Just 18 months after opening No Sleep Club in Singapore, co-founders Juan Yi Jun and Jessica Hutchinson still get asked the same question: is their venue a bar, a restaurant or a café? The answer is all of the above – and more. After winning the Disaronno Highest New Entry Award for Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, the couple discuss their tumultuous 2020 and how staying true to their identity is now reaping rewards
“They say that the most creative ideas come out of the biggest problems,” begins Juan Yi Jun, No Sleep Club’s head bartender and co-founder. When she joined forces with partner and bar manager Jessica Hutchinson to open No Sleep Club on Singapore’s Keong Saik Road in November 2019, the duo couldn’t have imagined the challenges the months ahead would bring. But as it weathered the storms, the venue grew stronger, finding its feet as the team focused on what mattered and stayed true to the bar’s essential character.
In May 2020, No Sleep Club was selected by the Asia’s 50 Best Bars organisation to receive the Campari One To Watch Award, given to a venue outside of the list with the potential to appear in future rankings. At the time, Yi Jun and Hutchinson’s bar was all about blurring the boundaries between the things they loved most: great drinks, carefully selected coffee, delicious food and personable service. Twelve months on, the 220 industry experts that comprise the Asia’s 50 Best Bars Academy gave No Sleep Club enough endorsements to see it debut on the 2021 list in the No.8 position, the highest of all new bars in this year’s list, winning the Disaronno Highest New Entry Award in the process.
Juan Yi Jun is the brain behind No Sleep Club's cocktails
Although a few things have changed at No Sleep Club over the past year, many haven’t. Determining what to tweak and what constants to maintain has been critical for the venue’s success. Crucially, highlights Yi Jun, the cocktail list hasn’t really been touched. “Over the last year, we tried to keep our regulars regular and made a lot of close friends,” she explains. “I didn’t think a full cocktail menu change was necessary. Consistency and giving people what they loved was more important.”
The bar’s menu also gives an insight into its ethos, which would fall squarely into the list of things that haven’t been altered: it’s an inclusive place where everyone, no matter who they are and no matter the time of the day, can have a great time. Hutchinson highlights the Bloody Mary – a heady mix with wasabi distillate, rectified habanero, homemade miso spice mix and tomato – as one of her current favourites. “All our cocktails don’t have any crazy garnish,” she says. “So with the Bloody Mary, sometimes people are like: ‘Where are my celery, pickle and carrots?’ But then they try it, and they’re like ‘aah, I get it!’.
For Yi Jun, who creates the cocktails, it’s the bar’s signature Gin & Tonic that stands out. “A G&T is the last thing you would expect to find on a cocktail bar’s menu, but for those people who are not here for the cocktails, it’s the first thing they order,” she explains. And for the duo, it’s just as important to please the casual customer as the cocktail connoisseur. The No Sleep Club Gin & Tonic, therefore, is a carefully balanced tipple made with black plum gin, clarified guava and homemade lacto-fermented plums; likely to get an appreciative groan from any customer.
The No Sleep Club Gin & Tonic
The bar was born as a tiny joint on Club Street in mid-2019, when Yi Jun used to serve three cocktails she had created at home, and became informally known as Singapore’s smallest cocktail bar. It moved to Keong Saik Road in November 2019, and now the venue’s senior team has expanded with the addition of Peter Smit as in-house chef, who has added delicacies such as bone marrow mash, grilled octopus with smoked almonds and cheesecake-stuffed donuts to the menu. For Yi Jun, this was an essential development that went together with the expansion of the bar’s wine list.
“What we see now is that people come in and have cocktails first, then order food, often having everything to share,” she says. “And then they're like: ‘Let's have a bottle of wine!’, and after that, more cocktails. That's the kind of night that Hutch and I also love to have, so that's what we're trying to focus on.”
No Sleep Club has remained the accessible, fun and friendly venue it has been from the start – Hutchinson jokes that their dress code is ‘not naked’ – but at the same time, it has listened to its clients and sought to give them more of what they loved. Despite some parts of their menu being rather explicit (including a bottle on which Moe Aljaff from Two Schmucks in Barcelona, