Vijay Mudaliar

17 May. 2019
Going Native in Singapore

In June 2017, during Paris’ Cocktails Spirits, we stumbled into Copper Bay, one of our favourite bars, only to be found it was being taken over by a bartender from Singapore. Vijay Mudaliar, we were told, ran Native, a then fairly new bar that was starting to make a bit of noise. We stayed, we drank, we chatted with Vijay and we loved both the stories and the cocktails we were served. 4 months later, Native crashed into the World’s 50 Best Bars at position 47. More people started taking notice. Last year, the Singapore-based bar was named as the highest climber — 34 places, up to 13. Not bad for a strongly independent bar with no huge financial backing.

Part of the appeal is that Native ties in perfectly with a lot of the industry’s current obsessions. With rotovaps, fermentation, locally foraged ingredients, they’re cutting edge. Their focus on sustainable practices matches current global concerns. Having worked at pioneers Operation Dagger and done some practice at White Lyan, it’s not a surprise to see Vinjay take such an orientation. What impressed us in Paris, though, was how earnest Vinjay was about it. And having recently visited Native, we were able to realise first hand how far — and how naturally — he takes his philosophy. From the bar itself to the artwork, the spirits, artisanal coasters or the aprons, everything at Native aims to celebrate all things local in the most sustainable manner.

« It’s just the idea of being responsible », Vijay told us. « I thought we should do it because this is the right thing to do. We started with a few things and now we have a good control of food waste but we still have to look at controlling our recycling. One thing I realised is that you never reach a place where you’re happy. It’s always a push. » Big on Native’s agenda is the upcoming opening of a bigger garden space (they already have a small one), where they aim to grow turmeric, lemongrass, pandan, ginger, etc. The idea, though, is not to become completely self-sufficient. « Right now, we can sustain 15 or 20% of our needs. With the bigger space, we hope to go up to 50% but we want to keep 50% with local producers. We love working with them and we have to create and healthy ecosystem ». 

This ideal of fair trade and practices with local producers doesn’t only extend to produce. At Native, we’re sorry to say, cantineros, you won’t find Cuban rums: Vijay and team only work with South-East Asians spirits. An added complexity: bars with a similar focus, such as Dandelyan, usually have agreements with bigger houses, helping them bring down costs. Not at Native, opened with « bank loans, savings, credit card, everything on the line » and no industry help. « A huge part of opening my own bar was about being independent. But also about providing a platform for regional producers. They’re small scale so they don’t have the funds. They’re too busy trying to scale their products. It’s a long term goal. In ten years, we can help each other », adds Vinjay. 

Unsurprisingly, Native’s cocktail list revolves around their signature drinks — don’t ask for classics. Although there’s definitely a growing curiosity for out-there drinks in the bartending community, it can be more complicated to sell regal customers drinks with little known spirits or based on flavours even locals only associate with food. To get across his message, Vijay opts for the restaurant approach: « All of our drinks come with a story. No matter how busy we are, every person in the room gets an explanation of their drink. It makes a huge difference ». Don’t expect a story about « the smell of my grandmother’s drawer », so typical of bartending competition. At Native, it’s all about what’s behind the produce. « We see who’s growing it, what’s the terroir, what’s around it, how it’s traditionally used in food. Then it becomes easier for us to create cocktails without following classic templates ». To strike this home, Vijay tells us about Oysters from Ubin, based on a house oyster distillate and, among other striking things, miso cured eggs. « We could have made a tasty Oyster Martini. But this wouldn’t represent where you are when you drink it. In Singapore we never had the culture of shucking fresh oysters with tabasco and citrus. But we have oyster omelettes. So you get a very savoury drink with a connection of location and place and time ».

Singapore has one of the world’s most progressive scene and may be more open to projects such as Native than many other cities around the world. Still, this remains a remarkably daring project, with very little compromises. And Vinjay hopes their success at World’s 50 Best Bars will prove an inspiration. « We’re small and independent, we do things entirely different. We hope we show young bartenders that if they have a dream, a passion, an idea, they shouldn’t be afraid. The world needs to see it. » And if it’s done with as much dedication as Vinjay and team’s, the world will probably love it.

François Monti