From 10¢ glasses of local drafts sipped on tiny stools on street corners in Vietnam to $2 1.5L pitchers of ice cold lager in Cambodia, Asia has developed something of a reputation amongst budget-conscious travelers who enjoy a tipple or two. By and large, Asia’s reputation as the land of low-cost liquor is well-earned, but there are a few places where booze will break the bank, Singapore being chief among them. Though you can stuff yourself for a pittance in the Lion City, washing down your meal with an adult beverage will see you hemorrhaging money at a worrying pace.
It’s not uncommon on trips with the scope of ours for those involved to go on a pilgrimage or two along the way; in our case, this meant visiting the place where Singapore’s namesake drink—the Singapore Sling—was invented. This is the kind of irreverent quest we love and took us to the very posh Raffles Hotel, its Colonial architecture calling to mind the stately old-world majesty of plantations you find deep in America’s low country in cities like Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. But prices like the one we found at the Long Bar would never stand in the Deep South, oh no! Though the frivolous notion of how amusing it would be to sip a Sling in Singapore had got us this far, it could not get us past the S$26 (~$20US) price tag for one drink. Although the novelty of the experience surely has some value, splashing out nearly $50US on what was ultimately a whim neither of us was particularly invested in just wasn’t something we were willing to do and we quickly took our leave.
With one cocktail in the city costing as much as an entire day in Vietnam, we knew we would have to switch focus and get a bit creative when it came to nabbing ourselves a drink. We undertook marathon brainstorming session in which we ran through all of Singapore’s premier attractions, and discovered that as the home of Tiger beer, it is actually possible to tour the Tiger brewery. We’ve never done a brewery or distillery tour where some kind of drinking wasn’t involved (even at the Jack Daniels distillery, which is ironically located in a dry country in Tennessee, you still get a glass of lemonade at the end!) so we decided a visit there was in order. And because we had decided to splurge on a multi-day park-hopper pass when visiting the Night Safari on Christmas Day, we decided to make a full day outing of it by adding in a visit to the somewhat nearby Jurong Bird Park. And so the day called “Birds & Beer!” was born! Best of all, we convinced Chris to shirk his responsibilities and spend the day with us as well!
Truth be told, I didn’t really feel all that passionate about birds prior to visiting Jurong and were it not for our park-hopper pass, we probably wouldn’t have made a visit here a priority. That would have been a real shame, however, because the park wound up being a lot of fun and it turns out that birds are a lot more fascinating than I had previously believed. Maybe because birds are actually Dinosaurs!
I did actually know that tidbit of trivia before our visit to the park, but knowing a fact and believing a fact are two completely different things. I mean, even if you accept that science says that a sparrow and a velociraptor are somehow related, no one would fault you for never guessing that or for maybe even secretly harboring doubts about the veracity of those findings. A trip to Jurong and gazing on some of the utterly freaky creatures masquerading as birds will cause you to doubt the link no longer!
Take the utterly macabre Marabou stork (also known as colloquially as the “Undertaker Bird”), who was like something straight out of a nightmare. Slowly stalking about his pen, I had never seen such a grotesque, terrifying bird.
Less frightening, but no less weird, was the giant Shoebill, which looks positively prehistoric and also like a muppet come to life. Often we think of birds as nimble, flightly little things, but this guy lumbered about, ungainly and blundering, slowly oscillating his head around to keep you in the field of his piercing gaze. I couldn’t decide whether he delighted me or creeped me out. Probably a little bit of both.
We also got to see the Cassowary, a flightless bird that looks like an exotic, alien turkey and is believed to be an ancestor to the Dinosaur. His bright colors and ostentatious plumage (which almost looks like fur!) were mesmerizing; meeting his unblinking stare, you realize you are looking at something that is powered purely by a reptilian brain. As he skulked about the bushes, rustling the foliage about him, digging with his ferocious scaled talons, my imagination easily catapulted him into the Jurassic Park films. Certainly the atmosphere of the park helped out: there is a quiet decrepitude about the place that makes it feel slightly abandoned and lost to time. A monorail once shuttled visitors about the park; it no longer runs, but the tracks still wend overhead, offering a roost for some of the parks avian residents and acting as a trellis for dense-growing vines. The air is still and for the most part silent as though everyone is watching, listening, waiting.
