In our fifth edition of Makers & Shakers we chat with Dannon Har, home mixologist, drinks editor, and brand ambassador for Compendium Spirits.
How do you make a career out of a love for spirits? For Dannon Har, it’s finding every which way you can to get close to the industry.
We first met Dannon when he was an editor for an entertainment and lifestyle publication covering its dining and drinking beats. The driven young man would then leave to start his own title covering the drinks scene in Singapore; at the same time, just before the pandemic Dannon and his wife Jamie would start what is possibly one of the first private home bars in Singapore, Section D. His experiences with Section D put him in very close contact with Singapore homegrown spirits distiller Compendium Spirits, where he was quickly recruited as a brand ambassador of sorts.
We speak to Dannon about his entrepreneurial journey into the world of cocktails and spirits.
We’ve heard of private dining, but a private home bar is a lot more unusual. Tell us about how and why you started Section D.
I started Section D together with my wife Jamie. It’s a private home bar we opened at the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. We took in our first customers the very next day when circuit breaker ended. The pandemic allowed us precious stay-home time we never had compared to when we had to commute to work everyday. Using our newfound home time, we saw an opportunity for us to get creative with our passions and to open an intimate, home-based cocktail bar.
The idea of Section D came about somewhat due to the proliferation of private dining. We asked ourselves: why are there so many home-based restaurants but not bars? So as a self-taught bartender, and with plenty of R&D done with my greatest critic Jamie, we decided to start one. I get my inspiration for drinks from the many cocktail bars I visit and by picking the brains of the mixologists I admire. Three years on, it has been a great journey, getting to meet people I never would have had, and collaborating with brands on projects that would never have been possible if not for this endeavour.
I’m actually now on a one-year hiatus because of my newborn, as the house has now become more of a nursery than a bar. But I’m keeping Section D going by collaborating with brands to do things like guest shifts, pop-up bars, menu takeovers, and designing cocktail programmes. It’s a nice breather too, so I can focus a little more on the other hats I wear.
A new dad? Congratulations! And you’re also somewhat of an informal brand ambassador for Compendium Spirits? Share with us what you do for them.
Yeah I work very closely with the local distillery on various things. From using their spirits to come up with cocktail recipes to be served at events, to conducting masterclasses on their bespoke barrel ageing service, Chartered. We even launched Compendium Spirits X Section D home cocktail kits during the pandemic years.
I’ve actually recently joined them on a more formal basis, and you’re the first to hear this! Having worked with them for so many years as an external party, so much so that I’ve become their product expert, it seemed fitting to take the next step. I really admire what they do in terms of pushing the boundaries of the local distilling scene, and I hope that I can take it even further.
Wow, congrats again! So what’s your favourite Compendium Spirits product, and why?
As a Singaporean, it’s fantastic to see products like their Rojak Gin. I love it for how it’s not your typical gin, yet similar enough in terms of boasting a botanical profile, so that it can still be used like you would a usual gin. Try it in a perfect martini, a breakfast negroni, or simply in a gin & tonic. The torch ginger flower aromatics from the gin will trigger nostalgic thoughts about your favourite rojak stall. It’s also meant to showcase the ‘rojakness’ of Singapore culture, and makes for a great conversation starter with friends from overseas.
Speaking of which, do you think Singapore’s fledgling distilling industry is coming of age any time soon? Where do you see Compendium Spirits and other homegrown distilleries in relation to the big imported brands?
This is a close and dear concern of mine. It is actually my dream to see Singapore’s distilling scene form an association of sorts and come into its own one day. Singapore will benefit tremendously from having its own burgeoning spirits industry – just look at Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. Both the macro and craft spirits produced in these countries create a unique allure that benefit their image and economy.
It’s probably still too early to tell when the industry here will come of age, at least in terms of standing toe to toe with the big imported brands. But I think that as long as Singaporeans continue supporting local businesses and craftsmanship for the right reasons, and with the authorities continuing to become more open to such things, there is no reason why Singapore-made spirits won’t one day have its time in the sun.
