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Sling Cocktail History

This photo of a classic Singapore Sling reminds bartenders of the importance of writing down recipes and tasting notes, so they don't get lost in time. (© alexshyripa/123RF photo)

The sling predates the cocktail, which by definition is a bittered sling.

The Sling predates the cocktail. Originally it was cold drink. Then became a hot drink. So how did it become a cold drink again?

Here are a couple of points to set the stage: First, the sling has evolved from a basic hot drink, with simple ingredients, into a complex concoction of expensive liqueurs. Second, no two bartenders make slings the same way. Third, slings predate cocktails, which by definition are ‘bittered’ slings. This is why there’s so much confusion and differences between recipes.

Also, slings also got a really bad rap back in the 1980s. That’s because many bar owners, in order to maximize profits, instructed bartenders to hold back and not dump out all the bad pours, mistakes and accidents. These were emptied into a mixing glass and kept hidden from customer view, behind the bar, until someone ordered a Sling. Then this swamp water was poured over ice with grenadine to make it red and a Sling was served. Luckily the cocktail world is beyond that now.

The original sling was an American invention. It was ordered by the base spirit, usually gin, brandy or whisky. The recipe called for 2 oz of gin, 1 oz of water, one teaspoon sugar and two small lumps of ice. The gin and brandy slings had nutmeg grated on top, the whisky sling did not.

Later on, the trend was to serve slings hot, by using boiling water and omitting the ice. In fact, this comment appears in Harry Johnson’s 1882 Bartender’s Manual under the recipe for the Cold Whiskey Sling, “This is an old-fashioned drink, generally called for by old gentlemen.”

So how did the cold sling get revived? Harry Johnson published a pamphlet of his recipes around 1860. By 1869 there were over 10,000 copies made. They were ‘picked up’ by training guides like, “Haney’s Steward & Barkeepers Manual” who revised the popularity of the cold sling, thanks to the newly invented ice making machines, that were making their way into the big cities.

The cold Sling got a further revival of sorts, when the Singapore Sling was created around 1915 at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The problem is that they stopped serving the drink around 1930 and forgot how to make it. The recipe published on their menu isn’t likely to be the same one as the one back in the day, since it’s based on the memories of bartenders and patrons.

Most early Singapore Sling recipes, like the one in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, call only for gin, cherry brandy and lemon juice, shaken, topped with soda water and served with a lump of ice.

  • 1 fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cherry brandy
  • 1 gin (or base spirit)
  • soda water
  1. Shake & strain into a large ice filled glass.
  2. Top with soda and stir slightly.
  3. Garnish with a fruit stick and straw.

It’s also interesting to note that right below the Singapore Sling recipe in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, is a recipe for a Straights Sling. It adds Benedictine, Angostura bitters and orange bitters. That makes it very similar to the Singapore Sling that’s currently on the Raffles Hotel Menu, which they claim is the original.

The union standard Simple Singapore Sling is here. The Original Version of Raffles Hotel Singapore Sling is here. But keep in mind that the Raffle’s cocktail resembles a 1930s Straights Sling, more than it does a Singapore Sling. The ‘authentic’ recipe remains a mystery.


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