Ask any cocktail aficionado in Singapore what his favourite bar is and he is more than likely to point you to gritty Hongkong Street where, amid travel agencies and slightly dodgy beauty spas, sits the unmarked door to 28 HongKong Street – one of Singapore’s pioneer craft cocktail bars.
Known to regulars as 28, the 55-seater, which opened with little fanfare in 2011, was last year named best bar in Asia at the inaugural Asia’s 50 Best Bars Awards. Trying to get a seat there on busy weekends requires at least a week’s lead time.
On any given night, the bar tends to be packed with young professionals, swigging drinks made with artisanal spirits and housemade ingredients such as hibiscus grenadine – no mass-market products to be found here.
And six years on, it has also managed to keep its mysterious charm, perhaps thanks to a strict no-photos policy maintained even in the age of Instagram and Snapchat.
And while those in the loop might pride themselves on knowing about the discreet bar, it is people who are really in the know who are aware about the sister joint and treasure trove of artisanal spirits, The Proof Flat, a few doors away.
A retail bottle shop like no other, The Proof Flat, which opened last September, is located up a flight of stairs and behind a cream-coloured door at 43A Hongkong Street. Designed to look like an apartment, the old-school luxe vibes of the space make you feel like you are visiting the home of an industry veteran with a home bar.
The best part? Any spirit – and there are nearly 200 bottles available for tasting at any time – can be sampled on the house.
For Mr Spencer Forhart and Mr Paul Gabie, the former lawyers behind 28 HongKong Street and craft spirits distribution and consultancy business Proof & Company, the unique concept of The Proof Flat was one that came about rather organically.
“Most of the spirits we use at 28 are not readily available on the market and, increasingly, we were seeing customers who wanted to experiment and try unconventional brands at home,” says Mr Forhart, 48, who is chairman of Proof & Company.
“The Proof Flat came in to serve that market. We designed it to look like the home of our fictional founder, Mr E.C. Proof – which is why we’re not going to sell you a cocktail here. We just want you to chill, learn about spirits and get a chance to choose from a seriously well-curated list of independent brands.”
The curation that Mr Forhart is speaking of is apparent once you step into the “closet” – a hidden chamber that reads like a library for artisanal spirits.
Under golden lights are shelves of neatly placed spirits, everything from tequila to whisky and vodka. The 350 or so bottles available represent some of the best independent brands in the world, including some collectible rare bottles such as the ultra-aged 21-year-old Fuenteseca Tequila and a 1972 cognac priced at $1,500.
The bulk of the bottles available though are geared towards retail consumers and prices range between $80 and $150 on average.
Chief executive Gabie, 38, says of the selection: “We’re out to identify what people in the know would really like, including the best bar tools, mixers and books on cocktails and spirits. We wanted this space to be part educational for the consumer as well as folks who are in the industry.”
It seems that identifying trends ahead of the game seems to be a forte for the duo, who met in 2002 in New York City. At the time, both were law summer interns at top American law firm Shearman & Sterling and were living in the city.
Serendipitously for them, the early 2000s were the time New York was seeing an uptick in craft cocktail bars – ones which offered unique spirit selections and recipes that were a step away from the conventional.
“As two young lawyers who were excited to try all that New York City had to offer, we really experienced the explosion of the bar scene first-hand,” recalls Mr Forhart, whose wife Kathleen is head chef at 28. The couple have two children aged six and four.
“At these places, the equipment and tools were top-notch and cocktails were not an afterthought. They were really elevating drinking and hospitality in the way fine dining had done for food.”
It was no surprise that the booming bar scene in New York was the first thing they missed when they relocated to Singapore for work in 2008. Back then, compared with the 40-odd craft cocktail bars New York had to offer, Singapore had only a handful of bars such as Bar Stories and Tippling Club.
What the duo quickly homed in on was the development that was taking place in Singapore’s own bar scene.
“In 2008, it was as though we were seeing the bar scene here unfold in the way New York’s had done in 2001,” says Mr Gabie, who is married to a lawyer, 34. They have no children. “Having experienced it in New York, we had a sense of the trends and trajectory of development of the market and we were lucky to tap on that when we considered starting 28.”
Their first step in launching their passion project was to find a suitable location, one that would mimic the grit of New York’s Lower Eastside. Moving away from the conventional enclaves, the duo spent two weeks combing through every listing they could find in Chinatown before chancing upon a unit at 28 Hongkong Street – at that time a travel agency in an ungentrified street populated by traditional trading companies.
“What we loved was that it was near the city, but still very discreet. That was the vibe we were going for,” says Mr Forhart. “We weren’t looking to open with pomp and show. We wanted to have a bit of mystery and intrigue about us – hence our name.”
Keeping an eye on the next frontier
A mid-six-figure investment later, the partners were set. But despite its low-key branding and attempts to stay under the radar, news about the new joint spread like fire. Within three months, it was running a full house and, six months in, was having to turn customers away.
Instead of riding on their rapid success and going forward with another bar, the duo saw another area of opportunity.
"Because we were not serving mass-market brands on the menu, we were finding it very difficult to get the bottles we wanted, especially since only about 10 per cent of what we wanted was available through local distributors," says Mr Gabie. "It made us realise that there was space for us to start our own procurement and distribution business, not just for our own benefit, but also for the local craft cocktail industry that was growing rapidly at the time."
