Food & Beverage

A 'cocktail evolution' hits Asian cities

Melissa Goh and Rohini Nambiar | Special to CNBC
Bottoms up: Singapore's burgeoning cocktail scene
Bottoms up: Singapore's burgeoning cocktail scene

Asia's cocktail scene has undergone a total "evolution," according to the head of one of the largest bar chains in Singapore.

Nasen Xavier Thiagarajan, CEO of Harry's International, told CNBC last week that a new generation of smaller bars, offering unique concepts and artisanal drinks has energized the space in the last five to 10 years.

Harry's International, which has been around since 1992, owns 19 bars nationwide, and also has a presence in India and Myanmar.

Last year, the alcoholic beverage industry in Asia Pacific was valued at $234 billion, up from $200 billion from the year before, according Euromonitor International. And more bars in Asia-Pacific are making their name globally: 2016 saw nine Asia-Pacific bars on Drinks International's list of World's 50 Best Bars.

Along with this growth, consumers are increasingly looking for bars that offer more than just a cold drink — they're searching for immersive experiences that tingle all five senses.

Two individuals saw an opportunity in that and conceptualized the idea of a "Singapore Cocktail Festival" that could offer bar-goers spirit masterclasses, themed cocktail rooms and bar tours that would provide a platform for consumers to "taste, learn and play."

Gin cocktails.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

This year's six-day long festival began Thursday and gathers renowned bartenders from all over the world. In facilitating this exchange of talent and skills, the event aims to position Singapore as a leading cocktail city in Asia.

"There definitely is an elevation in terms of craft from the bartenders side," and "a greater appreciation of the cocktails that are being served today," Ivy Woo, co-founder and director of the festival, told CNBC.

Indeed, it is events like the festival that have enabled industry professionals to share their knowledge and passion for the craft. Philip Bischoff, bar manager at the Manhattan Bar in Singapore, said he attributes his bar's success to the "community spirit" that exists in the industry. The bar was named Asia's best for 2016 at the World's 50 Best Bar Awards.

Growth of the cocktail scene in Asia

Shawn Chong, a guest bartender from Malaysia at this year's festival, said he thinks it is the large expatriate talent pool, high tourist traffic, as well as an active efforts by spirit brands to build a presence in Asia that has helped to propel the local bar scene.

Beyond Singapore, he sees opportunities in Bangkok, Jakarta and Bali, and also emerging markets like Myanmar and Cambodia where the mixed drinks business is fast gaining traction. "What is great about all these bars is that they somehow are able to create identities that are special to the nation they are in," said Chong, who is also the founder of Omakase + Appreciate, a speakeasy bar in Kuala Lumpur.

Singapore's next top cocktail

A main feature of the festival is the search for Singapore's next top cocktail to replace the century-old Singapore Sling, by challenging local bars to create a cocktail that embodies the essence of Singapore.

Adventurous concoctions featuring local flavors such as chicken rice, curry, pineapple tarts, and "kopi" — coffee in local parlance — are going head-to-head in the battle to emerge as Singapore's next cocktail.

Woo, who sits on the panel of judges, told CNBC that she is looking for a cocktail that "can travel the world" but still recall Singapore's "familiar flavors and taste."

But some like Bischoff, remain skeptical. "The idea of that quest to find Singapore's next top cocktail is great in general," but "only time will tell if the creation of a drink will stand for generations to come," he told CNBC in an email.

The Singapore Cocktail Festival runs until Tuesday, with the free-to-enter festival village open until Sunday.

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