There's serious drinking and there's not serious drinking, and
the Singapore sling is definitely No. 2. Sitting beneath the blowfish
lamps at Otto's Shrunken Head Tiki Bar and Lounge on East 14th Street,
knees bumping split bamboo, how could you think otherwise? Martini
experts, go suck an olive.
On Wednesday evening, Otto's was as deserted as an atoll. The
bartender talked to a patron about copyrighting photographs.
"A photograph's a photograph, right?" she said. A woman
being stood up played Nina Simone on the jukebox until people started
arriving and the tunes turned to memory-lane alternative music like
the Dead Kennedys - practically singalong for the early-30's crowd.
for fun. Otto's bills the Singapore sling as a "South Seas
favorite" that is "lite and refreshing." The drink
is basically gin and cherry brandy, like a version of Coke that
Atlanta executives never got up the nerve to bottle. It is lite
indeed - so sodalike that it tastes underage. You get carded two
drinks later, when the gin hits and the brandy starts to hula.
The cocktail, invented in 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon, a bartender
at Raffles Hotel in Singapore, as legend reports it, has more variations
than a lineup in a brothel. Pineapple, Triple Sec - you like it,
Steve Pang, an owner of Otto's, presents an honest Singapore sling,
as simple and true to form as a sarong. The parasol and grass-skirt
sipping straw are a concession to the drink's association with the
Polynesian cocktail craze of the 1940's and 50's, which produced
the Mai Tai, a Trader Vic's specialty, and the Zombie. It cannot
be coincidental that an era that watched a Pacific theater of war,
revisited by atomic weapon testing, thought to comfort itself with
nostalgia for things native, creating island cocktails.
At Otto's, Singapore slings are selling. The house punch, Pang's
Punch, is popular. In a world being shaken and stirred, drinking
is a little less concerned with its own sophistications. The subject
is, for now, not academic.
On Wednesday night, a small friendly room with a jukebox, not
a television set, decorated as if it were in the middle of the ocean
and not the desert, with the kind of silly-cocktails costuming that
could have entertained even troops, seemed exactly the place to
be in April 2003.
Photo by Philip Greenberg for The
New York Times