Drinking in Bangkok can often be an education but is it possible to successfully riff on a much-loved staple that every bartender worth their salt knows well?
There is no shortage of places to get a drink in Bangkok, from the gleaming rooftops of Sathorn to the chic lounges of Thong Lor to the makeshift bars that spring up after dark all along Sukhumvit and its main sois. Indeed, one of those mobile shanty bars on Sukhumvit soi 11 has become one of my favourite haunts – once the sun goes down, one middle-aged Thai guy works his bar by himself and although his preferred soundtrack of 80s and 90s power ballads is questionable, the quality of his cocktails is truly surprising.
Many evenings, I’ve sat on one of his stools, knocking back Negronis for just B100 and told myself that more expensive places would surely struggle to do any better. Hence, I set out in Bangkok with that challenge in mind: to find the perfect Negroni.
My inquiries eventually lead me to the St Regis Bar, on level 12 of the hotel of the same name, overlooking the grounds of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club in Pathum Wan. Here, I meet Suwincha Sinsuwan – or Cha Cha – their head bartender, who earlier this year finished in the top eight in the Bacardi Legacy, a global cocktail-making competition that took her to Puerto Rico after being crowned Thailand’s national champion.
“It’s not easy to be a bartender in a conservative country like Thailand,” she says. “Especially for a female – I use my passion to drive me forward.”
Upon hearing about her award-winning signature drink, the Wind-Up Chronicle, I decide the perfect Negroni can wait for a little while and instead settle in for a crash course in mixing drinks.
“The drink had to be timeless,” she explains. “Easy, not too complicated. I keep it simple – I avoid using fancy liqueurs. They’ll give you a headache the next day. A good drink doesn’t need to be sweet or sour – it just needs to be well-balanced.”
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle uses the standard Barcardi as well as Bacardi black, which, as Cha Cha explains, “gives it that caramel aroma”. Add a shot of espresso, a nip of cognac, a pinch of sugar and garnish with cardamom and Cha Cha’s rich, velvety concoction is ready to be enjoyed with a cigar. Importantly, there’s no ice because a smoker’s drink needs to survive outside and, in Thailand, ice doesn’t last too long when removed from air-conditioned comfort.
We’re just getting started, though. Next up is the Tiki Cocktail – again using the delicious Bacardi black as a base, spiked with lime juice and cinnamon syrup. The surprise addition, though, is a shot of Averna, an unfashionable herbal liqueur often regarded, in Cha Cha’s words, as “an old person’s drink”.
Flavour-wise, it’s in the same neighbourhood as Jagermeister, without the slick aniseed aftertaste.
The result is something like a mojito but vastly more interesting – with a combination of flavours that doesn’t get lost in the lime and sugar syrup. And the Averna, unfashionable or not, is an absolute winner. By now, my search for the perfect Negroni has branched off into a boozy, delicious tangent but when Cha Cha explains that our next drink to make is a Hot Toddy, I can’t help but feel a sense of anti-climax. I’ve spent enough time enough time in London pubs to be dismissively familiar with this staple – it’s just whiskey, hot water and some lemon juice – maybe some honey, cinnamon or cloves for the more demanding drinker. But really, it all sounds a bit too straightforward for a bartender of Cha Cha’s skill.
And that’s when she produces her coffee sipher machine, a bizarre-looking contraption with two connected chambers that we’re going to use to redistill the whiskey.
“In a hot toddy, you don’t want to use an islay whiskey or anything too peaty,” Cha Cha explains. “That whiskey is drunk neat or with a little cold water – in a hot toddy, it will end up smelling like a hospital.”
Without further ado, the whiskey goes in the glass bulb on the bottom and a combination of lemon, honey, cloves and nutmeg goes in the top. Cha Cha then heats the bottom chamber, creating a cauldron of bubbling brown liquor that sends the evaporate into the top chamber, where it condenses and drips back down to the bottom, now infused with all the goodness of the other ingredients.
The result is spectacular. The whiskey itself is now flavoured and enriched and I feel mildly foolish for thinking I knew what a hot toddy was all about.
But now, finally, the moment of truth arrives. Previously, I’ve told Cha Cha about my conviction that my man on soi 11 does a Negroni as well as anyone in Bangkok, that the pomp and pageantry of hi-falutin cocktail bars can’t hold a candle to his homespun, well-practised knack. That belief is about to be sorely tested – indeed, torn asunder.
The standard recipe for the Negroni – improvised in a Florentine cafe nearly 100 years ago – is generally considered to be equal-thirds gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, although there are myriad variations, substituting prosecco or vodka for gin, or Aperol or Cynar for Campari.
Cha Cha, though, hews to the original recipe, although she explains that when using exact thirds of the three ingredients, the Campari dominates, sometimes creating a bitter aftertaste like a mouthful of medicine. So she takes a little off the Campari and then pours the mixture into a tumbler over ice and garnishes with orange peel. But then comes the twist. Cha Cha takes the drink and disappears briefly, reappearing on my side of the bar carrying a covered serving tray, as though delivering a plate of caviar. Instead, placing the tray on the bar, she whips off the cover to reveal my Negroni, surrounded by four egg cups, filled with juniper, cinnamon, oregano and vanilla. Their mixed aroma immediately fills my nostrils and, most importantly, coats the glass, adding delicate touches to Cha Cha’s exquisitely balanced drink.
As I leave the St Regis, I feel increasingly certain that I have found the perfect Negroni. The only question left is how I break the news to my friend on soi 11 that he has been leapfrogged at the top of the pecking order.
Wet your whistle
Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Coat glass with Bacardi Superior 30ml, then shake Bacardi Black 15ml with Cognac VSOP 15ml, espresso 30ml and two teaspoons of white sugar. Strain into brandy balloon and garnish with one cardamom pod.
Mix Bacardi Black 60ml, lime juice 45ml, cinnamon syrup 20ml, Averna 30ml, a dash of orange bitter and serve in a tall glass over crushed ice.
Whiskey Hot Toddy
Mix Johnnie Walker Black Label 45ml, lime juice 15ml, honey 20ml, three cloves, nutmeg 5g and hot water. Don’t feel bad if you don’t having a redistilling set-up.
Sweet vermouth 30ml, Campari 30ml, gin 30ml but take a little off the Campari. Serve in a tumbler over ice and garnish with orange peel. Serve with juniper, cinnamon, oregano and vanilla if you’re trying to impress.
12th Fl St Regis Hotel. 159 Rajadamri Rd | 02-207-7777 | stregis.com | Fri-Sat noon-2am, Sun-Thurs noon-1am