A Toast to Bespoke CocktailsWritten by Daniel L
Famed mixologist Ethan Leslie Leong is changing the way we drink, serving up one-of-a-kind cocktails at his Singapore-based establishment.
Singapore’s cosmopolitan nightlife is underscored by a growing list of cocktail bars, and one of the first movers and shakers to have made their mark on the scene is Maison Ikkoku, an upscale watering hole headed by mixologist Ethan Leslie Leong. Creating cocktails that capture the imagination, Ethan is leading the charge for cocktail appreciation both within and beyond the shores of Singapore.
Mixology and the art of cocktail design wasn’t always on the cards for Ethan. Originally a chef, it was a chance encounter that opened the doors to something entirely new. “A friend recommended me for a bartending job, and I landed it despite having no experience,” he recalls. “I learnt the basic bartending skills, which included awareness of what the customer wants, showmanship to entertain them, as well as knowledge, speed, and efficiency behind the counter.” He went on to represent Singapore at the International Flair Competition 1997, winning Bartender of the Year in 1998 before seeing his career take off.
From then to now has not been a straight line of successes. Ethan admits to having his fair share of difficulties. Taking both the good and the bad in his stride, however, the now 42-year-old continued to finesse his bartending along the way, and in 2011 made the decision to focus solely on bespoke cocktails, a relatively new concept that forgoes traditions for never-before-seen creations. And so Maison Ikkoku was born.
Located in the heart of Kampong Glam, one of Singapore’s famed conservation districts, Maison Ikkoku occupies a three-storey conservation shophouse. Its name is an amalgamation of the French word maison, which means ‘house’, and ikkoku, Japanese for ‘moment’. “Maison Ikkoku is a ‘house of moments’ that’s all about gathering people in one place to have a good time,” explains Ethan. Reminiscent of a multi-label concept store, the ground floor is home to a semi fine-dining area. Ethan’s sandbox for cocktail-making lies a floor above, where the bar and a line of alcohol bottles and cocktail-making paraphernalia take centrestage.
You won’t find a cocktail menu or the usual concoctions at this establishment. Such standards do not befit the man who once crafted Asia’s most expensive cocktail, “The Jewel of Pangaea”, that cost a whopping S$32,000. Instead, Ethan and his team focus on understanding your personality and identifying your taste through conversation. Then comes the magic of watching them put together seemingly random ingredients and producing a fine, one-of-a-kind drink that speaks to your senses, for around S$25-32 a cocktail. “Making a bespoke cocktail is a lot like cooking. You have to understand the ingredients’ flavours and how well they pair with others,” he explains. For him, those ingredients could be anything from liquid nitrogen to the makings of a crème brûlée. “Traditional cocktails are created using mainly cold methods, but I’ve invented techniques that use heat to extract the full flavour from herbs and such.”
These days, visitors don’t necessarily want to be passengers —they want to be in the hot seat as well, and Ethan is more than happy to share his passion. “We open up classes for people to understand how we create certain drinks, have fun and mix drinks of their own,” he says. Beyond these classes, he also doubles up as an F&B consultant and holds private mixology workshops for major corporations, fashion labels and special events through which he’s rubbed shoulders with local and international celebrities alike, among them Paris Hilton and Karen Mok.
With bespoke cocktail bars sprouting up islandwide, one wonders if Ethan ever feels threatened by the competition. “Not at all. The opening of more cocktail bars is a good sign that the scene is blooming and the market is ripe,” he tells us. “You need these bars to educate people and there are enough consumers to go around.” Next up on his agenda is expansion, with plans to franchise the Maison Ikkoku brand and take it to Melbourne, Tokyo and London. “It’ll be interesting to see how people in other countries perceive our concept of bespoke cocktails,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is difficult, but you must have a dream in order to make it come true.”