Despite, or perhaps due to its tiny geographical footprint, the young nation of Singapore is perpetually striving to be the best at everything, resulting in a luxurious tourist-friendly paradise that’s teeming with superlatives. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that five of the spots from The World’s 50 Best Bars List are located within its borders.
On a recent trip to Singapore, I drank at one of those bars, tucked away in the basement of a nondescript building with no signage other than some small symbols next to the front door that resembled hobo code. Though it appears you’re about to enter a fight club, your walk down the stairs is actually taking you to Operation Dagger, a mad scientist lab of a bar founded by Luke Whearty and Aki Nishikura in 2013. Its humdrum exterior intentionally juxtaposes the sexy, opulent, but never pretentious lounge within, at which you’ll have some of the best libations of your life.
After sampling a few of their house specialties, I spoke with the bar’s shining star, sous bartender Sasha Wijidessa, about her journey into the bartending world, Dagger’s drink ideation process and why mixologists suck.
How did you come to discover bartending was your calling?
I’m sure I’m speaking for a majority when I say bartending was never a job that, as a six-year-old, you say, “When I grow up, I want to be a bartender!” I hear people joking about how bartending is what you do when you’re “in between jobs” or “in transition.”
Bartending for me just sort of happened. I first took it up part time during my studies [for a diploma in Pharmaceutical Science] as a way to get extra cash. Soon I realized I really loved and enjoyed every part of it: being in a creative space, making drinks, the creative process, interacting with people and customer service. So, after my graduation, I was kind of at a crossroads. It was either further my studies or continue bartending full time. I’d never been so passionate and devoted to anything else I’d ever done—not that I’d done much at only age 19—so it seemed only fair to myself to choose to do something that I love, so I chose Dagger.
Dagger was a space that made me really happy. Getting instant gratification from the drinks you’ve made—I like constant validation—seeing people having a good time at the bar and knowing you’ve had a part in that. Those things made me really happy, and if I could be happy and still make a career out of it, why not?
Do you bristle at or try to avoid certain labels like mixologist?
Oh, yes. Right on our staff tee it says “
Mixologist wanker,” which serves as a daily self-reminder more than anything else. Calling yourself a mixologist is taking yourself too seriously, which is fine by all accounts, but this, in turn, creates bartenders who prioritize themselves or their drink over their customers. At the end of the day, we’re in the service industry, so that notion goes against your key role of providing a service. We make drinks, not save lives. Calm down, folks.
How did you come to meet Luke Whearty and get taken under his wing?
In 2014, I was working at British gastropub Oxwell & Co, which was just next door to Dagger, and that was when, according to my bio, “displaying a keen grasp of the fundamentals behind cocktail-making, Sasha captured the attention of Luke Whearty—the brains behind the concept of Operation Dagger and was invited to join the bar’s founding team.” I’ve been a happy camper at Dagger ever since.
What’s your process like when conceiving of, experimenting with, perfecting and pitching new drinks for the menu?
The creative process that we have in place at Dagger is pretty structured. As Luke would always remind us, “We create order to create in chaos. Ninety-nine percent order, one percent magic, as [elBulli chef] Ferran Adria said.”
Inspiration for a drink can come from anywhere. It can come from something you ate, or a song that you’ve heard, or a book that you’ve read. Once we have the initial idea, we then move to the next phase: research and development. During this stage of the creative process, we work out what it is we want to achieve and how we’re going to achieve it. As a guideline, we write down our aim, method and our results. Then we work from those results until we’ve got a satisfactory final product. Once completed, we then begin to test the visual aspects of the drink.
Although it’s a very systematic process, there are definitely times where this isn’t the order of sequence, and that’s fine as well because this system in place isn’t a hard rule that we have to follow, but more a guideline to help with the entirety of it. I think it’s most important that the creative process should always remain organic.
What other behind-the-scenes work are you doing when not making drinks for customers?
I’m the Bar Manager/Sous Bartender at Operation Dagger, so when I am not making drinks for customers, I am doing all things “management” in Dagger: from taking care of the team, to anything back-end, from handling event enquiries and reservations to liaising with suppliers to the financial side of the business and, lastly, maintenance of the bar. You’d be surprised at how much attention this little basement requires. I’m now a certified handyman. Not really, but kinda, but not really, but still, kinda.
How do you select the drink names? They’re all song titles, right?
Well, this is embarrassing for you, Justin Caffier. On the current menu, the only drink named after a song title is the Pork Soda, which is actually inspired by the Glass Animals song. The drink does actually contain pork and is also carbonated to be quite similar to a soda, so it literally reads as it tastes.
