The Singapore Sling: Colonialism, Gender Roles and Pink Drinks for Pale People

The Singapore Sling / Photo courtesy Raggles Hotel, Singapore
The Singapore Sling / Photo courtesy Raggles Hotel, Singapore

Most cocktail historians agree that the Singapore Sling originated, or at least gained popularity, at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. It was an iconic colonial symbol created by the Sarkies brothers, hoteliers of Armenian descent.

A Chinese bartender, Ngiam Tong Boon, is said to have created the final, widely-accepted recipe for this gin-based cocktail in 1915. It was a pink-hued drink intended for women, for whom public drinking was frowned upon. British colonialism had established many trading posts in the East. This includes Singapore, where high society often adhered to many of the same social norms as Great Britain.

“This was pretty common in many places in the world,” says Jeanette Hurt, cocktail historian and author of Drink Like a Woman (Seal Press, 2016), of society’s contempt for women drinking.

The earliest mention of a generic sling in a Singapore newspaper dates to 1897. “Early versions of these drinks would have been made with little more than spirit, most likely genever or whiskey, sugar and lengthened with water or a mixer like soda water or ginger ale,” says Priscilla Leong, head bartender at Long Bar at Raffles Singapore.

Priscilla Leong, head bartender, Raffles Hotel, Singapore / Photo by Russell Wong
Priscilla Leong, head bartender, Raffles Hotel, Singapore / Photo by Russell Wong

This would mean Boon would have honed his recipe sometime between then and 1915, when he left the hotel.

Drinks historian David Wondrich came across a 1903 reference in the Singapore national archives of “pink slings for pale people.” It indicates a red liqueur like cherry brandy, likely Heering Cherry Liqueur or Bols Cherry Brandy, was used.

According Leong, the cocktail’s roots lie in the gin sling. The drink’s name is believed to be derived from the German word schlingen, which means to drink quickly, or gobble greedily. At the time, the cocktail was usually comprised of gin, lemon or lime juice, sugar and soda water. Most were consumed by women, says Hurt, and as a result, recipes for the cocktail were often included in cookbooks, like Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

The color was about more than visual appeal. During Boon’s tenure, it was designed to fool onlookers into thinking a lady was sipping a refreshing, non-alcoholic punch, at a time when public drinking was gendered and divided by class and race.

“Gin, sugar and lime juice as a consumption cluster are intimately tied to the history of British maritime power, further indicating the colonial history of this drink,” says historian Kerry Knerr.

The color was about more than visual appeal. It was designed to fool onlookers into thinking a lady was sipping a refreshing, non-alcoholic punch, at a time when public drinking was gendered and divided by class and race.

According to Knerr, it was around this time that a proliferation of cordials, liqueurs and bitters were introduced. Improved refrigeration and refining processes meant ice and sugar, two key cocktail ingredients, became more accessible. Bénédictine D.O.M., a key Singapore Sling ingredient, itself contains 27 herbs and spices.

An earlier recipe at Raffles used a tablespoon of simple syrup, which is not included in the current iteration. Sociologist and founder of Pomp & Whimsy gin, Dr. Nicola Nice, explains that this could have been to compensate for poor-quality alcohol used the time. Early gin was also often combined with quinine or citrus juice to treat maladies like malaria or scurvy, and help make bitter, medicinal quinine more palatable. Quality improved in the 1920s and ’30s.

“Gin’s popularity would have spread with the [British Empire] in a symbiotic relationship, as the trade routes made spices and certain fruits like citruses and pineapples more available,” says Nice. “It’s not much of a leap to see how sweeter drinks with exotic ingredients would come to be seen as the preserve of the higher societies.”

The latest version of the Singapore Sling served at Raffles’ Long Bar contains six types of alcohol. And within its cocktail glass still lies the tale of British imperial power, and the story of women who strived for the freedom to consume alcohol as equals, pink or otherwise.

Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, origin of the Singapore Sling / Photo courtesy Raffles Hotel, Singapore
Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, origin of the Singapore Sling / Photo courtesy Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Recipes courtesy Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, Singapore

The early 20th Century Sling at Long Bar, "The Raffles 1915 Gin Sling"
  • 1 ounce Sipsmith Raffles 1915 Gin
  • ½ ounce Luxardo Cherry Sangue Morlacco
  • ½ ounce D.O.M Bénédictine
  • ½ ounce simple syrup
  • ¾ ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Soda water, to top
  • Lime wedge, for garnish
Direction

In cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all ingredients except soda water. Shake vigorously for 15–20 seconds. Pour into chilled highball glass. Top with soda water. Garnish with lime wedge.

The Modern Raffles Singapore Sling
  • 1 ounce Widges London Dry Gin
  • ⅓ ounce Luxardo Cherry Sangue Morlacco
  • ⅓ ounce D.O.M Bénédictine
  • ⅓ ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao
  • ⅓ ounce Crawley’s Singapore Sling Grenadine
  • ¾ ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • 2 ounces fresh-pressed pineapple juice
  • 1 dash of Scrappy’s Plantation Bitters
  • 1 cherry, for garnish
  • 1 pineapple wedge, for garnish
Directions

In cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all ingredients. Shake vigorously for 15–20 seconds. Strain into chilled sling glass filled with ice. Garnish with cherry and pineapple wedge.

Published on September 7, 2019


SUBSCRIBE TO
NEWSLETTERS
The latest wine reviews, trends and recipes plus special offers on wine storage and accessories