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While sitting at the bar of Singapore’s new Native bar, it was hard not to be impressed by the overriding ethos of owner and bartender Vijay Mudaliar. In short, he’s only using products and produce that he can source within surrounding countries in Southeast Asia and, in some cases, in the immediate vicinity of his bar. That means daily expeditions to forage local ingredients that will be used in the obscure sounding concoctions on his very creative menu.
The first drink I had was simply called the Antz (an Instagram hit if ever there was one), akin to something you might see on the plate of a forward-thinking Nordic restaurant. It was indeed topped with actual ants from Thailand. In the drink itself, there are locally foraged weaver ants that are used for their bright acidity, an agricole-style rum from Phuket called Chalong Bay and tapioca from a local farm—pretty tasty, in case you were wondering.
“I was very inspired by the restaurant D.O.M. in Brazil, where they use ingredients available only from the Amazonian region,” says Mudaliar. Singapore has a climate that’s very similar to the Amazon’s. When I learned to open my eyes and question my surroundings, I started to find more and more ingredients that I could use.”
His approach is garnering critical acclaim both home and abroad. Mudaliar was recently one of the international guest speakers at the Paris bar show Cocktails Spirits, where he delivered his message to many of the world’s bar luminaries.
“I want people to know what they are drinking,” says Mudaliar “I think cocktails, like food, taste better and leave an impact when you know their context and their story. I want our guests to know that the produce we have in the region is high-quality and made with heart, sincerity and passion. I want to be at the frontline of this movement and be a part of a change in the way we seek out and consume gastronomic experiences.”
Mudaliar has an acute focus on knowing the provenance of his ingredients. He sources some of them, literally by hand, so he can more easily track and control where they come from. All the spirits are from Southeast Asia (or Singapore itself), allowing him to visit the producers and create a rapport with them. Affable and extremely welcoming, Mudaliar speaks with a passion and conviction that’s infectious. It’s hard not to be impressed by the man’s commitment to the cause.
Pouring nitrogen at Native
Musaliar isn’t the first barman to bang the locavore drum, but he’s certainly taking the game to new heights. “When I realized that we didn’t have to look too far for ingredients, I started to think that maybe I can extend this ideal to the spirits that I use in my cocktails,” he says. “This grew like a ripple effect, and before I knew it, my cups were made by a local potter, our aprons and furniture were done by local craftsmen, and the bar’s playlist is a mix of local and regional musicians. Even our coasters are made from dried lotus leaves.”
Knowing the provenance of ingredients, whether it be fresh produce or the spirits themselves, has become a driving force behind the ideology of some of the world’s great bartenders. It has been happening in kitchens for some time, but now that movement has extended to the bar and with profound results.
Jennifer Colliau, who has worked at several of San Francisco’s top bars and currently leads the beverage program at The Interval, is an avid and vocal proponent of this movement. “It’s weird how folks will ask if the fish is farmed or wild-caught, then order an Appletini to go with it,” says Colliau. “Certainly on the West Coast, we’ve been pushing for the level of integrity in cocktail ingredients as chefs have insisted upon for years. It’s easier here, being among the Chez Panisse specter of influence. I think it’s fantastic that guests are really coming around and appreciate the care that we put into sourcing ingredients with integrity, both for produce and for the spirits themselves.
Thad Vogler, the owner of San Francisco’s Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, is one of the Bay Area’s pioneers of the modern cocktail movement, having opened many of the city’s top drinking establishments. “Spirits are food,” he says. “They come from materials that grow in the ground. At its heart, spirits making is just another way to put leftover produce to use before it spoils. If a farmer had too many pears at the end of the fall, he or she could ferment and distill them rather than wasting fruit they’d spent a year cultivating. Like a bottle of vintage wine or jar of pickles, a well-made spirit honors a certain time and place. The distillers I love share something with the best apple growers, dairy farmers and cheesemakers: They are makers, not scientists aspiring to a perfect consistency of flavor over millions of bottles that will be distributed over all seven continents.”
In Paris, one of that city’s great bar personalities, Sullivan Doh, created quite a stir when he opened Le Syndicat almost three years ago. His approach: to only carry spirits and liqueurs that were produced in France or in French colonies. Tired of Parisians ignoring many of the wonderful products made at their doorstep, he decided to do something about it. “We opened Le Syndicat with a strong and unique idea by promoting and showcasing the diversity we have in France, though very few people pay attention to that,” he says. “A lot of what we make is either exported or is never appreciated or understood outside of the tiny town in which it’s made.”
Doh regularly takes trips to meet producers, sometimes traveling as far as Martinique and Guadeloupe, home of rhum agricole. “It’s important that I go to the source,” he says. “Then I can talk about the products and better understand their philosophies, so when I’m back in Paris, I can share my knowledge and educate my guests. Right now, I’d say I’ve met 80 percent of the producers on my back bar.”
At Native, Mudaliar is excited to embrace the back-to-the-backyard bar movement. “ I’ve always harbored a fantasy of having a bar that was fully sustainable, to make use of each ingredient to its full capabilities. I wanted a bar that placed emphasis on the process, the journey and the story, instead of just a pretty cocktail.”