The Origin Of The Singapore Sling Cocktail Dates Back More Than A Century

One of the most fascinating things about cocktails is that they can contain an entire history lesson in one drink, and the classic Singapore Sling is a great example of this. Mixed alcoholic drinks are by their very nature a globe-trotting affair, combining liquors, juices, and spices sourced from all over the world. Those drinks then cross boundaries as countries and cultures spread them far and wide, leading to local variations and new additions that spawn whole new recipes. 

Look at the ingredient list of a Singapore Sling, and you'll see this whole process playing out very clearly, with the gin cocktail containing French Bénédictine liqueur, cherry liqueur, lime juice, sugar syrup, and possibly pineapple juice, grenadine, or triple sec — all depending on the recipe. While its invention seems to be more clear-cut on the surface, dig deeper and you'll find that even the earliest Singapore Sling recipes were subject to debate and multiple influences. The most accepted story is that the Singapore Sling was created by Ngiam Tong Boon, a Chinese-born bartender who worked at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. 

The hotel was a product of British colonialism — the nation controlled Singapore at the time — and many of the social mores of the colony were adopted from Britain. The story goes that in 1915, Boon created the pink-colored drink for women at the bar, as the look could trick bystanders into thinking the customer was sipping a non-alcoholic punch during a time when women drinking was frowned upon. The Singapore Sling has since endured through the ages and even ranks on our list as one of the tropical cocktails from around the world that everyone should try at least once.

The Singapore Sling came from a mixture of international influences

The original Singapore Sling mixture was seemingly gin, sugar, and lime juice with cherry brandy. The base of gin with sugar and citrus was a hallmark of British colonial influence, which carried it around the world. This is where the original story starts to become less clear. Gin Slings with that base were popular drinks in Singapore predating the Singapore Sling, with references going back to 1897, and there were even Pink Slings noted in newspapers 12 years before Ngiam Tong Boon's alleged invention of the Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel (pictured). 

However, it is possible that Boon created the drink before 1915, as he had been working at the hotel's bar since 1899. It doesn't help that contemporary sources disagree on what was actually in the drink, making its exact origins even harder to pin down. Some versions from the '20s and '30s exclude lime juice, while others already included Bénédictine with cherry liqueur or cherry brandy. Sometimes the pink hue even came from adding red wine, because dry cherry liqueur is often clear colored.

Modern versions of the drink that use pineapple juice or grenadine likely evolved from the Raffles Hotel's current version of the drink. World War 2 interrupted business and Boon's recipe was seemingly lost, but a 1936 note that survived contained a version with those ingredients. The tropical cocktail took off in popularity as part of the Tiki boom years later, being absorbed into a hodgepodge creation that feels like a fitting place for a drink with such multicultural origins. If you've never had one, it's definitely one of the cocktails you should try if you enjoy gin.