We spoke to head bartender of Operation Dagger Luke Whearty about bespoke cocktails, making pineapple beer and how to build your own home bar.
Operation Dagger – currently one of our favourite hangs – is more than just another of those hard-to-find bars. (Psst, look for the glass door on the building behind Oxwell & Co. bar). When you do find it and descend to its bunker-like space, your first and lasting impression of the decor is the complete absence of branded booze bottles that blight some many bars. In its place are apothecary-like containers and appurtenances of cocktail art. As we have since learned, Dagger ferments, brews, meads and ages a lot of their own spirits – which of course takes bespoke to the next level. We spoke to Luke Whearty, the main man and instigator of Operation Dagger –– about life lessons, good service and getting a home bar right.
What’s the idea behind Operation Dagger? What’s the impetus, what triggered it?
“I suppose I just wanted to provide something different. I’ve been working in bars for many years now and I guess I get a little tired of seeing the same thing over and over. Being specific to cocktails, I find it interesting that you go to London, New York, Paris, Melbourne, Singapore and a lot of the bars are essentially serving the sane drinks.
Whereas in the restaurant world, you don’t go to a restaurant in South Africa and you have the same thing as you have in Sweden. So I wanted to get a bit of that sense of time and place, a sense of uniqueness. For example, even for a basic gin – we distil our own gin – we sat down (me and the guys) and we worked out what flavour profile we want. So the drinks we make at Dagger are quite experimental, quite left-of-centre. But in saying that we still wanna make the right classics.
If someone orders a negroni or Manhattan or a martini, they can still, but it will have some element of difference because we’ve taken the time to dissect it, and we’ve made something unique. So pretty much in a nutshell, any drink you experience here you’re not gonna get anywhere else.”
When you say “unique”, we get it, but it’s pretty ambitious, right?
“Going back to the idea of concept, a lot of it has to do with my boredom, really. I feel like if I’m entertaining myself, and producing drinks that I’m proud of, and really getting a kick out of serving people, then hopefully the feelings will be reflected. And thankfully it has been since we’ve been doing it. It has been a big risk in terms of doing something different, it’s much easier to follow the mold, down that path that’s already been travelled, but the rewards are a lot greater if you go down a different path. If someone asked me to open Operation Dagger five years ago – when I was with Tippling Club – I’d have said, ‘no, you’re crazy it wouldn’t work’. But the bar scene in Singapore has grown a lot, and there’s much more awareness and customers are much more educated, and they’re out to have something different.”
Are you also big on local ingredients and big on localising the flavours?
“I’m a huge fan of that, massively. I don’t think you’ll find someone in the bar world as passionate about that as me. There are challenges in doing that in Singapore: there’s not a lot of agriculture here, there’s not a lot of native ingredients, everything’s imported. I’m used to having seasonal menus back home in Melbourne: blackberries growing up the road; we’ll pick jasmine and distil it, that’s what really excites me. In Singapore there’s not a lot of opportunities to do that, so we’ve had to adapt a little.
For instance we do a lot of fermentation here. A simple form of that is mead – honey wine. I wasn’t really familiar with that at all, which is quite surprisingly since for the majority of my life I’ve been working in bars, and I’m not familiar with one of the world’s oldest beverages.
Out of that challenge came something new, we experimented, we used wines that would normally go to waste – other bars would turn them into vinegar wine – we turn them into kombuchas, or mead at the moment. One that I’m really excited about is a drink called “tepache”, a South American drink with fermented pineapple and beer.
We grow some stuff on our rooftop, at the moment we’ve got a chocolate mint drink, a menu based on the chocolate mint that we grow. Or rosemary as well, as much stuff as we can grow ourselves.” (Read about another bar that’s also big on local ingredients).
Give us a good tip, like when the bar is really busy, how does someone get your attention? Like waving dollar bills is just obnoxious.
Laughs. “[If someone did that…] I’d walk to the other side of the bar! To be honest, if they’re patient, if they sit there and show us enough respect, they’ll get served eventually. No one gets favouritism in the bar, but our whole service is structured around minimising those wait times and making sure people are comfortable. Just sit back and relax we’ll get to you.”
What life lessons have you learned, working behind the bar?
“Life lessons?! You’re getting really deep on me! [Laughs]. Every day I learn life lessons. Back to what I said before, I’m not saving lives here, sometimes, just try not to take yourself so seriously. Enjoy what you’re doing, I learnt that quite early in life, whatever you do for a living, you have to enjoy it. My parents really instilled that in me. In Singapore there’s a huge pressure on being successful, pressure from family or friends, to be a banker or lawyer – if you’re miserable then what’s it worth? I like working with local guys who have a passion, and I can help them to realise that it is a career, they can push forward. And also another life lesson I’ve learned is – you can’t please everyone. Don’t try to be all things to everyone. Just stick to what you do, along the way you’re gonna get haters, but if you truly believe in it, stick to it and eventually you’ll have people come around and appreciate what you do.”
In Singapore, where do you go drink?
I’m a big fan of Manhattan bar, I think they’ve done an amazing job with the design, and you feel like you’re stepping back in time. I’m a big fan of the boys at the Tippling Club. Tippling’s always gonna be pushing the limits in terms of food and drinks. And I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for them ’cos I worked there for a bit, especially the boys at the bar.
And also I have to mention 28 Hong Kong, purely because I think they really set the standard in Singapore, they really raised the bar. It wouldn’t be possible for me to come here and do this without them, so, tip of the hat to them.
Somebody wants a basic home bar – what are 7-8 spirits that they should stock?
You definitely need a good gin, one that you like. Same goes with a rum, a couple of whiskies, a blended whisky and an aged one, maybe an Islay whisky. Definitely need a good quality sweet and dry vermouth, if you’re gonna be mixing cocktails. [He didn’t mention vodka, “it’s not very exciting”].
Tequila, just a blanco tequila, so you get to appreciate the spirit, with a mescal. A lot of tequilas these days are super aged, they’re almost like a whisky – not really what tequila is all about. I really like Ocho, they have like single origin tequilas, the agave is grown in one specific plot, at one specific soil area, so you have that sense of terroir. And maybe a few bitters, some Campari, maraschino. And with those you could maybe mix thousands of drinks. (After you build your bar, here’s how you can plan the best parties).
More info at Operation Dagger. (Somewhere in the corner of Ann Siang Road and Club Street, it’s behind Oxwell & Co. – look for the glass door).