Being able to tell stories through craft cocktails and atmospheric bars excites and inspires Priscilla Leong, head bartender, Long Bar, Raffles Hotel.
After completing her Psychology degree in Melbourne more than a decade ago, Priscilla took a gap year in Greece, and returned to Melbourne recharged and intent on pursuing a career where she could make a positive difference to the world. While she had worked at hospitality jobs before, she had never considered bartending as a career.
That is, until a friend introduced her to 1806, a cocktail bar on the outskirts of Melbourne, where she was blown away by the stories weaved into every fabric of the bar’s interiors and beverage programme. That led to her delving further into the world of craft cocktails, later taking up positions at other cocktail bars, starting an earlier version of Berlin Bar, and working as a hospitality consultant with Alembic Concepts, a boutique hospitality industry consultancy firm in Melbourne.
Back in Singapore and taking on the role of head bartender at the newly restored Long Bar at Raffles Hotel since late last year, the 33-year-old is busy revving up the beverage offerings of the iconic bar, and giving new spins to well-loved signatures such as the Singapore Sling.
How did 1806 become an entry point to your career in hospitality?
I’d never been to a cocktail bar before and knew nothing about cocktails apart from what I’d learnt in nightclubs. 1806 in Melbourne was that cocktail bar and it was the most amazing set up that just blew me away. It felt like a step back in time housed in an old theatre restaurant. To say the bar was a stage would not do it justice. The ambience and service was warm, inviting and unobtrusive, something that never really captured my attention in most venues. The banter—informed, intelligent and witty. The menu was laid out with a huge collection of stories that told of classic and forgotten cocktails and how they came about—where they originated from and how they, their ingredients and their creators had an impact on the world. Just as I was leaving the bar, I enquired about getting a job there and they told me to start the week after.
Why did you choose to start a German-themed cocktail bar when you were in Australia?
The first version of Berlin Bar came about as an investment side project for my partner and I back then. It was located in the loft of an art warehouse down a shoddy lane somewhere in Melbourne’s Chinatown. The art warehouse had been converted into an Indie themed nightclub called Eurotrash and the directors of the business needed a hand with running the nightclub. They were also looking to create a fancy private cocktail bar for them and their friends. We honestly didn’t think that a bar with a locked door and members’ only policy would turn into something so successful. It became one of the worst kept secrets in Melbourne for a while. The inspiration for Berlin Bar came from our business partner’s European background and his artistically comedic and ironic attitude towards life. It gave us an opportunity to create a space and beverage programme that was unique to the madness inside this artist’s mind.
Any trends from the Australian bartending scene that’s applicable to the approach you’re taking now?
One of the wonderful global trends that the Australian bartending community has been focusing a lot of attention on is the topic of sustainability and geo-locality, bringing a focal point back to indigenous produce and a ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ attitude towards everything perishable in a bar. This means that everything we plan on using in the bar or in our beverage programmes must have purpose in its place with respect to the lifeline of every single ingredient that mother earth has given us. We have yet to reach Shintoism but we must at least consider the environmental impact that we have on the earth most especially because our industry is one based on luxury and the abundant use of resources.
Part of our sustainability programme involves finding the right suppliers to work with. We have a working relationship with Proof & Company, one of our liquor distributors, who have created an ‘Eco-Spirit™‘ system to help support the large volume of ingredients that we go through on a day to day basis for our Singapore Sling. The bulk of our core ingredients are delivered to us in large format containers and we bottle them onsite at Raffles Hotel. It allows us to reduce the number of glass bottle wastage we would have normally gone through in the past. It also means that the shipment of ingredients from producer to us has less of an environmental carbon footprint due to its lighter weight and less use of space during its transportation. It also means less unnecessary
Since you took up the position of head bartender, how are you been reinvigorating the story of Long Bar?
Part of everything we create should be a show and tell, but it should be story-telling with a purpose. It is an opportunity to showcase something perhaps not many get to see, hear, smell or taste; to be a voice for what has not yet had a voice. I am currently working to conceptualise and develop the beverage programme across all Raffles Hotel Singapore bar and dining experiences. You can most certainly look forward to a showcase of indigenous ingredients from our region and a celebration of local farmers, artisanal spirit and beer producers.
Could you share how the iconic Singapore Sling has evolved from the time it was first created in 1915?
The recipe stays the same. We have elevated the quality of ingredients used in the Singapore Sling and worked with independent producers to create bespoke ingredients that play a subtle part to the story telling of our heritage cocktail. The bitters we use for example, uses nutmeg and mace as a backbone to its ingredient profile, two spices which used to be planted in the plantations surrounding our hotel.
Heritage is such a major theme running through the Raffles Hotel. How conscious are you of this element whenever you’re thinking about new cocktails and drinks?
In relation to creating any drinks programme, I am always looking to incorporate modern techniques into a beverage programme that is sensitive to its surroundings, and only if it benefits the guest experience. That being said, working in such an incredible piece of heritage architecture means that I would never create anything that is going to go against the setting of the space.
Could you share one or two insights or observations about the way craft cocktails are going in Singapore?
Singapore is very much a global city. The trends that you see here are closely aligned with anything you might see in the bigger cities like London, New York and Sydney. Championing local produce and producers, sustainability, and the use of modern technology. It would be good to see Singapore lead the way in the renaissance of the ‘Hotel Bar’.
Being a woman in your industry—has it made a difference to your career progression or day-to-day work life?
I would not know any other way of how my career would have progressed had I not been me. Elements such as privilege, circumstance and challenges affect individuals differently; their responses to it determine the outcome. I personally believe in facing any challenge head on, and seeking a solution for it. My career progression has not been without its challenges, struggles and setbacks, but what lessons would I have learnt had I not hardened up and taken the opportunity to overcome them? I focused on the key characteristics, skills and personality traits I had to strengthen to become a great bartender and leader in the industry, such as resilience, empathy and cultural sensitivity.
How important would you say it is to have a group of fellow women professionals as a support group?
I think for some, it is more necessary than others, especially to feel like there should be somewhere to turn to for support, both professional and personal. Women working in bars encounter different sorts of challenges, such as wage inequality. As a woman working in the industry, I can say it can be challenging, which is why it can feel assuring to be surrounded by strong women who lead the charge for equality.
I personally would like to see a professional support group that is irrespective of gender. In the ideal world, it would be good if we could all come together as one people with one goal of making the world around us better and to find a way to address issues we face in the industry in a safe, fair and professional way.