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Singapore’s taste for Japanese drinks

by Melinda Joe

On my recent trip to Singapore, Japanese drinks seemed to follow me everywhere. At Jigger & Pony, a stylish new cocktail bar in an old part of Chinatown, the first thing I noticed was the selection of around 20 Suntory and Nikka whiskies that lined the backlit shelves, along with Coedo beer. Perhaps it was a fluke, I thought — after all, the bar manager, Akihiro Eguchi, is Japanese.

“Japanese whisky is really popular now,” he told me before adding, “A lot of bars are using Japanese drinks such as sake to make cocktails, too.”

Singapore’s Joo Chiat neighborhood, known for its hawker fare and colonial architecture, was the last place I’d expected to find a restaurant serving Japanese whisky. But local chef Damian Da Silva insists that it’s the best match for the spicy Peranakan cuisine he serves at his Immigrants Gastrobar. When asked for a drink recommendation, the chef brought out a glass of Nikka From the Barrel Single Cask.

“Whisky has the strength and richness to stand up to the strong flavors and spice,” he explained. “Japanese whisky is particularly suited to the Singaporean palate.”

I had my doubts. Past experiences have taught me that high-alcohol drinks tend to accentuate hot spices to an unpalatable degree. Da Silva’s Squid Bombs — made with two kinds of chili — come with a warning, and my first bite had confirmed that the words of caution were justified. After an initial burst of heat, though, the nutty character of the whisky complemented the complexity of the spice paste, highlighting the sweetness of the tamarind and underscoring the umami of the shrimp paste.

Immigrants Gastrobar offers around nine single malt and blended whiskies from Nikka and Suntory. There’s also a selection of Japanese craft beers from Hitachino Nest, and Da Silva hit me with another surprise on my way out: The restaurant will start serving sake in the spring.

Although sake has been slower to catch on than Japanese whisky in Singapore, interest is growing. Francisco Galdeano, head sommelier at Waku Ghin, the Japanese fusion restaurant helmed by celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda, says that the drink’s versatility appeals to local chefs and customers alike.

“Guests are keen to try sake and will often ask for it when they come here,” he told me. “High-end European-style restaurants like (Wolfgang Puck’s) Cut, Sky on 57 and André also serve sake.”

Waku Ghin stocks more than 40 varieties of sake, mostly in the daiginjō range, including two private-label brands: Masuizumi Platinum, an expressive, unpasteurized namazake from Toyama Prefecture; and Isojiman M, a rich, dry brew from Shizuoka Prefecture.

On my last night, I paid a visit to Jiu Zhuang, a new bar hidden in the Dempsey Hill shopping and restaurant complex in the northwest part of the city. The interior resembles a modern Chinese speakeasy, and the dim sum bar menu mirrors the chinoiserie-inspired decor. As the waiter brought our dishes of xiao long bao soup dumplings spiked with whiskey, pan-fried guo tie dumplings filled with pork and foie gras, and steamed dumplings with baby abalone and shrimp, he suggested that we try the food with a bottle of Onnajoshu, a daiginjō with gold flakes from Iwamura Brewery in Gifu Prefecture. And just like that, sake had found me at last.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.