As far as The Spiffy Dapper goes, there are two faces you’ll recognize – cute, quirky George and super-cool Hilda. The latter has cemented her status as a bespoke cocktail maestro, with an uncanny knack for drawing out the heart’s desires of the most reluctant indecisive customer. So hotfoot over to The Spiffy Dapper during Singapore Cocktail Week to try her intriguing (and mostly potent) cocktails.

Hi Hilda! Tell us more about your mixology journey – how did you come to be the Head Bartender and Co-Founder of The Spiffy Dapper?

Like many young people who were leaving school, I had spent some time thinking, “what do I want to do after this?” The criteria I had in mind included wanted to learn a new skill. I’m a hands-on person, so the options I initially entertained like wood-working and black-smithing…but bartending more practical in Singapore.

Two, I wanted to be part of a team. It was a good thing that my job hunt coincided with the rise of the craft cocktail movement in Singapore, so after four futile months, I finally met George, who was just starting out The Spiffy Dapper.

Knowing close to nothing about bartending then, I set out to achieve the goal of learning and experimenting as much as I could. The Spiffy Dapper was a good fit, and I was lucky to find a great mentor in George who gave me many opportunities and challenges, not just as an employee but as a co-founder and head bartender.

Hilda Tan interview - The Spiffy Dapper
The Spiffy Dapper

Describe your cocktail making style in three words.

Balance – the foundation of our cocktail philosophy here at the Spiffy Dapper. We take guests’ requests and their personal preferences into consideration but our cocktails are rarely too sweet, too savoury, or too much of anything.

Approachable. I understand how it can be intimidating to ask bartenders to create something for you. My goal is to make everyone feel comfortable, no matter how familiar or not they are with cocktails. We all love stories, and that’s how I start out: I ask my guests to tell me something about what they like, don’t like, or what they tend to order elsewhere, so I can figure out how to build the first cocktail to their taste. At all times, when I’m making a cocktail, it’s not just about the order and then the delivery of the drink. It’s about constant interaction and learning: ‘Did that drink work? Would you like something adventurous next, or stay close to the last drink?’

Curious, which was what got me into cocktail-making in the first place. I love teaching myself new techniques and experimenting with new ingredients. I once infused bacon with whisky after reading about the Benton’s Old Fashioned from PDT in New York for some bacon-loving guests at the bar. I also recently made some of my own spirits and learned a lot of new things about botanicals in the process.

Is there anything you’re really into recently, in terms of ingredients?

From a recent trip to New York, I was exposed to some interesting contemporary American spirits like F.E.W gin, made using white whisky and vanilla, Mezcal Pierde Almas +9, a mezcal-gin with 9 botanicals, and other products that we don’t currently see here in Singapore. That really inspired me to be more creative with botanicals.

I’ve been exploring the maceration of botanicals especially lavender, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, bay leaves, dried lemon peel – just a lot of classic as well as contemporary botanicals. I’m also learning, by way of constant experimentation (in trying to make my recreations of those contemporary gins), how those botanicals work, or don’t, with white whisky and mezcal.

Hilda Tan interview - Sheikh on the Level
Sheik On The Level

There are more women bartenders in Singapore now; do you think the barriers of entry are lower than when you first started?

When I first joined the industry, there weren’t many role models. I think there has always been opportunities for anyone who is talented and interested enough in bartending to join, regardless of gender, but sometimes we do need to see that it can be done. Now there are quite a number of us, and we’re now seeing more interest from women to join us.

Gender has little to do with talent or ability or attitude, but having women in the team, no matter the industry, always brings diversity of perspectives. That can help bring improvements in everything from product to teamwork to marketing.

For the longest time, it felt like The Spiffy Dapper had no menu. Do you have a go-to drink for indecisive customers?

We’ve always had a menu! Nobody has been able to read it (because it was too dark). Now that we have a bigger and brighter location, we’re working on putting together a new menu, but that will take some time as we are intending to have some artwork specially commissioned for it.

Even if a customer is indecisive, I persist in encouraging them to open up and to think through the questions I ask everyone, about what they like and don’t. It seems that some of them have had bad experiences “going off-menu”. So, joking that I will drink it if they don’t like what I’ve made helps them feel more comfortable and eager to tell me about their preferences. I enjoy seeing indecisive customers go from indecision to “I liked that” or “I know what I want next”.

Hilda Tan interview - The Spiffy Dapper

What’s the weirdest request you’ve ever gotten from a customer?

I once had a drunk guest who was punching the bar-top repeatedly, requesting for a drink “which is fit for a king before he goes to war”. I made him a war-mongering, royal drink.

Tell us more about your beautifully put-together Singapore Cocktail Week cocktail.

It’s called Sheikh On The Level and it’s made with Turkish black tea, homemade cardamom syrup, and freshly squeezed citrus. Shaken with egg whites and garnished with a Turkish delight.

Are there any rules you live by while behind the bar or words of wisdom for those looking to join the industry?

Sleep while you still can. You’re going to miss it!

Top Image: Singapore Cocktail Week