Jorge Conde of Smoke & Mirrors reimagines classic cocktails

Smoke & Mirrors new cocktail | Behind the bar with Jorge Conde
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Jorge Conde is bringing a cool twist to classic cocktails at Smoke & Mirrors. Photography: Smoke & Mirrors via Facebook

From modern techniques like fat-washing to using a rotary evaporator, Jorge Conde marries the idea of illusion, art and flavours in his new cocktail menu at Smoke and Mirrors.

As if Smoke and Mirrors needed more reason for us to flock to it! Apart from its strategic location (you get a clear view of the fireworks during NDP season over here), this modish rooftop bar located atop the National Gallery Singapore just got a new head bartender, and an interesting cocktail menu packed with unexpected combos and techniques that make you go, “say, what?”

Who’s that boy?

Jorge Conde combines his 15-year experience in bars across Spain and London, his graphic design background, and his love for the arts and modern techniques to create a progressive cocktail menu. Traditionalists might want to sit down for this.

“Illusion of Flavours” has 16 reimagined classic cocktails divided into six categories – fizzy and elegant, sour and neat, long and refreshing, strong and neat, fruity and punchy and savoury and umami.

What’s your tipple?

If a potent drink is what you crave, the La Fumata Bianca ($28++), is a twist on the Negroni. Jorge swaps key ingredients, gin, Campari and sweet vermouth with a smoky agave-based raicilla, gentian liqueur and a mix of Bianco and quinine vermouth. The Japanese Gang is Still Alive ($25++) is not your ordinary whisky sour. Jorge fat-washes black sesame and black rice with butter and whisky; topped with a frothy rice vinegar and aquafaba (brine from legumes) mix. We told you it’s a progressive menu.

Don’t be fooled by the unassuming colours and presentation of the drinks. By adapting techniques such as distillation, preservation and fermentation (even the garnishes are fermented in-house!) and using tools like a rotary evaporator to redistill flavours (and also to maintain the consistency of his cocktails), you get a full-bodied profile of complex, potent and layered flavours in every cocktail.

Smoke and Mirrors debuts a refreshed cocktail menu with Jorge Conde
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The Dali’s Self Portrait. Photography: Smoke & Mirrors

It’s also evident that art is a steady theme in the menu. Cocktails like Dali’s Self Portrait, ($28++); a smoky and robust mix of malts, bacon fat, herbal wine, artichoke and burnt rosemary, pays homage to Salvadore Dali’s ‘Soft Self-Portrait with Grilled Bacon’ artwork. Picasso’s Pencil ($25++) is an assault on the senses, using the aroma of cedarwood from pencils paired with smoky agave, preserved lemon, fruity Manzanilla sherry, apple vinegar and tonic. Apparently, Picasso’s first word was “piz,” short for “lapiz,” the Spanish word for pencil. How apt.

After a chat with the man himself, we soon discovered that his innovative techniques and bold twists are bound to gain traction.

Hi, Jorge. Why did you decide to join Smoke & Mirrors, and what’s your vision for the bar?
I joined Smoke & Mirrors because I could see the potential for the space – it’s a very unique bar with a great location and an amazing view. I was also looking for the opportunity to create a new bar programme and was excited to bring to life the vision and concept that I had for Smoke & Mirrors, which is based on three key themes: illusion, art and flavours. It was unique for the venue; illusion fits into the “Smoke and Mirrors” name and offers a peek into what the menu would be, art tied back to the location at National Gallery Singapore, and flavours as the core concept of the cocktails.

You use unique techniques like fermentation, distillation and preservation in your process of making drinks. Tell us more about these.
These techniques are all related to extracting and preserving the flavours, which is important for consistency. For example, if I were to use fresh fruit in the shaker, every cocktail would be different from each other due to reasons outside of anyone’s control (different sizes of fruit, levels of acidity, etc.). However, using these techniques allows me to extract the flavour and put it into liquid format so that it will be consistent all the time.

What’s your craziest concoction. Is it on the menu?
All of the cocktails on the menu are quite different with unique flavours; the combinations of the different ingredients are not something that most people would see together. One of the most unique concoctions is Picasso’s Pencil ($25++) where we extract the pencil aroma from the wood (cedar from the pencil) and use it as perfume. It’s a good example of working with an object (the pencil) rather than a typical ingredient and finding a way to translate that into a flavour.

