By Proof & Company CEO and 28 HongKong Street Cofounder Paul Gabie
“I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny… I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the [bartender] mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar – that’s wonderful.”Raymond Chandler, American-British novelist, The Long Goodbye, 1953
A new dawn: the founding of 28 HongKong Street
It was early evening on Monday 31 October 2011. A hidden bar with a lucky address on a little-known street in Singapore’s Chinatown was finally ready to open its doors to a full house of guests for the first time. What began as a simple idea – to bring the best of American craft cocktail culture and spirits to Singapore – was paused, just for a moment, on the threshold between idea and reality. At 28 HongKong Street, the back bar was neat, the napkins folded, the glasses polished and the hand-cut ice layered carefully in the freezers. Raymond Chandler would have lingered in that moment of anticipation.
The simple idea took root in early 2010 amongst three New York City lawyers – Snehal Patel, Spencer Forhart and the writer of this article – who had made Singapore their adopted home, yet missed the joys of the new era of fine drinking that washed over New York City in the early 2000s. The idea had gathered steam quickly, pulling others into its orbit over the next 12 months. First, Michael Callahan, who took the not-insignificant gamble of leaving behind a promising career in San Francisco to take on the role of founding barman and general manager, and then a young Singaporean opening team of Peter Chua, Leo Chue and Desiree ‘Des’ Silva, who would soon be joined by Jeremy ‘Jem’ Chua, Jessica ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, Gwen Uy and chef Melvin Tan.
The little bar found success quickly, in no small measure due to the strength of the opening team. First with guests, who embraced its special mix of superb craft cocktails, American comfort food, independent spirits, loud hip hop and liberal doses of personality. Next, the regional and international bar community, who voted 28 HongKong Street onto the World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2012, just 12 months after that opening night. Even with that early success, those involved – starting with those three lawyers from New York City – had little inkling of the impact that 28 HongKong Street would have on their lives.
Anticipating the boom: Proof & Company and Proof Creative
28’s early success gave rise to another idea. This one less simple, but no less timely. If a new era of fine drinking was spreading to Asia, then there would be a great need in the years ahead for the spirits, cocktail syrups and special barware that were hallmarks of this new style of drink-making. The warm reception to 28’s opening hinted that Singapore, and the region, would see a wave of cocktail bar openings in coming years. These bars and their teams would need ready access to ingredients necessary to run world-class bars in a Second Golden Age of fine drinking.
In late 2012, Proof & Company was founded as an independent spirits distributor with a singular mission: to help spread the Second Golden Age of fine drinking in Singapore and beyond. Just like 28 HongKong Street, Proof & Company made an early bet on great people, luring Zdenek Kastanek to Singapore from an award-filled career in London and Joe Alessandroni to the city-state from the vibrant San Francisco bar scene, where he had managed some of America’s most awarded cocktail venues. To achieve its mission, Proof & Company would need both great people and great expertise. It would offer its customers both as they opened and ran bars that aimed to deliver the quality, craft and hospitality that defined this new era.
28 is the origin story of Proof & Company, and for good reason. The lessons learned in opening and running a successful cocktail bar could be directly applied to building a spirits distributor: the importance of understanding the customer, the importance of educating and inspiring the next generation of bar professionals, and the attention to detail necessary to deliver a world-class experience. While these lessons applied to Proof & Company’s distribution activities, they were even more valuable in its work to help clients open new bars, a service that quickly become known as Proof Creative.
Fine drinking in full swing: 2011-16
28 was not the first modern cocktail bar in Singapore. There were others, such as Klee, Bar Stories, Coffee Bar K and Tippling Club, that could rightfully vie for that mantle. Yet 28 opened just as the city was on the cusp of a new era and that timing was critical. Over the next five years, many of the city’s best bars would attract global acclaim, winning Singapore newfound status as a global capital of fine drinking. By 2016, Singapore could boast of 40 world-class cocktail bars and ranked only behind London and New York in the cocktail league tables. The Second Golden Age of fine drinking was in full swing.
