SmartShanghai: Introduce yourself!
Leon Tan: My name is Leon Tan, I'm the head bartender at this small cocktail bar called Native on Amoy Street in Singapore. Been open slightly more than two-and-a-half-years now.
We work with local and regional craftsmen, down to our playlist, ceramics, aprons, the whole workspace in general, even using local woods and carpenters. That also extends to the spirits that we carry. You'll find gins made in Singapore, the Philippines, rums from Cambodia, Thailand, whiskeys from Bhutan, Taiwan and India [Ed's Note: while the team brought all kinds of exotic ingredients with them, they couldn't bring their own alcohols into China. However, they tweak their drinks to match Ritz's booze cabinet]. Basically, we want to highlight that there are people locally and regionally who know what they're doing.
SmSh: Do you feel that's something people don't know?
LT: For sure. Singapore's a very, very young nation. The whole economy was built on imports and exports, and humans are always looking outwards rather than inwards, right? East looks West and West looks East. Singapore is definitely a food destination, but as a beverage industry it's still been growing in the last five years. We feel like local producers aren't represented in Singapore; there's no real platform for it.
I wouldn't say Native is the first, but we're the first to do it to such an extent.
SmSh: Does it ever feel like that's a limitation? Bigger brands have more experience and more resources in supporting bars, do you ever get a moment where you're like "gah why does this have to be so hard."
LT: I'm going to disagree, I wouldn't say that's a restriction or a limitation, I'd say that's where we can expand. In every business there will be challenges, and to be sure, there are some challenges the bigger conglomerates and establishments might not have, but I think what's special is our small team of passionate members working with like-minded, passionate people.
SmSh: Talk to me about responsible bartending.
LT: We try to give all our produce and product a second or third life. For example, when we do a cocktail with sous-vide pineapple. The flesh goes in the garnish, but people will normally discard the skins. So the first few times we had this cocktail, we'd turn it into a compost. However, we've been making too much compost for our little urban garden, even though we've been giving it away. So we lacto-fermented the skins further with our leftover whey, and we'd serve it as a welcome drink.
We're always trying to close the loop. Recycling, upcycling, composting and even foraging is an element that's really missing in a young metropolitan city like Singapore. We don't want it to be special — the idea is to make it normal. That's the goal. Once it's normal, hopefully that'll push us as Native to go further.
SmSh: Okay, further, that's cool, but... why ants. [Native got quite a bit of press in the early days for putting ants in a cocktail.]
LT: I'll tell you! We don't have any lemons or limes at the bar because we couldn't compost the husks. Compost doesn't like the acidity [the debate on putting citrus in compost is lively], so we were looking for alternative souring and acidic agents to balance our cocktails. We were doing kombuchas and such, but ants have a natural formic acid, which tastes sour. So that's why we used ants.
SmSh: So can we––
LT: It hasn't been on the menu for quite a while.
SmSh: Ah. That's a shame. I was looking forward to that. Got anything else weird?
LT: We've got an oyster cocktail? It comes from an island off Singapore, where there's a very popular local dish called oyster omelet, which is how the locals eat their oysters, with eggs, some chili, kalamansi, so we made a cocktail inspired by that. Plus, we crush up the oyster shells and give it to our ceramic artists to make a glaze.
We have a little lab. That's where we spend most of our day experimenting before we open up in the evenings. It's 100% trial and error.
SmSh: So what's your biggest fuck-up?
LT: Uhh... we've done some of our own meads, fermented honey wines, using a honey native to Southeast Asia called Trigona. We were naturally fermenting it with some wild yeasts, some wild fruits, and we were using durian. Do you know durian?
SmSh: Boy do I.
LT: It went really bad. It tasted great, don't get me wrong, I just don't know how it's going to be put in a cocktail yet, but the issue was that it was so volatile that it blew up in the lab.
SmSh: ... neat!
LT: Yeah, all fermentations release a lot of heat, a lot of pressure, so we had a couple of hours cleaning it down. Our lab smelled like durian basically. So that's the strongest... "memory."
SmSh: What's your secret for sleeping on planes?
LT: Work long hours when you're not on a plane.
Bartenders Leon and Shihao are representing Native at the pop-up inside the Ritz Bar & Lounge from 6pm-midnight every night until (and including) Saturday. Cocktails cost about 118rmb.