The Toucans and Hornbills added another dino dimension to our visit, in large part because, well, they’re so large! Some of those guys were seriously massive and in the few cases when we saw them lurch from one perch to another, they seemed more like cannonballs with wings and I was surprised that they were managed to remain airborne. Their size really emphasized to me just how old these creatures really must be and also how wild. They clearly belong to world that is much more mysterious and far more primal than the one I inhabit.
The three of us really got a kick out of seeing the exotic and rare birds that the park had on display, and some of them—like the Plumed Pigeons and the Birds of Paradise and the Heliconias—didn’t strike even a splinter of fear into me. I was dazzled by the array of colors on display, which is also one of the things I love most about diving—seeing all the creatures with all the intense, vibrant colors that most land-based animals seem to lack—and I realized that birds were far from boring. I thought we might spend 2 hours max checking out Jurong, but we were there for over 3 hours, and if we didn’t have the Tiger brewery up next we probably would have stayed even longer. Definitely a successful outing and well worth a visit while in Singapore.
As these things generally are, the brewery is kind of in the middle of nowhere, although there is a busline that runs right by it; we opted to take a cab from the bird park because we were worried we wouldn’t make the final tour of the day otherwise. Our taxi driver generally knew where we were going, in that he knew where the brewery was, but not how to actually get into it, so we were left somewhat unceremoniously by the side of the road and walked the rest of the way in. We each paid our S$16, and 10 minutes later, our tour began.
In the States, most brewery tours are free, so given the admission price, we expected the Tiger tour to be pretty kick-ass. In reality, there was a lot of filler and most of the tour involved multimedia displays and videos that showed the process of brewing, bottling, and selling Tiger, as well as several other brews that are created on the grounds (like Heineken, ABC, SOL, Anchor, and even a few ciders!). We didn’t get to see much action happening right before our eyes, and parts of the tour where our guide had to actually speak to the video and pretend he was interacting with the people on it were downright cringe-worthy. The reality is that beer is brewed pretty much the same all over the world, so the tour wasn’t exactly scintillating. I would say that the best part of the entire tour portion was at the end when our guide showed us how to pour the perfect pint and let a few people give it a try. It’s actually much more difficult than it looks, and Tony’s attempt resulted in an overflowing glass.
The real highlight of the evening, however, was undoubtedly what happened after the tour was finished. You see, if all you got for your S$16 (~$12US) was an hour-long tour that is pretty insipid, I don’t think anyone would even bother with the thing or call it a good value. BUT the real thing of beauty about the Tiger distillery tour is that it ends at the brewery bar and for 45 minutes, you get all the beer you can drink! And it’s not just Tiger, though that—along with Heineken—is poured by the pint. A selection of other beers brewed by Asia Pacific Breweries are also on offer, though you get much smaller pours of these (though you can have as many as you like).
At a bar, it’s not unusual for a pint of beer to go for S$10, so for what you pay, so long as you don’t mind pounding back your drinks, it’s clear that the Tiger distillery tour is Singapore’s best kept drinking secret.
Needless to say, we were too busy drinking to take photos while at the bar (I have no proof, but I think at one point we were all double-fisting our drinks). All told, I think we had at least 4 pints… each. Clearly, we had an excellent time, and when we stumbled out to the bus stop three quarters of an hour later, we all were feeling a bit giddy. We capped off the day by heading to Jason’s, an international grocery chain popular with expats and went wild, filling our arms with snacks and favorite foods that we hadn’t seen in months. Tony almost started weeping when he found the “Mexican” aisle, replete with tortilla chips and salsa. I wasn’t much better when I found the cheese section, and when Chris discovered we had never tried Tim Tam’s, a popular chocolate cookie from Australia, he immediately tossed several different flavors in the cart.
From there, everything gets hazy, though I know that quesadillas were made (courtesy of yours truly) and possibly an ill-advised bottle of wine was consumed. Sometimes it’s best for what happens in Singapore to stay in Singapore, and sometimes memories that would otherwise last a lifetime, only last an evening. But one thing is clear: Birds & Beer was a raging success!