The Bar Awards 2018 finalists show how far Singapore’s nightlife scene has evolved


Earlier this week The Bar Awards Singapore 2018 announced the Top 4 finalists for various categories dedicated to recognising the efforts and dedication of professionals and venues in Singapore’s nightlife and F&B industries; the illuminative list is a delicious microcosm of how the drinks scene in this country has changed over the years.

When The Bar Awards first started back in 2014 as a grassroots initiative to recognise and celebrate the talents in Singapore’s cocktail bar scene, founders Tron Young and Emily Seow never would have guessed that it would grow to becoming one of the most important trade events on the F&B calendar. Starting from a single, simple awards ceremony for its first edition, The Bar Awards this year will see a whopping 30 events taking place across the country including masterclasses and international guest bartending shifts to supplement that awards ceremony.

But what’s truly interesting about The Bar Awards is how it has almost become a barometer that measures the health of the industry and tracks the constant changes within the vertical. Through changes of the different categories over the years – with some added, and others dropped – or the various nominees submitted for each category, one can actually see how Singapore’s nightlife scene has evolved over the years.

Here’s a look at the Top 4 finalists of this year’s The Bar Awards Singapore 2018 and what they could possibly mean for our scene.


The Rising Star (presented by Perrier)

  • Bai Jia Wei – Employees Only
  • Cherrie Soh – Caffe Fernet
  • Jayden Ong – Fancy (formerly)(pictured above, right)
  • Ronan Keilthy – 28 HongKong Street

The talent pool in Singapore’s cocktail scene is ever-changing, but “The Rising Star” category is one that bears notice because it tracks young (local) talent in the cocktail circuit who are likely to go on and make a mark in the industry.

Bai Jia Wei has risen to prominence in the past year at Employees Only, while Cherrie Soh has moved over from the Jigger & Pony Group’s Humpback to help helm the bar at recently-opened sister outlet Caffe Fernet; Ronan Kielthy, who was a key member at the now defunct Crackerjack, now bounces shifts between 28 HongKong Street and Junior The Pocket Bar. Jayden Ong, on the other hand, is taking a short hiatus after leaving Fancy, a cocktail bar she co-founded (she was previously from Sugarhall).

It’s the first time Cherrie Soh’s been nominated for this category; the rest were also contenders in this category last year. It’s good to know there are many new names in the top ten of this category; some of them will rise to contend in the top four in the coming years.


Best Restaurant Bar (presented by Restaurant, Pub and Bar Asia)

  • Burnt Ends
  • Caffe Fernet
  • Neon Pigeon
  • Tippling Club

Last year’s winner for this category, Tippling Club, is again in the running; this year it again faces fellow 2017 nominees Neon Pigeon and Burnt Ends. But the latter contender recently landed a well-deserved Michelin-star that could give it a distinct advantage.

Waterfront bar restaurant Caffe Fernet, the newest concept in the Jigger & Pony Group, catapults itself into this category and could prove to be a dark horse with its Italian-inspired food and drinks program.

We like that the field here is so diverse when it comes to contemporary culinary concepts – modern Japanese, modern Australian, modern Italian, and modern gastronomy.


Best Beer Bar (presented by Peroni)

  • American Taproom
  • Freehouse
  • Smith Street Taps
  • The Guild

This category was first introduced in the 2016 edition of The Bar Awards Singapore to recognise the burgeoning number of beer bars opening up across town over the past few years, especially those dedicated to craft beer. Craft beer hawker stall Smith Street Taps was the winner in this category last year – Druggists won in 2016 – but it faces strong contention from Freehouse, which was also among the top four last year.

Interestingly two of the four finalists in this category are totally new to the scene; both The Guild – fronted by Young Master Ales from Hong Kong – and American Taproom just opened earlier this year and have already shot to the top to the beer-drinking public’s consciousness. Will the craft beer scene in Singapore continue to boom in the coming years?


Best Wine Bar (presented by Restaurant, Pub and Bar Asia)

  • Atlas
  • La Terre
  • Le Bon Funk
  • RVLT

The “Best Wine Bar” is also a relatively new category, added just last year to pay tribute to the number of establishments that has made wine a central concept. Curiously, last year’s winner Burnt Ends didn’t make it to the top four this year; grand lobby bar Atlas – better known for its massive, towering gin collection, but has an equally impressive champagne and wine collection – and beloved natural wine bar RVLT are both in contention in the top four this year.

