When people have hospitality in their blood, it shows very fast. In Philip Bischoff’s case, we understood it before we sat down for a chat in a Havana bar. The Daiquiris we had were not great but far from complaining, Philip insisted that the moment is more important than the drink and that he was having a great time. Later, when we finished our talk, he picked the empty glasses on the table and brought them back to the bar. This attitude and the natural impulse that made him do this very simple thing are probably part of what converted the bar he is managing — the Manhattan Bar in Singapore — into Asia’s best bar according to 50 Best Bars.
Truth be told, Philip was a host in his native Germany before he even was a bartender, and maybe that was a decisive factor. Realizing that bartenders were the ones really having fun, he decided to step behind the bar. That was in 2003. Numerous bars, restaurants and hotels followed, including Hamburg’s famed Le Lion. But it’s at the Amano in Berlin that he really made a name for himself: « It was the living room of Bar Convent Berlin. The Monday night before the show, when industry people from all over the world came in, that was our big show », he told us. At the same time, Philip travelled to cocktail convention, visited distilleries (including Havana Club’s in 2012) and competed, which allowed him to create a network that came in very useful when he felt it was time to leave Amano after 5 years of loyal services. « It worked quite well at Amano, and I wanted to give it a try on a bigger stage. I have no desire to open my own bar, I was happy in the corporate world and I had the feeling that I should explore something ».
‘Something’ became Singapore, when the Proof & Co consultancy and David Cordoba, who had helped shaped the cocktail scene where there was none, came knocking and told Philip that the bar manager position at the Manhattan Bar needed to be filled. « Before, there was no real hotel bar in Singapore. People would queue to get a Sling at the Raffles, but that was it. Everything changed when the Manhattan opened at the Regent Hotel. Not only for the city: it was the first Four Seasons bar to have a real concept and it’s now inspiring the chain worldwide ».
Philip was given the key to what is often called one of the most beautiful bars in the world in mid-2015, after six (!) interviews. « The first time I walked in, even though I had seen pictures, I was wow-ed. It matched the expectations, but I immediately saw the challenge: in such a beautiful place made to give people a great time, you have to deliver. I had a car with a great engine, but you have to drive it. People run the show, people fill places with life, not the other way round ». The set-up and the infrastructure certainly did help. It is notoriously difficult to breathe life into hotel bars — they’re transient places. But the Manhattan Bar was designed to have a strong identity and to become its own entity. « It’s a destination bar, a 15-minutes ride from the busy districts. People come here because they want to. Then they see the hotel and are wondering ‘is this it?’ Once they reach the second floor and go through our door, they could be anywhere. If they allow us to take them on a journey, it becomes very special ».
If they are not taken in by the stunning bar design and the sharply dressed staff, guests will be impressed by the menu. « It’s our DNA. The new one is not what you’d expect of a Four Seasons hotel bar. It’s loud and colourful. Once you open it, it jumps at you, but it’s essentially easy to read and self-explaining ». Between twisted classics and creative concoctions, guests are spoiled. But the Manhattan bar is also famous for its barrel program, with 8 aged cocktail on offer (and the ‘rickhouse’ is part of the decoration), and a very strong American whiskies program in a region that usually prefers single malts. However good the libations, Philip insists that they are at the service of an experience. « Hotels are now understanding that bars are more than a place to serve drinks. In the 20’s and 30’s, the head bartender and the maitre d’ were leading the orchestra, they made people socialize, they designed an evening ». This, we understand, is what he and his team (he calls bartending a ‘team sport’) have managed to achieve. We get a feeling that, with Philip Bischoff behind the wheel, the fantastic car with a great engine will get to unexpected places.