I OFTEN WONDER how clearly I remember the first time I ever went to Singapore.
I remember the black-bean crab, and the persistent smell of the ocean, and the way the posh stores of Orchard Street veered off into dark alleys that seemed unchanged from the days of Somerset Maugham. I remember that I saw the biggest rat I’ve ever conceived of in the alley between our hotel and the grammar school next door.
I also remember that, at the time, I was too young to drink a Singapore Sling, popularly considered the national drink of Singapore, a libation ideally suited to the sweltering air of a Southeast Asian night. But these are all impressions, possibly amplified by the ensuing years — was the rat really that big? Were the alleys quite that dark? And what was in that pink-tinted beverage my parents sipped in that hotel bar that night? There’s no way to know, because, for a drink so easily placed in space and time, the nature of the Singapore Sling proves as ephemeral as memory itself.
Unlike so many drinks, we know who created it, and when, and where: A cocktail of that name was developed at the turn of the 20th century by a bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon at the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, a giant luxury hotel that both housed and symbolized British Imperialism in that nation-city. So it’s a bit of a mystery, then, why there is no definitive recipe.
The term “sling” itself is a late-18th-century word for any liquor-based cocktail mixed with water or soda and sweetened with sugar or fruit juice, comprising probably the majority of craft cocktails on any modern menu (the word comes from the German schlingen, meaning to drink quickly, for which such swiggable libations are designed).
But apparently Mr. Ngiam (or Wen, or Yen, depending on transliteration) did not write down the ingredients for his immediately popular cocktail, leaving its interpretation largely up to the imagination of the thirsty. Like an urban legend, or the epic poem “Beowulf,” the Singapore Sling survives by oral tradition and collective memory, and modern versions might in no way resemble the original.
There is a general impression of the drink that persists: Almost all versions involve gin as the base spirit, with cherry liqueur or cherry brandy for color, bitters or herbaceous liqueurs for complexity, and tropical fruit juices like pineapple and lime. Singapore Slings must, it seems, be pink, and thus suffer no indignities by the addition of a cocktail umbrella. Some drink historians allege that the color and relatively sweet flavor profile signified that it was a drink intended for women, meant to look like something more innocent than a punch made of several different kinds of booze.
While I didn’t actually taste the Singapore Slings I watched my parents drink back then, they remember them as delicious. A cheap version might sub out the cherry liqueur with grenadine, and the fruit juices with sweet-and-sour mix. If the resulting candy-hued swill is your impression of the Singapore Sling, I beg you to simply forget it like a bad trip.
More-refined recipes often contain Benedictine D.O.M. (an herbaceous French liqueur that tastes a bit like an alcoholic Christmas candle) and Heering Cherry Liqueur, and making a quality homemade Singapore Sling might involve an expensive trip to the liquor store.
Perhaps it’s something best sought out in one of the city’s better bars, maybe more safely outdoors on a warmish summer night, to cap off an evening you want to impress in your brain forever. That version can forever become, for you, the definitive Singapore Sling, and in that regard, you will be as correct as anybody else.