Luxury wine bar La Terre is best known for the slew of awards it’s garnered for its incredible (high-end) wine list; new entrant Le Bon Funk, a natural wine bar newly opened this year by the Lo and Behold Group, rounds out the quartet.


Best Beverage Event (presented by Melbourne Moonshine
)

  • Asia’s 50 Best Bars
  • Gin Jubilee
  • Singapore Cocktail Festival
  • Whisky Live

“Best Beverage Event’ is a totally new category introduced this year to honour the various events and festivals that have sprung up over the years to support the drinking scene in Singapore. Of the four finalists, Whisky Live is possibly the event best known for almost single-handedly growing the single malt whisky community here; likewise Singapore Cocktail Festival – which grew out of Singapore Cocktail Week – has brought cocktail drinking to the masses.

Gin Jubilee was launched a couple of years back as a celebration of all things gin, while Asia’s 50 Best Bars hosted its first-ever awards ceremony here in Singapore earlier in May.

It does seem Singapore now has a festival for every spirit category, and that’s a good thing for the drinking public.


Best Education and Community Ambassador (presented by Altos Tequila)

  • Chris Marshall – Distilled
  • Denise Khan Tan – Bacardi
  • Jay Gray – William Grant & Sons
  • Matthew Fergusson-Stewart – William Grant & Sons (pictured above, left)

Also new this year, this category was relabelled – previously it was known as “Contribution to the Industry, Individual” and “Contribution to the Industry, Group or Company” – and reintroduced to honour the professionals that have made a significant impact in the scene even if they are likely to be transparent to the regular punter.

William Grant & Sons should be rather proud that two of their own has risen to take their places in the top four – energetic Monkey Shoulder brand ambassador Jay Gray is known for planning quirky events, while award-winning brand ambassador for Glenfiddich, Matthew Fergusson-Stewart, is a respected, towering authority in Singapore’s single malt whisky drinking community.

Chris Marshall was a regular on the cocktail circuit – he’s so well known in the bar scene he got a cocktail named after him – before he turned into a tireless spirits distributor at Distilled, while barfly Denise Khan Tan was holding a marketing role in Unlisted Collection before joining spirits company Bacardi. You know the scene’s growing when professional drinkers convert into professional roles in the industry.


Best Specialist Concept (presented by Diplomatico
)

  • Atlas (Gin)
  • Orihara Shoten (Sake)
  • The Auld Alliance (Whisky)
  • The Secret Mermaid (American Spirits)

Another reinvented category, “Best Specialist Concept” likely came about to fit concepts that don’t belong anywhere else.

The finalists here are all literal shoe-ins – Atlas stands head and shoulders above all where gin is concerned, Orihara Shoten is the place to go for sake, as is The Auld Alliance if you’re looking for rare, vintage whiskies. And while most people go to The Secret Mermaid for great cocktails, it’s also a showroom of some of the most interesting American spirits – smoked salmon vodka, anyone? – available in Singapore.


Best Hospitality Ambassador (presented by Fever-Tree)

  • Guoyi Gan – Jigger & Pony Group
  • Sim Sze Wei – Atlas
  • Steve Schneider – Employees Only
  • Vijay Mudaliar – Native (pictured)

First impressions always count when you’re visiting a joint, and these are the people on the frontlines that make you feel like (spending) a million bucks.

Guoyi Gan, Steve Schneider and Vijay Mudaliar are so incredibly friendly and welcoming you’d likely never guess they own the place, while Sim Sze Wei has a gravitas that commands respect beneath that winking smile.


Best Hospitality Team (presented by Hendrick’s Gin)

  • Atlas
  • Employees Only
  • Jigger & Pony
  • Manhattan (Regent Hotel Singapore)

2017’s winner – Employee’s Only – was certainly a worthy one, and remains consistent this year to return to the top four, along with Regent Singapore’s Manhattan. The other two finalists from last year didn’t make it this time with Crackerjack going defunct, and Skinny’s Lounge only getting into the top ten this year.