Riding this wave, while delivering its special mix of hospitality, the little bar in Chinatown became Singapore’s best-known cocktail venue and one of the most awarded in Asia’s history. Those early years were memorable. In 2014, 28 won Best International Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail, following up with Best International Bar Team a year later. Seven consecutive years on the World’s 50 Best Bars list saw 28 rise as high as seventh place, spend four years in the top 10 and take home the title of Asia’s Best Bar and the top spot on the inaugural list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2016. During this period, 28 enjoyed steady leadership under a series of head bartenders and bar managers, including Alessandroni, and also talents such Logan Demmy, Payman Bahmani, Arijit ‘The Prince of India’ Bose and Charmaine ‘Charms’ Thio. Over time, numerous 28 team members grew into creative and brand ambassador roles within Proof & Company and elsewhere in the industry.
Proof & Company grew quickly in those early years, opening its first overseas office in Hong Kong in 2014 and earning recognition as an innovator. The Proof Creative team of spirits evangelists – which by now was led by Jason Williams, who came to Singapore as one of Australia’s most awarded bartenders and bar managers – worked to open Manhattan Bar in Singapore and The Pontiac in Hong Kong in 2014, Charles H. in Seoul in 2015, and spent nearly two years laying the groundwork for the bar that would become Atlas in Singapore. Each of these new venues would go on to leave their own marks on Asia’s standing in the bar world, under their own talented leaders and teams.
The story evolves: 2017-21
The second half of 28’s first decade was defined by evolution and, once more, its people. New General Manager Justin Pallack joined from award-winning Sweet Liberty in Miami in 2018, bringing a steady, experienced hand to this new chapter. Under Justin’s leadership, the 28 team was renewed and solidified around a core of talent, including Lukas Kaufmann, Ronan Keilthy and Shanky Guru. The American craft cocktails, comfort food and hip hop remain, showing the staying power of consistency in an era of ever more dramatic bar openings.
Proof & Company, and particularly Proof Creative, blossomed in this period. In 2018, Proof Creative helped open Bar Trigona in Kuala Lumpur, which quickly became one of Asia’s most well-regarded bars. Proof Creative’s spirits evangelists had the honour of working with Raffles Hotel Singapore for nearly three years on the restoration of the iconic Singapore Sling and the revitalisation of its home venue, the Long Bar, which reopened in 2019. The Proof Creative approach to building great bars, with its origins in the 28 experience, was now in great demand.
Over these recent years, and like other great bars of its generation, 28 has begun the transition to a new role in the industry. In 2019, 28 dropped off the World’s 50 Best Bars list for the first time yet had its second most successful financial year ever. In this new, more mature role, 28 has retained an ever-loyal following amongst guests and the regional and international bar community. The close of 28’s first decade has brought some important questions into focus: How does a bar remain relevant when graduates from its floor and bar teams over the years are opening some of the most exciting bars of the moment? What does it mean to transition from innovator to institution? In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic would press pause on the industry – and leave ample time for reflection on these questions.
Looking ahead: the next 10 years
Much has been written on the impact of the pandemic on our industry. The past 18 months have been extraordinarily difficult. Yet the crisis has given us all time to reflect on where we have been, on the road ahead, and on what is most important. We are all taking these insights with us into the period of recovery that most certainly lies before us.
On Sunday 31 October 2021, 28 will ring in its second decade with as grand a birthday party as social distancing restrictions will permit. Amidst the celebrations, the little bar in Chinatown, and the larger force it inspired in Proof & Company, will look ahead to the next 10 years with a sense of optimism. The future is in good hands, including the generations of young 28 bar and floor staff who now own or manage some of Asia’s best bars (Barbary Coast, No Sleep Club and Sago House in Singapore among them). Our industry has shown resilience in the face of a once-in-a-century crisis. Tectonic shifts are underway in how our industry impacts the environment, takes care of its people and interacts as a community. These are all hopeful signs.
28 has plans to lead in some of these new areas. Most importantly, it will stay true to itself, working harder than ever to take great care of guests, crank the hip hop and dish out extraordinary American cocktails and comfort food. In so doing, 28 will transition from innovator to institution.