there's wide misunderstanding about what it is and what constitutes an "authentic" Gimlet. I think there'd be interest in the history of Rose's Lime Juice and what the original, alcoholic version might have tasted like, as well as in a look into the current recipes out there for homemade cordials.

Was Rose's originally

Was Rose's originally alcoholic? I've never seen any evidence that it was. To be honest I've never done too much research on it though. My understanding, however, is that it is classified as a cordial, and in Europe cordials are strictly non-alcoholic.

Also, I've been drinking a lot of mescal, so this may not make any sense.

Stigibeu, Kyle.

DrunkLab's picture

You know, I was pretty sure I'd read somewhere reputable that Rose's was alcoholic, but all a cursory Googling reveals is the opposite, that he invented his cordial as a way of preserving lime sans alcohol. This is why we need Pearson on the job.