Blink and you’ll miss it. A small shophouse with anonymous gray walls and peeling paint and a half-closed grill. Anyway, the eye-catching graffiti wall across the street for the save-the-rhinos campaign usually hogs all the attention of passersby. But through the grill at number 12 Phan Liem a slash of pink neon underlines some delicate steel lettering that reads ‘Apothecary’ and through the door, you’re plunged into a cocktail bar as a laboratory of libations.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
Inside Apothecary Bar Saigon, there are antique microscopes on the shelves, pictures on the wall of laboratories and periodic tables, and prints of anatomical drawings, cabinets containing models of the human body and chemistry books, and in the entrance to the atrium, a stuffed ostrich.
Although it’s so dark you have to squint to take your counter seat, or to walk through to the staircase to the 1st floor, it’s not really a speakeasy; more a post-speakeasy – a kind of dimly lit highly-conceptualized drinking den.
The cocktails, mostly named after famous physicists, biologists and inventors – Issac Newton, Marie Curie and Charles Darwin – are equally elaborate and antiquated; squirts of salted foam, carefully placed pickled mushroom garnishes, different pre-made cordials and handmade sodas, and dashes of different bitters precisely mixed and presented on tiny aluminum trays. It might be the best bar in Saigon right now.
“This old building always fascinated me,” founder and designer Nguyen Ngoc Duy, from DR Studio which he established in 2015, explains. The young, dynamic team also created the interior for Boheme Saigon and DrinkArt by #MợJen in Dalat. “When I was studying at the University of Architecture I’d pass by here a lot. And I often stopped in front of this house. It was always closed. I wondered how this magical old house could be here, in the middle of District 1, but on a relatively quiet street, and unoccupied,” he adds.
“When I finally rented it, I fell in love – it’s not big or ostentatious, but there’s something special about it. And in the design for the Apothecary Bar Saigon I wanted to retain that spirit.” The original building – old floor tiles and exposed concrete walls – seamlessly blends with the new furnishings and pharmaceutical fittings. “I guess that stems from my love of tradition and history – and I had to persuade the landlord not to make any major renovations to this 50-year-old house. Then I set about searching for a concept, something a little strange that would stimulate people’s senses,” Duy continues. And he settled on the idea of an apothecary, a kind of old-world clinical workshop.
Duy quickly felt a link between the work of pharmacists and physicians and the modern-day work of the mixologists at Apothecary Bar Saigon: “We definitely saw the parallel between the work of laboratory workers and the kind of handmade cocktails we wanted to produce – drinks we had to research and develop heavily.”
And as with the best bars, at Apothecary Bar Saigon, it’s best to dispense with pre-conceptions and preferences and explore the entire signatures menu: The Dmitri Mendaleav, named after the Russian chemist and inventor, that is made up of white rum, mia lau kumquat cordial, pandan and a handmade soda; the Charles Darwin with Alfonso Gran Reserva XO Brandy, Benedictine, beetroot cordial, Angostura Bitters, cacao and a mushroom shiitake garnish.
“As a guest, I’d order our signature Leonarda Da Vinci,” Duy muses, “a historical figure I really admire, and a drink made with whiskey, ginger honey, Peychaud’s bitters, Saint James bitters, and a salted foam, and I’d sit upstairs where you feel absolute privacy while being able to watch the gentle flow of people and activities in the bar downstairs.”
And once the drinks are made, they’re slid across the counter top for testing beneath the carefully poised lighting. “I wanted to create this sense of illicit lighting, like an after-hours laboratory where the team is working overtime,” Duy smiles, “and where the lighting adds to the sense of privacy and intimacy – never shining in the face of guests. We took it right down to 30%, where I felt it added to the mystery and curiosity of the space.”
Then there’s that ostrich. It’s the unassuming star of the Apothecary Bar Saigon space, even though some other birds have gathered around; spotlit, and standing as if it’s about to take off at high speed at any minute. “I love lots of these old artforms like taxidermy. And here, the ostrich fit the concept of a scientific research institute that goes beyond human anatomy and includes animal specimens. It’s definitely a highlight of the interior design, but one that should fit into the overall concept…so I’m not going to tell you its name,” Duy shakes his head.
Photos by Nghia Ngo