Sago House’s Jay Gray just woke up. This interview about how they won the Art Of Hospitality Award at Asia’s 50 Bars 2023 was supposed to be four hours ago. “Dude! I am so, so sorry! I completely overslept!” He apologizes profusely.
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There’s extenuating circumstances. Sago House, the Singapore bar which Jay Gray opened with Desiree Jane Silva and George Abishek, have only just discovered they’ve won the Art Of Hospitality Award at Asia’s 50 Bars 2023 (one of two awards announced before the event itself). And the team threw a wild celebration at Sago House last night.
Winning Asia’s 50 Best Bars Art Of Hospitality Award 2023
Winning the Art Of Hospitality Award suggests that Sago House might climb even higher than the #31 they achieved at last year’s Asia’s 50 Best Bars.
“My favorite number is nine,” Jay smiles. “It was the first baseball jersey I had. I think it might have been Cal Ripken’s number – the 19-time All-Star and two-time MVP. And it was always my number.” He’s British, really, he says, but the American influence comes from being born in Frederick, Maryland, where his dad worked for Intelsat in the heyday of satellite broadcasting. Ten years later, they relocated back to Norfolk.
There’s a provincial mindset there, where you either never leave – getting a sensible job and settling down – or you get the hell out and go see what the world has to offer. Jay followed the second path.
So, when he was 18 he went from working in his local pub in Loddon, Norfolk, to stints in bars in Barcelona, Nottingham and London. Then he moved to Australia where he landed a job at The Baxter Inn, one of the world’s best whisky bars.
His accent is, understandably, all over the place. “I do usually get taken for Australian,” he shrugs.
Anyway, then Proof & Company — the people behind 28 Hong Kong Street, Milk and Honey, PDT, and Employee’s Only — offered him a consultancy role in Singapore, he remembers. He took it, and once the year-long contract was up, he became brand ambassador for Monkey Shoulder for South East Asia. After six years of that, “far longer than I thought I could last in a corporate structure,” he opened Sago House with Desiree, and George.
“What we did have was time.”
When it opened in 2020, fiercely independent Sago House bucked all the trends. This, defiantly, wasn’t a big budget bar. “I think we made it with about 20 grand,” Jay Gray laughs. “It was paycheck to paycheck. Beg, borrow, and steal.”
But what they did have was time. Freed from the pressure of investors, bloated budgets and imposed deadlines, they could create Sago House slowly, step by step over a year. “And that allowed us to get the basics right and the core right and built on top of that.”
The momentum grew along the way.
“One thing we were confident of was giving people the right experience. We curated it for the individual and not for the masses. That’s how you win,” Jay explains. And Sago House’s people, he asserts, are everything. “Always invest in your people,” he stresses again. “And hire by personality. Skills can be taught, personality cannot.” That means keeping your feet on the ground too. “When you get famous, make sure you don’t do massive world tours every other week and leave your team to cope.”
And all that is how Sago House can compete with the glossy hotel bars that are beginning to dominate the upper echelons of Asia’s 50 Best list – places like the Four Seasons Hong Kong’s Argo at #3, Charles H at the Four Seasons Seoul at #7, and MO Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Singapore at #8.
“They’re great…but they’re the antithesis of what Sago House is all about,” Jay agrees.
A Word Of Mouth Success
One year after opening, Sago House was beginning to take on a life of its own. “One of the best things about Sago House was, one year in, scanning the room, I could see students next to investment bankers next to military leaders. Just a plethora of different people. The only commonality was that they’d learned about Sago House from their friends. But then, we’d have people deliberately not telling their friends because they wanted to keep Sago House all to themselves.”
Although they’d had a year to envision it, it was all still a pleasant surprise. “A venue dictates the crowd that it deserves. You have ideas of what you want your bar to be like and what your clientele will be like. But sometimes you can’t stop a bar being what it wants to be.”