Smoke and Mirrors' new head bartender, Jorge Conde talks about his new cocktail menu
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The Picasso’s Pencil. Photography: Smoke & Mirrors

Another interesting flavour combination is the Dali’s Self Portrait ($28++), which uses bacon fat, artichokes, rosemary and smoke. I always try to do something unique and rare, without limiting myself to classic flavours, and it’s not just thinking about putting a drink out but working with flavours and sensations that ties back into the concept.

You love unconventional combinations that surprise and intrigue guests. Tell us about a drink that caught you off-guard.
The beauty of this menu is that everyone will have a different perception, and the first sip is surprising for everyone in a good way. For me, the most surprising ones were what you would think would be the easiest ones. For example, the result of distilling the dog fennel with gin (Le Paix 75, $28++), or banana with ghee (for Peel & See, $28++), that was quite surprising. I try to surprise myself with all of the drinks, the first sip for me is always a surprise, and then I will try to find a way to balance everything out.

Why is storytelling important in cocktail mixing?
Storytelling is important in cocktail mixing because it’s part of the experience. Nowadays, when you have a cocktail, it’s not about just having the liquid itself. It’s the whole experience, and I believe that it comes with a story – right from the inspiration and the aroma; down to the music that is playing, the decorations and the surroundings. All these things add up and elevate the experience of having a drink.

You’re a graphic designer by trade. How has it helped behind the bar?
The relationship between graphic design and cocktails is all about storytelling as well. Creating a new logo for a brand is essentially creating an “icon,” but behind this, you have the marketing strategy, the story and the ideas. Similarly, for cocktails, it’s about telling a story and conveying ideas beyond just the visual “icon” of the drink.

Jorge Conde is Smoke & Mirrors' new head bartender.
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Jorge also had a hand in conceptualising the menu. Photography: Smoke & Mirrors via Facebook

You’ve been in the industry for over 15 years. What’s one thing you’ve learnt?
One of the most important things that I’ve learnt is how to understand the guest, how to evaluate and analyse their preferences in order to give them what they want. I believe this is something that you can only get with experience.

What’s your go-to cocktail when you’re off-duty?
It depends on the day and the time, but I normally do enjoy aperitif drinks such as Negroni or Boulevardier. I like bitter-sweet cocktails because I usually drink them before a meal. Being in Singapore, there are many cocktail bars with great programmes and menus, so I do enjoy going out and trying new and different things on the menu instead of just having a classic.

And your least favourite drink to mix?
I personally do not have a drink that I don’t enjoy mixing, each drink offers something new and exciting and I enjoy mixing them all.

Your favourite thing about Singapore’s cocktail scene?
My favourite thing about Singapore’s cocktail scene is how fast it’s growing and the mixture of cultures here. Even in the cocktail culture, there is a good mix of bartenders from America, Japan, Europe and local bartenders, who bring in their unique style into the industry. The cocktail scene in Singapore is always very experimental and people are open to trying new things here.

Your favourite local food?
I love all the food here; my favourites would be mee pok and laksa because I love spicy food. During my free time, I love going around Singapore and trying new dishes.

Tell us about an unforgettable night out in Singapore.
I don’t have one yet! I’m usually working at night – but the nights since I’ve joined Smoke & Mirrors have been unforgettable to me. I enjoy meeting new people and seeing them enjoy the drinks that I’ve made so every night has been an unforgettable one for me.

Any hangover remedies you’d like to share?
Fermented tomato is my go-to hangover remedy. I use natural fermentation where I add sugar, slice the tomatoes, put it in a vacuum bag and leave it to sit for a few days, then strain through a cheesecloth to clarify, and it’s delicious, with rich flavours. I usually have it on hand because I make big batches and keep extra to experiment with.

One of drinks here called The Farm is Burnt ($28 ++) uses the fermented tomato and incorporates celery, spices, radish brine, chipotle, chino agave and citric ash basil oil – which is a smoky take on the Bloody Mary.

You can sure as hell leave all preconceptions behind or challenge those expectations with these drinks.

Smoke & Mirrors, 1 St. Andrew’s Road, #06-01 National Gallery Singapore, 178957

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