Other than a few exceptions, I think the drink names are pretty straightforward, and typically read as what they are or what they taste like. Otherwise, we name them after a specific inspiration that we get while doing R&D for the drink, like the Poison Oasis 1981, which references Jean Michel Basquiat’s painting of the same name.
How do you incorporate Singapore and local culture into your drinks?
Up to this point in my career, I don’t think I’ve actually incorporated Singapore and local culture or flavors into my drinks. However, we have recently started working with more local producers and suppliers, and the whole process up to this point has been pretty amazing. We have been in operation for almost five years now, and we truly believe the next step for Dagger would be to work more with locals and source more local ingredients for our menu. This stronger relationship helps us better understand our produce and product, which allows us to use them in the best way we know how.
What are some incorrect assumptions people have about your bar?
The biggest one would be our guests assume our drinks menu is not a drinks menu. I can’t count the number of times that a customer goes, “I don’t want the food menu, where’s your drink menu?” after we hand them our cocktail menu. Or they think that we don’t have any alcohol in our cocktail offerings. If I had a penny for every time someone told me we look like an AESOP shop, I would have like 98 pennies by now.
What has been one of the most challenging things for you to learn or master over the course of your career?
I guess it would probably be learning how to handle people, both our guests and staff at Dagger.
With guests it’s little things like handling someone who’s had too much to drink, or defusing a situation, or even just handling challenging requests. It all requires tact and a cool head. And because everything happens in “real time,” it needs to be solved then and there. You don’t have time to process the problem, or dwell on it. You just have to be quick on your feet and come up with a solution, not knowing if you made the right call, and that to me is something I’m still learning.
With staff it’s mainly because everyone has different personalities, skill sets and weaknesses, so it’s all about organizing everyone and being able to capitalize on their strengths but also helping them to grow and improve where they’re not as strong.
What do you do when someone tries to order something awful at your bar and completely misses the point of the experience? What’s the weirdest request you’ve received?
So long as we have the ingredients, I’d mostly make it for them anyway. At the end of the day, Dagger will always be a bar first. For some of our guests, Dagger could be just that. Dagger could just be a nice spot to unwind and hang out after work, or to catch up with old friends or have a girls’ night out. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong when it comes to personal preferences since it’s something so subjective. Each to their own, I guess. What to me could be the best drink ever could be the drink of Satan’s choosing to someone else, so who am I to turn my nose up?
Don’t get me wrong, I love and am super proud of what we do in Dagger, and I consider myself very lucky to be a part of the team and working here, but I’m not forcing my beliefs and pushing my agenda down someone else’s throat. If you get it, great. If you don’t, that’s perfectly fine as well.
The weirdest request I’ve received was probably a year and a half ago when a guy came down and asked us for a Teh Tarik—a very traditional hot milk tea served in almost every coffee shop in Singapore. Question marks were floating everywhere in the room that night.
What’s a current trend in the bar world that you love and one that you hate?
The emergence of local pride and an increased emphasis on using native inspirations in drinks is probably the most interesting and current trend. The diversity of new ideas and drinks that result from paying homage to where you come from elevates the standard of bars worldwide.
Going pretty much hand in hand with the above would be the sustainability movement as well. The F&B [food and beverage] industry has a big carbon footprint, and bars and restaurants do generate a lot of waste. So, seeing a rise towards sustainability within the F&B industry in recent years, and especially in 2018, has been truly amazing and long overdue.
There isn’t a particular bar trend at the moment that I hate per se. As far as current trends go, I don’t think there is one movement that would be detrimental to the industry. However, what I hate about most trends are people jumping on them for the wrong reasons. I think most movements have a purpose and value, but when it becomes a fad or a trend, sometimes the bigger picture gets forgotten, and actions taken toward a specific trend are only being done for the sake of being “woke” or trendy” or “on brand.”
Describe a “hot + cold” and what it’s like for you to drink it.
The hot + cold is an Operation Dagger classic and has been on the menu since day one. Think of it almost like a deconstructed piña colada. Like the name suggests, on the top is a white chocolate and coconut foam served warm, and at the bottom, pineapples, lavender and citrus served cold with tequila blanco.
I think it’s best if I leave the describing of “what it’s like to drink it” to you. You’re the writer here after all.
Justin here: It’s an amazing, complex drink. Sweet, but not cloyingly so. If you’ve ever had a Dole Whip at Disneyland, it’s sort of the boozy version of that.
What do you drink when off the clock?
Tea, because I can’t spill it.
If we’re talking about alcoholic liquid refreshments, then a beer is good. I don’t really like the fuss, to be honest, but I don’t really drink much to begin with anyway. If it’s just general beverages, then coffee. Loads of it.