Wednesday, February 2, 2011; E05
The Singapore Sling, as we know it, is a patently ridiculous cocktail: bright red, foamy, huge, garnished with fruit salad. It's the kind of drink played for comic irony by hack sitcom writers, perhaps ordered by the nerdy guy on a date or the demure little old lady suddenly cutting loose. If ever a character orders a Singapore Sling, a laugh track is sure to follow.
And yet, we're told the Singapore Sling was once a classic cocktail. We're told that the drink was invented sometime in the early 20th century by Ngiam Tong Boon at the Long Bar of the famed Raffles Hotel in Singapore. We're told it is the sort of libation that Somerset Maugham or Rudyard Kipling would have knocked back while pondering the decline of the British Empire. Charles Baker, in his famously purple-prosed "The Gentleman's Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask," called the Raffles' Singapore Sling "a delicious, slow-acting, insidious thing."
Much harder to swallow was Baker himself, as in his J.-Peterman-does-the-colonies rumination on the Singapore Sling: "When our soft-footed Malay boy brings the 4th Sling and finds us peering over the window sill at the cobra-handling snake charmers tootling their confounded flutes below, he murmurs 'jaga baik-baik Tuan' . . . or 'take care master' as it means in English."
Perhaps, as can happen in cocktails and in life, the impulse to make something exotic overtakes sense and good taste. In any case, insidious is certainly a fine word to describe the sad decline of the Singapore Sling.
"Strictly speaking, the Singapore Sling is no longer a sling at all," writes Ted Haigh in his 2004 book, "Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails." A sling, after all, is one of the oldest mixed drinks, really just a cold toddy: liquor, sugar, lemon, water. A sling is the cousin of the rickey and the Collins.
But consider the laundry list of ingredients in the contemporary Singapore Sling: gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine, Cointreau, pineapple juice, lime juice, grenadine, bitters, soda water. Just buying the liqueurs to make it would cost you close to $100. And what you'd end up with is a toothachingly sweet concoction you'd have to serve in the biggest glass you have on hand. It's the kind of drink you'd accessorize with a tiny umbrella and a tiny sword, and probably also a big hunk of pineapple. Haigh insists that the Singapore Sling is now a "tropical-styled punch, and it is really the prototype of the future Tiki genre."
So what, then, was the original Singapore Sling?
Two of the earliest references to the drink, in Harry Craddock's "The Savoy Cocktail Book" (1930) and Patrick Gavin Duffy's "Official Mixers Manual" (1934), essentially call for a gin sling with the addition of cherry brandy. In fact, in both cases cherry brandy is the predominant spirit.
The Singapore Sling would continue to be listed as a simple drink of gin, cherry brandy, lemon juice and sometimes sugar in cocktail guides throughout the next few decades. By 1962, James Mayabb, in his then-popular book "International Cocktail Specialties, From Madison Avenue to Malaya," offered a Standard Singapore Sling that called for two ounces of gin, a half-ounce cherry brandy, a teaspoon of confectioners' sugar and the juice of half a lemon. Still no pineapple juice or grenadine in sight.
Even into the '70s, Singapore Sling recipes remained straightforward. For instance, House & Garden's "Drink Guide" (1973) called it "the most famous" of all the slings and told readers to "Follow the basic sling recipe, but add Â½-ounce cherry brandy."
So when did all of the other ingredients enter the picture? It's hard to say.
In 1948, David Embury wrote of the Singapore Sling in his encyclopedic "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks": "Of all the recipes published for this drink, I have never seen any two that were alike. . . . Some recipes call for the addition of Benedictine. Also, some call for ginger ale in place of charged water." Baker writes that Raffles version of the Singapore Sling, which he claimed to have first tasted in 1926, was equal parts gin, cherry brandy and Benedictine.
However, going back even further to an important 1922 book called "Cocktails and How to Mix Them" by a celebrated London bartender named Robert Vermeire, we see a recipe for a "well-known Singapore drink" called the Straits Sling ("Straits" being how many referred to Singapore). The Straits Sling, called for gin, Benedictine, lemon juice, orange and Angostura bitters and "dry cherry brandy."
Obviously, somewhere along the line the Straits Sling and the Singapore Sling became conflated, which probably explains how Benedictine and bitters got into the mix. As for pineapple juice? That remains a mystery.
Perhaps the most important issue that Vermeire clears up is that of the cherry brandy. For years, we've been told the garnet-colored Cherry Heering is the key ingredient in a Singapore Sling. For me, that was always a deal-breaker, because I am not a fan of that Danish liqueur. It has always reminded me of cherry-flavored cough syrup.
But Cherry Heering is not a brandy. A real cherry brandy would be something clear and dry, such as kirsch (or kirschwasser), which is one of my favorite spirits. Because Vermeire specifically calls for "dry" cherry brandy, and we never see "cherry liqueur" listed in any guide prior to the '80s, one must assume that kirsch was the cherry brandy used in this drink.
Once I realized that, I made a kirsch version of the Singapore Sling (find it at www.washingtonpost.com/recipes); cherry brandy is the base spirit. It was a revelation. It might not be quite as exotic, but there is nothing ridiculous about this drink at all.
Wilson is the author of "Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits" (Ten Speed, 2010). He can be reached at email@example.com.