80% of what we taste actually comes from our sense of smell? Don’t take our word for it, try eating while pinching your nose. Human beings can distinguish many more scents than taste, and it is often said that our sense of smell conjures memories more directly compared to other senses. Imagine sitting down at a bar and experiencing drinks based on the scent of rain, leather, or green grass. Joe Schofield, head bartender of restaurant-bar Tippling Club in Singapore, which was recently named one of Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2017, and also winner of the Spirited Awards- Best International Bar, created the Sensorium Menu with chef-owner Ryan Clift with that exact experience in mind. The menu focuses on aromas, aiming to trigger your memories through the sense of smell.
NOM Magazine sits down with Joe during his trip as a guest bartender in Taiwan. We chat about his take on cocktails, experiences working with Ryan, and what makes a great bar.
- Compare the UK and Singapore, what are some of the differences in cocktails?
I think each country has its own sort of style and influences, especially in Asia. Take Singapore for example, it’s still very young in terms of the cocktail scene. Tippling Club was one of the pioneers of the Singaporean cocktail scene. We opened almost 10 years ago and we’re the first real sort of cocktail bar–fine dining as well. A lot of the people that work in the bar pretty much defined the drinking culture.
Take an example, in the UK there are a lot of vodka drinks. I just think it’s been one of the cultures that started just after like the 1950s or 60s, people were introduced to vodkas in the west, then bartenders made disco drinks which evolved until now. In Singapore, where some bartenders do not have a preference for vodka, you find that people that tend to drink at those bars don’t order vodka. We sell a lot of mezcal drinks, bourbons, whiskeys, gins. At Tippling Club, I think that consumers and guests are very mature and open to trying new things, so we sell about 90% cocktails, very few beers. That percentage of cocktails sold is probably the highest I’ve ever experienced working at a venue.
- What’s your thought process in creating a cocktail menu, and also how do you work with chefs in different venues as you oversee all the bar programmes?
So each part of the cocktail menu concept is in line with the venue. One of the great things working with Ryan and the team of chefs, is a great atmosphere where we can bounce ideas off each other, so in terms of developing flavors like cocktails, we’re always trying the cocktails, always trying the food. It’s really a symbiosis between the kitchen and the bar. When it comes to developing the menu for each outlet, I work very closely with the teams at each outlet to be able to get the true representation of the concept.
- So keeping an open mind is very crucial in working with a professional chef?
Absolutely, I think I’m very lucky for our team of chefs within the group. They are very approachable, very helpful, and very engaging about the products we’re working on. We’re all one team, who are working towards the same goal. We sit down every single day together, it’s not like some large establishments where you’ve got the kitchen team, you’ve got the front of the house, you’ve got the bar team, it’s only about 20 of us working together. Every single day at 5 o’clock, we break bread, we have food together and it’s a really great team atmosphere.
- There seems to be a trend of chefs and bartenders working closely together these days, what’s your take on that?
Yeah, it’s something that me and Angus¹ have been speaking about for the last few days. It’s about cross-collaboration between different industries. I think it’s a little bit of a global trend for the last maybe 4 or 5 years, where bartenders have been moving towards the kitchen and the chefs looking for inspiration. It’s something that we look to do every single day at Tippling Club.
¹ Angus Zou, renowned bartender, 2010 Diageo Class Taiwan Winner
- What is your take on cocktail pairing?
At Tippling Club, we weren’t the first in the world, but we are the first to bring that sort of concept to Asia. It’s pretty much the signature of Tippling Club, and we do it at special events or other outlets. It’s actually quite difficult at Tippling Club as well. Take our 10-course menu, we don’t do all cocktails. It’s just that some dishes tend to work better with wines or even beer, like the beautiful fish and chips risotto, we match a really nice pale ale with that. If a dish naturally works with wine, we don’t push cocktails on it. For maybe a 10-course meal we have probably 4 cocktail pairings. The dishes that tend to work better with cocktail pairings are maybe citrus starters — like foie gras works really well — and then desserts as well. We don’t force a cocktail pairing if something else would work better.
- When you create drinks, is smell an important sense to consider?
