First published on 16 Nov 2012. Updated on 16 Nov 2012.
Stefan Ravalli’s new cocktail bar is so secret, it doesn’t even have a name – but we'll go ahead and call it 47 Keong Saik Road. Inspired by speakeasies, places were alcohol was sold discreetly during the Prohibition Era in the United States, this bar is hidden behind a false front and requires a password to enter. But beyond the hype of the secret entrance, we’re just as excited about Ravalli’s whimsical, super playful cocktail concoctions.
The Canadian bartender – not mixologist, as his menu says by way of opening (also adding ‘We’re not bartender poets. We can’t juggle... But we do love making drinks’) – arrives in Singapore via Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social in London and Australia, where he began experimenting with his brand of fun, silly drinks, integrating tiki libations into the polished classics on the menu at Sydney’s Victoria Room. Atherton, incidentally, runs Keong Saik Snacks next door and Esquina tapas bar across the street.
Here, Ravalli tells us about the drinks he’s designed for Singapore and what he intends to contribute to the bar scene.
What would you say are your specialisations?
That’s a difficult question to answer because I think the hallmark of a good bartender is flexibility of being able to make anything for anybody, while chatting and having a laugh. If I had to name a few special skills I would say over the years I have really honed a do-it-yourself sensibility.
In Canada the entire alcoholic supply chain is run by the government, which has served to starve the market of variety – so anything I couldn’t get my hands on I would just make myself. Then I just started making most ingredients myself – syrups, liqueurs, bitters, with the exception of stuff like Chartreuse, because they still refuse to give me the names and addresses of the three people in the world that know the recipe.
And because it both gave me ultimate control over my product and was just more fun that way. I also pride myself in being able to break people into something they’ve never had before and otherwise wouldn’t because the ingredients are too inaccessible. I love slamming obscure Italian herbal liqueurs into seasonal fruits. The drinks come out charming and approachable, but have an indescribable character.
Your drinks have really interesting ingredients and some fun serving methods. Could you take us through your thought process for them?
There are a million different vessels you can put a cocktail in, and every cocktail demands its own unique delivery system. Something like the Moshi Moshi Umeboshi is a play on the classic Ramos Gin Fizz, which is a fizzy gin drink with cream. I decided to make the drink Asian and use things like coconut milk instead. The gin was substituted for a fantastic sake aged in cedar barrels, which has lovely peppery-spicy character to it. Since the drink looks like a glass of milk and there is an endless amount of funlooking cookies here I thought why not make it look like milk and cookies?
I don’t think that in itself is a particularly compelling concept for a drink, but what got me interested was the fact that milk and cookies is probably not as much of a cultural fixture here. So the bottle it’s in is not a traditional western milk bottle but simply something that suggests a milk bottle, and the cookies we use are not traditionally paired with milk and maybe better enjoyed with green tea. So it’s something familiar and strange at the same time – an Asian take on milk and cookies. It doesn’t otherwise exist, so I just imagined what it would be like, which is way more fun.
What inspired the presentation and the flavour of your cocktails – for example, where did you get the idea for clipping a secret note to your Top Secret cocktail?
The Top Secret is a play on the classic Secret Cocktail, which was historically the code word for the Pink Lady, a notoriously un-masculine drink to order. So they didn’t have to be heard ordering a Pink Lady, gentlemen would simply order a Secret Cocktail and the bartender would know what he was talking about. It was the classic guilty pleasure. Regardless, if one adheres to the classical recipe the drink is actually delicious and well-structured and really not that girly.
Rather than just using a splash of Calvados, I based it around the spirit and used a very unique un-aged version straight from the still-no-oak treatment. It’s a lot fresher tasting and just makes sense with the tang of yogurt powder and the sort of floral-rhubarb-y brightness of Aperol.
Cocktails are one of those things that people find to be very revealing about what kind of person they are. They’re like tattoos or iPod playlists. No man at the time was prepared to betray the soft interior that the Pink Lady suggested. Now I think gender boundaries are loosening up a bit when it comes to cocktails, but I still want the drink to suggest an act of deviancy. So each Top Secret comes with its own unique message inside a confidential envelope. Some are written on the spot and some drawn from a pile. Some might reveal more about you than you’re prepared for.
What about your drink containers (like the mini bathtub that the Shrub-A-Dub-Dub comes in) – where do you source them from?
A lot of things like those beautiful copper mugs and julep cups are imported from London. eBay auctions and general web-scouring take up a lot of my time, not to mention digging through antique shops. Our dry ice coasters were custom made for us. Our company motto seems to be when in doubt, have it fabricated. Which is often what you have to do when you say things like, ‘this cocktail needs to go in a bathtub’. Some vessels I’ve found in rather unexpected places. You never know where you might happen upon something that figures into your cocktail program.
With these presentation styles, what reaction do you hope to get from your drinker?
Entering our bar already feels like your crossing the threshold into another world, so our drinks follow through on that feeling that you have been transported somewhere. At the very least I want a giggle or a furrowed brow. Otherwise it’s just a puddle of liquid. I heard one guest say, ‘I feel like I’m in Alice in Wonderland’. Awesome.
What do you hope to contribute to the local cocktail scene?
It’s hard to say. Some amazing work is already being done here. Tippling Club was way ahead of its time and has been taking things to the very limit for years now. 28 HongKong Street and La Maison du Whisky have some pretty awe-inspiring booze libraries behind them. Jigger & Pony have Japanese technique pretty much down. I just hope to give my guests a sense of playfulness and imagination that they’ve perhaps not experienced before.
You can get the password for the month by asking any of the staff at Keong Saik Snacks or Esquina.