The Million Dollar Cocktail is another classic cocktail from the first golden age of bartending. Like the legendary Singapore Sling, it too is reputed to have been created by the great Hainanese-Chinese bartender, Ngiam Tong Boon. This likely occurred during the first few years of the 20th century, in Raffles Hotel, Singapore.
As I go into greater detail in it’s own post, the recipe for the Singapore Sling was lost over time. And then painstakingly pieced back together like an ancient shattered vase. A part of Singapore’s cultural heritage which was recreated from living memory. I am unsure as to whether the Million Dollar Cocktail went through the same process of loss and reconstruction. Or whether it somehow survived the passage of time when its more illustrious companion did not.
Either way, the Million Dollar Cocktail is an excellent, old style of cocktail. Consisting of gin, vermouth, bitters, egg white and pineapple juice. It can be thought of as an old style of vermouth-heavy European cocktail (of the time) with an oriental twist. Which, hailing from Singapore, seems perfectly appropriate. It qualifies as both a Martini Variant and a Neo-Martini, and could be made in the style of a more Short and Serious cocktail too.
Cultural Heritage of Singapore
It is said that Geography is Destiny. This is certainly apparent in Singapore. The city sits on an island off the southern tip of the Malay peninsula. As such it is in the perfect position to dominate trade passing through the Straits of Malacca. One of the primary sea routes between East and West. Vast numbers of ships pass through these Straits to this day, moving huge quantities of goods between the large markets of China, India and Europe. As a regional hub for this trade, Singapore has gotten rich.
But despite the Straits of Malacca being so important to world trade for so many centuries, Singapore is a comparatively young city. At least by the standards of the Old World. It was officially founded by the British as a trading outpost in 1819, in a bid to draw trade away from other nearby ports such as Malacca. And to facilitate British trade between British held India and Imperial China. Tea, silks and porcelain accounted for the bulk of this trade coming from China. Heading to it was silver and an ever increasing quantity of opium.
True, the British had to engage in political shenanigans to obtain control of the island. Also true it wasn’t uninhabited. But a local population of barely a thousand fishermen, traders (and likely some pirates) hardly counts as an already existing city state. Not when you consider that within 5 years of its official founding the population had grown to 10,000 and would only increase further as time went on.
All of this means that Singapore doesn’t have much genuine history or unique cultural heritage. How could it, being so small and so young compared to the rest of the world? So since gaining full independence in 1965, it has tried to nurture what it does have.
This is best showcased by the renovation of the legendary Raffles Hotel in the 1980’s. This luxury hotel first opened in 1887 and slowly expanded laterally rather than vertically. The result was a pleasant, spread out compound built in a neo-colonial style. It gained a reputation for high standards, and was the first (and for a time only) hotel in the entire region to feature such modern novelties such as powered ceiling fans and electric lighting.
As such it became the place to stay for Europeans and Americans passing through the region. Diplomats and businessmen, officials and journalists, spies and secret agents. They all rubbed shoulders at Raffles. And naturally enough, they brought with them a demand for the finest of beverages money could buy. Wines, spirits, and of course, cocktails.
The combination of wealth and refined taste of the Raffles’ patrons fostered a tiny cocktail culture of exceptional bartenders. Making the classics of the day, and modifying them with locally available ingredients. The greatest of these was Ngiam Tong Boon, who created both the Singapore Sling and the Million Dollar Cocktail. In their day, these were legendary concoctions only available at Raffles. There may have been others, but these were the only ones to survive the test of time.
Decline and Revival
Alas, this golden age did not last forever. The First World War knocked the stuffing out of the world of free trade which had allowed Singapore to prosper so much. The decades before this seminal tragedy are sometimes called the first era of globalization. And Singapore had profited immensely from it.
This trading system got a second lease of life in the 1920’s, but was then cut short by the Great Depression of the 1930’s which severely diminished international trade. Singapore itself was conquered by the Japanese in WWII, with Raffles being used as an Imperial Japanese Army Headquarters building during much of it. After the Japanese surrender, the British tried to reassert control, but the days of the British Empire were coming to an end.
Singapore started to enjoy more home rule and self determination, leading ultimately to its independence from Britain in the 1960’s. Initially this was as part of a Malaysian Federation, before breaking away into the independent Republic of Singapore we know today.
Over time, this new nation sought to recapture some of the more appealing parts of its cultural heritage, leading to the renovation and re-opening of Raffles. And either the recreation or re-assembly of some of its iconic cocktails.
An Exotic Cocktail
I visited Singapore in 1999 and obtained a recipe card for the Million Dollar Cocktail. Actually I was interested in the Singapore Sling, and the recipe for the Million Dollar Cocktail happened to be on the reverse side. But it is a brilliant drink in its own right.
Looking at it one may note that it has a lot in common with the Bronx, which was a contemporary. Merely swapping orange juice for pineapple juice. But it must be noted that the Bronx was perhaps the first cocktail to ever use freshly squeezed orange juice. So this was still a novel ingredient. And that pineapples were notoriously difficult to both grow and transport outside of the tropics. So the use of pineapple juice was at the time seen as both using a locally available product and an exotic twist you can’t get back home.
Also, its creation likely occurred (we’re not sure of the exact date) during the time period where bartenders were slowly trying to convert the Manhattan to a gin based cocktail. This first resulted in the Martinez, and ultimately in the Dry Martini. But I think it’s fair to say that both the Bronx and Million Dollar Cocktail can be considered as offshoots of this creative process.
Million Dollar Cocktail
The recipe on the recipe card is quite clear, and can be followed if you like. But I do have some serious issues with it. Principally that the quantity of pineapple juice being used seems way too high. Using four times as much pineapple juice as gin will surely result in a tall drink, like a Singapore Sling. Yet using vermouth and egg white instead argues for a martini-style drink more akin to a Bronx. To my mind this makes for a superior cocktail, so this is the way I make it.
Due to the use of egg white the Million Dollar Cocktail needs to be shaken twice. First a dry shake without ice to emulsify the egg white. Then a main shake to chill and dilute the drink.
Then dry shake, wet shake, and strain out into a martini glass (or equivalent). Garnish with a slice of pineapple.