Drinking stories

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31 May 2019 | PEOPLE

Drinking stories

// Story Benita Teo / Photos Chai Sian Liang & courtesy of 2WO (NS) Koh

English Melayu

Public relations professional-turned-chef-turned-bartender 2WO (NS) David Koh serves up bespoke cocktails with a twist.

A chef walks into a bar. This tale doesn't end with a punchline, but with the success story of 2nd Warrant Officer (2WO) (NS) David Koh. The 38-year-old turned two of his passions into a one-of-a-kind bespoke cocktail business.

When you enter Bar Stories, a cosy drinking hole on the second floor of a Haji Lane shophouse, don't expect a menu. Instead, you'll be greeted by owner 2WO (NS) Koh's welcoming smile as he patiently notes down your favourite flavours to create a cocktail tailored to your tastes.

Raising the bar

The former chef got his job at Bar Stories, one of the pioneers of craft cocktails in Singapore, by chance. Its then-manager overheard that he wanted to leave the restaurant line, and offered him a job behind the bar. That was in 2010, and he never left.

Two years ago, he bought over the bar with two partners.

His culinary skills have served him well. "The kitchen experience gave me a sense of flavours and aesthetics… We developed techniques to best extract the flavours. For example, we cold-press pineapples, and blend and strain passion fruits. How we garnish and plate our cocktails is also similar to what you see in restaurants."

The result? A special brand of cocktails where each ingredient is very precisely treated — grapes are muddled (crushed) and beetroots are salt-baked; other items are sous vided (vaccum-sealed food cooked in a water bath) or fat-washed. They are then mixed together and presented like a gourmet dish.

Lover of F&B (food and booze)

A self-professed foodie, 2WO (NS) Koh used to cook for friends in National Service (NS) and university before trying his hand in the professional kitchen.

An incident during NS opened his eyes to bartending: "We had a party and my friend made the drinks while I was sweating away at the barbecue. He got all the girls and I was like, ‘I'm in the wrong job!' (laughs) So I switched to learning to make drinks."

But make no mistake, running a menu-less bar is no easy job.

"It's actually a lot of hard work because you have to prepare for almost every eventuality," he explained.

He recalled the strangest order he has ever received: "Someone asked for the taste of the sea. I happened to have sea urchin, so we made something like a Bloody Mary: we added roasted tomatoes, sea urchin, tequila, black garlic, and miso and wasabi to go with the Japanese vibe. They liked it."

Just don't ask for the Singaporean favourite: the "Anything".

"People might think it means we can do anything and it's easy. But let's say I make it sweet and you don't like sweet cocktails, then it won't be what you want. We like customers to give us a general direction," he said.

Conversely, his favourite customers are adventurous and "willing to take that little leap of faith" with new flavours.

A toast to brotherhood

When 2WO (NS) Koh isn't concocting new drinks, he's busy as the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of 772nd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (772 SIR).

In fact, this is his second tour of duty — the Infantryman completed his NS obligations in 2012 as the Company Sergeant Major of 680 SIR, but continued under the Reservist On Voluntary Extended Reserve Service (ROVERS) scheme.

Asked what kept him coming back, and his answer was easy: the people, especially his buddies from 680 SIR.

He remembered "forcing" his way into ICT once: "I was studying overseas and happened to be back for vacation when my unit had ICT. I was told I didn't have to go, but I didn't want to miss out and be posted to another unit.

So on that day I just showed up! (laughs) In the end, I managed to enter the MINDEF Reserve with my unit."

"I see it (NS) as my way of giving back to the country and society," he said.

As a former public relations professional who had worked in the United States, he added: "I've lived in many places because my dad was a diplomat, and I have to say Singapore is home and it's an amazing place. So I do what I can."

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