It was with this in mind that the two started Proof & Company in 2012, which imports and distributes craft products. Their success with 28 HongKong Street also became an impetus to launch a consultancy arm offering concept and operations guidance to other bars.
The distribution arm now holds a portfolio of more than 600 spirits and accounts for 80 per cent of the business. The team also helped set up bars such as Manhattan at the Regent Hotel and Atlas Grand Lobby and Bar, which opened earlier this year.
The demand for the distribution and consultancy services also saw them expand to Hong Kong in 2014, Cambodia in 2015 and Thailand and Malaysia last year. This year, they also joined forces with luxury services and premium wine merchant Sarment to enter the China market.
It is evident then that for the two, staying ahead of the curve is the name of the game. From setting up 28 HongKong Street to creating their own procurement and distribution business to launching their unconventional retail bottle shop last year, it is apparent that the two friends do not like to play it safe.
It is with this in mind that the duo have also launched another food and beverage concept - an all-day dining and drinks joint called Crackerjack in Tanjong Pagar - in February, aimed to make food and drink more accessible and approachable. Prices start at $15 for a cocktail and average at $20 for mains such as Lentil Mushroom Scotch Eggs and Three Cheese Barley Risotto.
Says Mr Gabie of their newest venture: "What we wanted to offer was to integrate good drinks, which is our expertise, into an F&B platform, giving customers more options. Crackerjack is our answer to that. You can get a cocktail, but you can also get great breakfast, smoothies, juices and coffee - all at wallet- friendly price points."
It is evident then that as tastes change, so will the dynamics of their partnership, be it in terms of Proof & Company's business aims or its nurturing of the drinks industry as a whole.
"What we're looking for is always the next frontier - what is going to help the industry grow and keep the consumer excited," says Mr Forhart. "Patrons today want more as do the people who are growing this industry from the inside out. And as the market evolves and matures, we want to grow along it. We're in it for the long haul."
Spencer Forhart on Paul Gabie: Opposites attract
Proof & Company chairman Spencer Forhart and his partner, chief executive Paul Gabie, seem to be living examples of the mantra, opposites attract.
The duo, who met as summer law interns at American law firm Shearman & Sterling in New York in 2002, have for the past six years been working together to run craft cocktail bar 28 HongKong Street, spirits distribution and consultancy business Proof & Company and, more recently, retail bottle shop The Proof Flat and all-day dining and drinks concept Crackerjack.
For Mr Forhart, the recipe to their success can, in many ways, be attributed to their different personalities.
"I'm introverted, he's extroverted. I like the creative and geeky aspects of the drinks business, he's much more comfortable speaking to clients and giving presentations in a corporate environment," says the 48-year-old.
"It might seem like a recipe for disaster to be so different, but in a business partnership, it helps that our skill sets dovetail quite nicely."
Their different strengths have helped delineate their responsibilities comfortably.
Mr Gabie overlooks the more mature areas of their business such as the distribution arm and international markets, while Mr Forhart oversees upcoming and creative areas, such as their group strategy direction and new pipeline projects.
Mr Forhart says of their working styles: "There is always a creative tension because Paul focuses on what clients want, while I sometimes see value in products or ideas that the market might not yet be ready for."
But as it turns out, it is this tension that is the strongest ally in their professional relationship.
"Because we see things from different perspectives, we force each other to confront new sensibilities and we reach a more nuanced understanding after we discuss things," he says. "More often than not, we end up scrapping our individual ideas and reaching a third option, which is a mix of both - and that usually is the strongest idea of the lot."
Paul Gabie on Spencer Forhart: Having a sixth sense
According to Mr Paul Gabie, his professional relationship with Mr Spencer Forhart is akin to a marriage - one that takes a lot of work to keep going.
Says the 38-year-old: "Like any longstanding relationship, ours is one that we put a lot of effort into keeping rock-solid, which often requires us to take time to work through issues while keeping the bigger resolution in mind."
He admits that their different strengths, while complementary, can sometimes create issues. Mr Gabie, for example, is more likely to look at issues from the micro implementation angle while he says Mr Forhart is more "visionary" and comes at issues from a more macro perspective.
But when the duo come to a crossroads, Mr Gabie says it is their honest communication that has time and again helped them ride out the storm.
"We discuss issues very openly, without reservation and do not move forward with any big ideas unless both of us have bought into it," says Mr Gabie. "This sometimes means that an idea has to be scrapped despite one of us being very passionate about it. But we embrace this creative tension between us - we may disagree on the journey, but we're always on board about the end product before we move forward with big projects."
For Mr Gabie, this has helped their partnership stay strong for over a decade.
"I travel a lot and Spencer spends much more time here at our home base, but we talk and message every day and have a sixth sense of how each other will think and react to situations," he says.
"We talk things through and allow each other to play to our strengths. It is what has ultimately helped us survive this roller- coaster ride - both the high-highs and the very low-lows."
Note: Mr Forhart and Mr Gabie would like to mention that they have a third partner, Mr Snehal Patel, who was active in the ideation and early days of 28 HongKong Street. He is currently a partner, advisor and board member in the business.