Both Atlas and Jigger & Pony obviously upped their game in the past year, moving from top ten last year to get into final consideration this time round.


Most Creative Cocktail Program (presented by Cointreau)

  • Native
  • Operation Dagger
  • Smoke & Mirrors
  • Tippling Club

Possibly the most predictable of all the categories this year – although we’re somewhat surprised Origin Bar, with its Singapore history-inspired cocktail menu, didn’t even make the top ten – with all four finalists from last year returning to compete for honours. Perhaps it’s the fact that Native, Operation Dagger, Smoke & Mirrors, and Tippling Club possess of what we call a gastronomic cocktail menu – one where you eat as much as you drink – or maybe it’s because they all recently refreshed their menus to keep their offerings interesting and new.

But this is also possibly a sign that there haven’t been an interesting enough concept to have opened in the past year that can challenge the incumbents.


Best New Bar (presented by Campari)

  • Caffe Fernet
  • Fancy
  • Le Bon Funk
  • Origin Bar (Shangri-La Hotel Singapore)

One of our favourite categories to watch, the “Best New Bar” is a highlight showreel of the newest venues to open in Singapore. It’s also the one to watch for exploratory concepts.

We’re not surprised to see any of these names in this category aside from Le Bon Funk; Caffe Fernet by the Jigger & Pony Group, especially, have been making waves at the waterfront with its Italian-inspired eats and cocktail offerings. Minimalist bar Fancy has created a space that looks like it’s meant to hold psychiatric patients but serves up insanely good cocktails obviously inspired by a mad genius, while Origin Bar digs through Singapore’s history for a cocktail menu incorporating local ingredients and good stories.


Bartender of the Year (presented by Monkey Shoulder)

  • Anthony Zhong – Shin Gi Tai
  • Jerrold Khoo – Jigger & Pony (above)
  • Sim Sze Wei – Atlas
  • Vijay Mudaliar – Native

Always a contentious category – who’s to say one bartender is better than another? – the “Bartender of the Year” is the ultimate tribute The Bar Awards can pay an individual in the bartending scene.

Last year this category was (deservedly) scooped up by Vijay Mudaliar of Native – who gets back into the top four again this year – while Anthony Zhong also returns to challenge for the honours. Yugnes Susela of Smoke & Mirrors and Tippling Club’s Joe Schofield dropped out of the top four this time round, the former possibly because of spending too much time in the regional cocktail circuit promoting Smoke & Mirrors’ Playful Eye menu, while the latter has returned to the UK.

Sim Sze Wei of Atlas remains a dark horse in this competition, but with Roman Foltan leaving the grand lobby bar Sim has a chance to truly shine. The true surprise here is Jerrold Khoo of Jigger & Pony; last year Jerrold was head bartender at Flagship, but was promoted to oversee operations across the Jigger & Pony Group – a big, bold step for a former aspiring musician.


Bar of the Year (presented by Mekhong, the Spirit of Thailand)

  • Atlas
  • Manhattan (Regent Hotel Singapore)
  • Native
  • Tippling Club

Probably the most coveted of all awards at The Bar Awards, the “Bar of the Year” is always hotly contested, and rightly so. This year sees some familiar names returning to compete, although Tippling Club has pipped Employees Only to be on the top four this time round.

We’re only somewhat disappointed that this category is seeing the usual cocktail bar suspects; while they are all deserving, we would have loved to see a wine bar – like RVLT – or a craft beer bar – maybe The Guild – go toe to toe with the cocktail boys.

Or maybe that’s something – for the industry – to build towards.


There’s also a totally new category this year – “The Bar Awards Luminaries, presented by the House of Angostura” – that will honour those that have greatly contributed to the growth and development of the Singapore bar community, applicable to an individual, a number of individuals, a group and/or an initiative, with the winner announced only on the actual award day on 19 August. There’s no real precedent for this new award so it will be interesting to see how The Bar Awards panel approach this for the first time.

Now we’d love to pull out our crystal ball and pick our winners for each category, but the truth is the field is wide open on all of them. What’s more important for us is what The Bar Awards means – a barometer that measures the pulse of Singapore’s exciting, burgeoning drinking scene.