Of all the gin joints in all the world, Begin stands out as a secret spot on the second level of Boat Quay bar The Penny Black. There’s a good chance you’ve passed by the latter at some point in your Singapore life — it’s been touted as the country’s oldest traditional English pub — but betcha didn’t think the gritty watering hole could house a trendy “concept bar” on its same premises.
To find it, keep an eye out for the neon pink gin sign by the indoor staircase, and brush past the curtains to head upstairs, where you’ll find a completely different aesthetic. It’s rustic chic, it’s gritty industrial, and a little eclectic — it’s got all kinds of little decor details that make the space interesting to gaze at while you nurse your liquor.
According to the folks behind the bar, Begin’s interiors are a nod to the British Industrial Revolution and the gin craze from the 1760s to the 1850s. With a mishmash of exposed brick, concrete walls, copper pipes, multi-colored chairs, retro stools, and a psychedelic wall mural, the cozy enclave offers you a seat at the bar, next to windows that look out on the Singapore River, or on lounge chairs in nooks.
Once you’re settled in, it’s time to pick the poison, your style – neat, with tonic, or in a cocktail. The bar’s collection features more than 50 varieties from across the globe, including local names like Tanglin Gin and Brass Lion Distillery.
As a quick introduction, try the gin flight ($28) of four types, each chosen for its association with its era of origins. Start with Genever, the “foundation of gin”, a basic, easy-to-drink bottle of malt wine and juniper, before you move on to Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, referred to here as “Britain’s discovery of ‘Dutch courage’,” with notes of gingerbread and orange peel.
Next up, Tanqueray London Dry Gin, the most potent of the bunch with a hint of licorice, repping the first gin renaissance. To end off, a familiar name: Hendrick’s, mentioned here as part of the second gin renaissance for its part in stirring up the return of numerous other small bespoke brands.
For minimal alcoholic damage, pair your booze with British-Indian cuisine done up in small plates like the Samboo-sa Pasties ($11/three, a tandoori masala chicken curry pastry-like puff), Nacho Del Goa ($15/five, with butter chicken sauce on grilled prawns and tiny papadums), or Crab Bomb-a ($13/five, crab curry in a crisp shell).
If you’re more of a cocktail person, try the concoctions, which come with their own little presentations that may or may not distract you from the taste. The signature curry- and clove-spiced tequila mix Jagmohan ($25) is served on a platter with the aroma of spices wafting your way from dry ice, a chutney dip, and a couple fried crisps that, sadly, look like they’ve been drowned in oil.
Meanwhile, the stereotypically “girly” floral drink here is Lavender ($25), which comes in a glass jar à la Beauty and the Beast, cloaked by dried lavender-scented smoke, which dissipates to reveal a blend of butterfly pea-infused gin, coconut water, and elderflower. It’s a familiar flavor, and pleasant enough to the palate.
Matcha maniacs can sample the Yukie ($22), a citrusy, creamy combination of gin, fennel, matcha, and lemon that allows you to sip on one side for its egg white froth, and the other for a dusting of green tea. Otherwise, sit back and watch the glowing blaze of Koko ($23), which features cocoa-infused rum, espresso, and orange liqueur, with a dehydrated orange cup that bursts into flames when the server lights the splash of absinthe on fire.
Style over substance, you ask? Perhaps a smidge. The cocktails are decent, though — and who doesn’t love a good show on a night out?
Begin is at 27A Boat Quay, second floor of The Penny Black.
6538-0584. Mon-Sat 5pm-1am.
MRT: Raffles Place