Among the many hats you wear you’re also editor of our friendly rival independent online publication Spill Mag! Tell us what you do there.
Yes! Before I was a home bartender, and before I formally worked in the alcohol industry, my career for over a decade has been in journalism. I worked in newsrooms, in broadcasting, and in various magazines during the tumultuous years when digital reigned over print. So with my digital editorial skillset, I endeavoured to start my own publication, one that was all about my personal passion, which, you guessed it, is alcohol.
So with Spill, I hope to tell the stories of independent producers more, whether they be distillers, brewers, winemakers, or even farmers. Of course, I write about other alcohol-related things too, but I most enjoy discovering the journey of alcohol from the perspective of the producers. While bars are often where we imbibe, it’s the producers that are creating the actual liquid we all enjoy.
Also, Spill hopes to be educational with columns like ‘How to Drink’, where we go in-depth into a specific bottling. It’s less a review, and more an exploratory feature. I find that such educational content will help the broader industry a lot in the long run.
What are your thoughts of Singapore’s drinks scene, particularly our cocktail scene? What do you think are its key challenges, and where do you see it in the next 5-10 years?
It’s getting harder and harder to stand out as a cocktail bar in Singapore these days. There are just so many good ones! With the bar set so high, where do we go from here? For me, the goal has moved away from having world-class mixology (which is now a baseline) to being able to offer a uniquely local sense of place. That will allow a bar to carry an identity that nowhere else can replicate. It’s not just about offering Singaporean or Southeast Asian flavours in the drinks either, but about creating a bar experience that is completely true to Singapore or their chosen concept.
You’re going to be hosting a number of panel sessions and masterclasses at the upcoming JIU Asia. What will you be sharing there?
I’ll be representing Compendium Spirits to talk about their gins, rums, and whiskies. Some sessions are straightforward, such as the one where I will simply be talking about the unique processes the distillery undertakes that most others don’t do. Some will be controversial, such as the one about Singapore-made whisky. The whisky world is vast and steeped in tradition. For a newcomer like Singapore to create something and shake things up will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows. It should be interesting to hear what others think.
How do you think public events like JIU Asia help in educating spirits enthusiasts?
It has a similar mission to Spill, in terms of being educational and offering alternative views, and perhaps that is why I think there is alignment. Education involves gaining new knowledge, but it also involves unlearning long-held beliefs. Or it can also be about integrating them with an open mind. At JIU Asia, the content programming doesn’t avoid sensitive topics but brings them up for open discussion. That is how the spirits industry can change and evolve, and is also important for both trade and consumers to expose themselves to. The fact that baijiu – one of the most misunderstood spirits out there – is a key feature in the show, is already intriguing to me.
What do you hope to see or learn from JIU Asia?
It’s going to be one of those rare moments where there is a gathering of many baijiu brands, so I’m definitely looking forward to trying at least a few labels. Not many people know this, but I’m a big fan of baijiu cocktails.
Then there are the panel discussions. The one on whisky investing should be interesting to listen to. I’m generally an imbiber before I’m a collector or investor, but with whisky prices skyrocketing, it couldn’t hurt to pick up on a few pointers.
Last, but still important, question. Where are your favourite places in Singapore to drink and dine, and why?
My favourite alcohol is actually sake. While I drink almost everything appreciatively, sake is my first love. I even home brew various types of rice wine as a hobbyist. So naturally, many of my favourite places to drink and dine at are Japanese venues. Yakitori Uma at Orchard Plaza is fantastic for well-seasoned sticks of meat to go with bottles of sake, so is nearby Apollon for their draft sakes and uncommon, bite-sized izakaya fare.
I love Korean restaurant and bar Anju on Tras Street as well. They carry certain Korean spirits that nowhere else does, and which pairs perfectly with their cuisine, thus the venue’s name, which literally means food meant to be had with alcohol.
Most days though, I’m actually a hawker noodle fanatic. I’ll eat hokkien mee, ban mian (especially dry ones), and fish bee hoon soup anytime.
[Photos courtesy of Dannon Har and Compendium Spirits]
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