Covert ops that will shake up your palate

SENSORY DELIGHT: At The Bar Council, owner Mark Tay whips up every drink to order, piquing your senses with his well-honed molecular gastronomy skills.


    May 19, 2014

    Covert ops that will shake up your palate

    FOR a private drink away from the public eye, check out these new under-the-radar watering holes.


    #B1-01, 7 Ann Siang Hill

    Opens next month

    Set to open soon, the basement bar is named after Operation Dagger, an initiative launched by the police in the late 1950s to rid the island of gangs and secret societies.

    It took weeks of persistent hounding to convince the bar to agree to be featured. That is because it is not meant to be a place for everyone, executive bartender Luke Whearty says of his reticence.

    "Not everyone will understand what we are doing. We're even prepared for people to hate us," explains the 30-year-old Australian, a transplant from progressive Melbourne bar Der Raum.

    Even though the bar has every mark of a speakeasy - from its lack of a signboard (look out for the rectangle and inverted crown chalked near its entrance; the symbol is inspired by "hobo code", a secret language used by homeless people to communicate with one another) to its very Prohibition era-style underground venue - Mr Whearty says it did not set out to be one.

    "We don't want to claim to be a speakeasy and yet have a public Facebook page. At the end of the day, we are a business, we do want attention."

    Just not from everyone, it seems. The hesitancy regarding mainstream marketing, Mr Whearty says, stems from wanting "to attract only the people who appreciate what we are doing to seek us out".

    You get what he means the moment you step into the 1,000 sq ft space - concrete bomb shelter meets dimly lit dungeon meets mad scientist's lab. In other words, it is anything but a conventional cocktail bar. For a year, the 32-seat space was used as a storeroom for sister restaurant Oxwell & Co just across the road. The owners turned their attention here after operations at Oxwell stabilised.

    You won't find the usual "safety drinks" - recognisable, commercial alcohol labels - displayed behind the bar, says Mr Whearty. In their place sit shelves of medicinal-looking brown glass bottles marked with obscure symbols. The symbols - S for spirit, a circle for fruit and a circle encasing smaller circles for spices - take a leaf out of El Bulli's sketchbook. (To tackle the growing language gap between the chefs and trainees on his team, Ferran Adria decided to use hieroglyphics to label his kitchen larder.)

    The goal at Operation Dagger is to keep - as far as possible - the spirits, liqueurs and bitters entirely in-house. To do this, the bar combines traditional techniques such as bottle fermentation with modern gadgets such as rotary evaporators and sous vide machines that sit within a gated alcove at the back of the space.

    Every day, the four-man team spends two hours in the afternoon experimenting with new flavours. Clipboards hung, laboratory-like, on the back wall chart its progress - making mead out of honey and water (the team has plans to rear its own bees eventually to make its own honey), bottle-fermenting cocktails with champagne yeast, distilling clear spirit from toasted sesame or infusing rye whisky with fresh bananas.

    The best way to drink everything in is to go for the "omakase" set. For $120 per person, the bar will send out a mix of cocktails and "raw expressions", or samples of the day's infusions, homemade mead or distilled spirits, until you've had your fill.

    Meanwhile, a limited a la carte cocktail menu, cheekily labelled "dangerous drinking water", is designed to "get people thinking out of the box". It does not state the base spirit that goes in each cocktail ($22 to $25), merely the accompanying ingredients.

    "When you come to Operation Dagger, nothing will be familiar. We want to get people to think about their drinks in terms of flavour rather than what brands they know," Mr Whearty says.

    "You may or may not like your drink, but at least you can leave here saying you've tried something new," he explains.

    And if you are really not so inclined, there is a small list of beers and wines, to which you can add bar snacks such as kale crisps, pickled cucumbers and chicken karaage that go for $5 to $12.

    "You can nerd out and go into the details of how a drink is made, or just enjoy it as it is," Mr Whearty says. "Because at the end of the day, it's just drinks. We want everyone to have fun."


    275A Outram Road

    Open for two seatings, 7-10pm and 10pm-1am daily, from Tues to Sat, by appointment only


    French bakery? Check. Third wave coffee joint? Check. Cupcake shop? Check and check. The only thing Tiong Bahru seems to be missing now is a speakeasy - or maybe not.

    A stone's throw from the heart of the de facto hipster 'hood sits The Bar Council - a watering hole so covert, you'll need to know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody to get a foot in.

    That final somebody, it turns out, is Mark Tay. According to the managing director and founder of beverage consultancy BarSmiths, the "secret bar" wasn't created to be a secret - or even a bar at all.

    Occupying an open 400 sq ft area of an Outram Road shophouse, the bar - which has a custom-built beverage counter, a pantry area and an outdoor balcony - serves primarily as an office, a training space and a research lab for Mr Tay's business.

    Before moving into the space in November last year, he ran the five-year-old company from his Pasir Ris home. Sharing the unit are two ad agencies, GOVT and Hustla & Co, whose founders are close friends, says Mr Tay.

    "Whenever their clients came for meetings, they would see our bar area and ask if we could make them a drink," he recalls. "We started to get more and more requests, so we decided to open it up as a speakeasy to friends and associates."

    To avoid interfering with daily operations at the two agencies, The Bar Council takes visitors only after office hours, accommodating up to 20 people in two seatings nightly. Alternatively, the entire floor can be booked for private celebrations or wedding after-parties for up to 100 people, with one to two weeks' notice.

    The Bar Council specialises in what Mr Tay calls "multi-sensory cocktails" that ride heavily on molecular gastronomy techniques. There is no menu here - the drinks are all made bespoke.

    Or you could ask Mr Tay, 39, to whip up some of the signature creations he has crafted during his 14 years behind the stick. Try the Elyx Tropics - a concoction he created as the local brand ambassador for Absolut vodka - which combines pineapple juice, orgeat syrup and chocolate bitters. He is also known for his range of bottle-aged cocktails such as the Smoky Havana, which stirs together Havana Club rum, vermouth and aperol smoked with white oak chips, dehydrated orange peel and cinnamon.

    Payment operates on a "tip what you think your drink is worth" system "because I don't know how to charge friends", says Mr Tay.

    When asked about the potential for abuse, he laughs: "Sure, you can pay only $2 after drinking cocktails the whole night, but will we take your reservation the next time you want to come back? Maybe not."