Opening As Singapore’s Bar Scene Hit Tipping Point
Fortuitously, Sago House did open as the Singapore cocktail bar scene was hitting a tipping point. “It’s such a young country – 55 or so years old – so everything has happened, and does happen quickly,” Jay continues. “Before the pandemic, things were growing and growing. People were coming to Singapore to do business, and they wanted places to drink on a par with New York and London. But, unlike the UK, with centuries of hospitality experience, Singapore was just starting out. But, importantly, that allows us a sense of freedom and inhibition.”
Of the many world-class bars in Singapore that Sago House has become a part of, Jay says that, right now, standouts are Nighthawk, the newly opened Cat Bite Club, and Tippling Club – for its outstanding menus and consistency.
Sago House’s Menu Changes Every Week
Sago House’s menu is special too. It changes every week. And it’s based around six core styles: strong and down Old-fashioned-style drinks, strong and up Martinis and Manhattans; Daisies, Sours, Tropicals, and Highballs. “We build it out on a rotational spreadsheet, where we rotate through spirit brands and ideas. It’s like playing chess – there’s a million ways things can play out in a single game. We see the Sago House menu the same way,” Jay explains.
Right now, he’s enamored with a drink made by Sago House’s bartender, Joel Accad, called ‘That’s what Cheese Said!’ that’s made with G’vine Nouaison Gin, carrot and orange, cinnamon and walnut syrup, lime and mascarpone cheese foam.
“The incredible thing is the team is always up-skilling themselves and trying to learn new things. Joel learnt, on his own, how to clarify juices properly. We have a lab above Low Tide 100-meters down the road where I try things out too. I offered to work with him on the drink, which he appreciated, but he just went ahead and did it anyway. And it’s banging.”
Jay Gray has gleaned lots of knowledge along the way, that the Sago House team, like Joel, do listen to.
“At Sago House, lots of what we do comes from great experiences I’ve had working for other people, and taking bits of those. And conversely, I’ve learnt from super negative experiences how not to behave in a venue.”
“Not everything has to be a f*cking flavor bomb.”
“The biggest rookie error I see is bartenders making drinks for other bartenders and not their guests,” Jay Gray decides. “Not everything has to be a f*cking flavor bomb. I want subtle and nicely nuanced flavors. I want a drink that I would reorder. In fact, we simply don’t let drinks go on the Sago House menu unless we would order it twice ourselves in the same sitting.”
We wonder then, on the flipside, what would be a supercharged hospitality hack from Jay’s playbook. “Watch more than you talk. Worry less about stylising your shake, and focus more on the pace people are drinking their drinks – what the room is feeling, and when and if to touch a table.”
Jay and the team now run five operations – Sago House, Low Tide, Ghostwriter, Underdog Inn and the glassware company, Kes-Sho. But, he says, hospitality across their outlets shouldn’t mean the same thing, although it should reach the same level. “At Sago House, if you reserve, we do little touches like writing your name on your table, and all the team welcome you with a ‘hello’ which lots of guests join in with as the night wears on. But we don’t want every venue to do exactly the same thing. We want every venue to operate with the same standard of service, however they interpret it.’
‘Don’t Try’ it says on the wall
There’s neon on the wall to keep them dialed in every day. ‘Don’t Try’ it says. It comes from a line from the prolific poet and patron saint of inebriation Charles Bukowski, “If you’re going to try, go all the way; otherwise, don’t even start. Don’t Try.”
“Right now, I like the Thomas Wolfe quote: ‘Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs,'” Jay continues, “because it really represents our thinking right now about our team’s culture.
“But Bukowski is definitely a dream guest at Sago House,” Jay adds. “Imagine having Hemingway over on the same night. I want to see how that would go. And then, I’ve always wanted to drink with Joaquim Phoenix. I feel like he can party. So let’s have him over too.”
But we’re out of time. Jay has a flight to The States to catch tonight. He’s reluctantly taking one of those overseas trips that he advised against indulging in too much – to Service Bar and Allegory Bar in DC. For some meetings in New York. And then to Toronto, for a two-night guest shift at Civil Liberties.
And Jay’s got to go, he says, because he’s already late again.