Yeah I guess so, I think aroma is very important. Even the simplest orange, an orange twist on top of the drink really adds an extra layer to the beverage. We worked with a company called IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances), what they did was essentially create 12 memory triggering aromas that represent our cocktails.
So what we wanted to do was to create a concept that’s really unique. Fragrances are such an important part of flavor, and lots of people don’t realize that. About 80% of flavors actually come from your nose through a process called retronasal olfaction, and that’s when you eat and chew, you push the aroma molecules into your nasal cavity, so it is very much about a flavor-driven menu. We want to make sure the menu is quite unique; a sharing experience. People can take the actual menu out and pass it around to friends. We want people to engage, to create multiple responses. We actually encourage people to take it [the menu] as well because it’s our like our calling card, so the next day, having a coffee with friends and talking you can say “Oh! Look where I was last night!”
- Why did you use “scent” as the main theme to your cocktail menu?
The whole process was through evolution really. It started the first day at the Tippling Club, Chef Ryan asked “what you want to do with the cocktail menu?” I said “fragrance.” I think it’s not been done before in the industry. It’s something that’s really overlooked. And he was thinking the same. So after numerous creative sessions, it was originally going to be like a scratch and sniff menu (scratch the paper and you smell it), but we want it to be more engaging, something people could share, and then it evolved to be about triggering memory, and before you know it, you’ve got a menu.
- You mentioned that triggering people’s memories is something you strive for, why is that?
We want people to relive those cherished childhood memories. A great example of memory trigger is, I don’t know if you have it in Taiwan, but definitely in the UK and Singapore, there are Crayola Crayons. Immediately when you say “Crayola Crayons”, it takes you back a little bit right? That’s what we want to do with aromas, like when you smell something, it takes you back to something that was very dear to you. Some of them are more conceptual, like rain, forest, grass, but we also have some that are more literal, like pear, jasmine, and sparkling orange.
- After creating matching aromas, what do you do with the actual taste of the drink?
The aromas are essentially representative of the drinks, so there are some translations to that. If we take the rain, there’s a compound in the chemical smell of the rain which is called petrichor geosmin. Geosmin is very present in beet juice, so what we do is essentially make a rain spirit by distilling the beet juice, it comes out completely clear, and it has wet, earthy sort of the taste of the cocktail as well.
- At Tippling Club, you also practice farm to table?
In Singapore, we take a lot of flavors from the garden, which is an old 9-hole golf course that has been converted to a restaurant with a garden. So anything used in the drinks there is grown in the garden. A lot of flavors come from the gardens as well, with the dishes. Ryan does the food, and I do the drinks.
It’s not official, but we call it like “farm to shaker”, so everyday the guys would pick the herbs and fruits and we make preparations, cook in sous vide, infusion, or even just for garnishes. It’s obvious Singapore doesn’t grow its own produce, it’s too small. We still take as much as possible.
- How do you define a good bar?
For me, a good bar is somewhere you feel at home. I’ve been reading a little bit about a concept called the third place, and it’s so true. You’ve always got a first place which is home, second place is work, and the third place is like a communal area. Having food and drink is great, but the main reason people go there is to socialize, have a good time, and end up feeling good. I think that’s the most important thing for a bar, whether it’s a dive bar, pub, or hotel, as long as you’re being hosted by somebody, you’re coming here to have a great experience, that’s the most important thing.
- How do you define a good bartender?
I think it’s about being a good host — that, for me is simply what defines a good bartender. I’ve had experiences before in dive rock bars in London or even in Shanghai. Somebody is there smiling, they’re engaging you, and making you laugh. That’s a good bartender. It doesn’t matter how many variation of gin or martini you can make, that’s not important. What’s important is people.
It’s hospitality you know, whether people say they’re a bartender or like a mixologist or whatever they want to call themselves, we work in hospitality, it’s not service, it’s hospitality.
＊NOM Magazine Cares: Do Not Drink and Drive. Excessive Drinking can be Harmful.
Special Thanks to Taipei Marriott Hotel INGE’s Bar and Angus Zou
By: Kobe Tseng
Editor: Darice Chang, Cindy Lo
Photo Credit: Joe Schofield, Ada Lin