Atlas towers above Singaporean hospitality, both literally and figuratively. The venue is found within the Neo-Art Deco skyscraper Parkview Square, and has repeatedly appeared on lists of the top bars in the world. Inside, a mighty tower of gin, containing a thousand different bottles, dominates the bar.
Vicky Hwang, the CEO of Chyau Fwu Wine & Spirits in Singapore (the company that operates Atlas bar), sat down with Bars & Clubs to discuss the venue’s new menu and her role in transforming the space into the bar it is today.
Vicky’s grandfather, C.S. Hwang oversaw the construction of Parkview Square – it was his last major project – but it was Vicky who had the idea of remaking the ground floor into an opulent New York hotel lobby style bar.
Previously the venue had been an unsuccessful wine bar, which started with great expectations, but gradually lessened in quality.
“It wasn’t someone who was involved in F&B who was running it. It kind of just fell away,” Vicky comments.
“I would come and sit here with my husband as we looked around we were like: ‘It’s such a shame that we have this incredible shell and the experience is just so lacking.’
“Only a handful of people knew about it. They would come in, they’d have a glass of water, they’d look and they would just never come back.
“So I lobbied quite hard [with the rest of the family business] and I said: ‘Listen, improving the air conditioning, the lift and the lobby toilets is one thing, but I think if you do something with the lobby, it will really give a purpose to the building and put it back on the map.’”
As such, Vicky worked with Proof and Company Founder Paul Broadbent to develop the concept of Atlas.
“At first he came in and he was like: ‘Well, you can do two things. You can just update things, we’ll help to train your bartenders, we’ll do a new cocktail menu for you, and it’ll be way better than what it is now, but it’s not really going to move the needle. The investment will be quite modest, and the payback will be really fast and it’ll be vastly better than it is now.’”
“But then he’s like: ‘Or we can really go for it, and the investment is going to be an exponential, but what you get back from that will also be an exponential.’”
It was from this conversation that Atlas was born.
As for the new menu itself, Vicky states it was largely about approachability.
“So we change our menu about once per year, it takes us about nine or ten months from start to finish,” Vicky explains.
“A lot of times, people come into Atlas and they’re just so overwhelmed, because there’s so many gins.
“And with cocktails especially, I think people look at them, and if they’re not really that well versed with cocktails, it can be quite hard to pick something that matches your expectations,” Vicky continues.
The new menu, named ‘Simple Pleasures’, was the work of Lidiyanah ‘Yana’ K, Atlas’s head bartender.
“What she wanted to do was create a menu that is really easy to navigate, because we put so much time and love into creating these cocktails. We don’t want people to come and go, ‘I’ll just have a G&T,’ because they’re a bit scared.
“We want them to be able to delve into the menu, and really give them all the tools and they could have to find something that would match what they wanted.
“[Yana] was inspired by the classic cocktails, so she picked five styles: the Martini, the Sour, the Old Fashioned, the Champagne Cocktail and Milk Punches.”
The recipe for Atlas’s take on a Sour, the Crossing Waves, can be read here.
Each of the sections also includes a non-alcoholic variation on the classic cocktail theme at hand – see an example here.
There are many striking aspects to the menu: the bold art by Adrian Pack that prefixes every new section, a collection of vintage gins going back to the 1910s, and the presence of ABV percentages alongside each drink.
“The illustrations have become a really big part of what we do, because it sets the scene, and it’s called Simple Pleasures, because this [art] is kind of the simple pleasures in live, the perfect scene, when you would be drinking it. [The illustrations] also give a bit of a background history of that drink,” Vicky explains.
As for including the ABV of each drink, Vicky believes Atlas is the first bar in Singapore to take this step.
“There was a bit of debate about it because, you could look at it and say: ‘That’s got such low alcohol, that’s such a rip-off’ or whatever,” Vicky continues.
“But this really gives you the ability to see how strong your drinks are going to be. For example, you go to the Martini page, and you’re like: ‘Okay, so these are properly strong’ – so you understand.”
Milk Punch cocktails are on the rise here in Australia, and so we asked Vicky why Atlas decided to include a milk punch version of each of the classic cocktails featured on the menu.
“What Atlas does is, we don’t come up with crazy, experimental molecular cocktails. We more take classic cocktails and we do our own take. The space harks back to a bygone era, and we like to embrace it.
“Modern cocktails are always a variation of some kind of a classic, they’re not just totally taken out of nowhere. And a milk punch is just a really easy going way to enter, like, the Martini.”
How the vintage gin library was built
One thing Atlas is famed for, even beyond the shores of Singapore, is its wide-ranging library of gin, including some very old bottles. Vicky explained how this collection came about.
“We actively go out and source them on auctions and on sites. Whenever one runs out, then it’s time to get another one. We don’t have a huge stock of them…” Vicky says.
“They’re not for everyone, it’s for someone who really I think wants a piece of history. We had a gentleman here the other day – so I saw one of the vintage gins… It was at like, one o’clock, it was not at night.
“I said, ‘Did someone order a vintage? Which one is it?’ and they said, ‘the 1910.’
“I saw the gentleman, he was just on his own sitting there, looking at the tower, studying our collection’s menu. Then he ordered a second one, then he ordered the 1960s – and the way he was ordering them was just straight up.
“He just wanted them super cold, the Duke style, no vermouth, no bitters, no anything else. Just the straight up gin, because he was really tasting it.”
It’s for experiences like this that Vicky created Atlas.
“Great hospitality is when you can a deliver an experience where people will remember it. Nowadays, I think this is more important than ever. People do everything online, like there’s so much of life that can be done without actually sitting experiencing something in a real place, in a real environment.
“Everyone’s time is short. If people choose come and spend their time with us, what I really hope is they come out of it thinking: ‘Well, that was an amazing experience,’” Vicky concludes.
Interior image credit: EK Yap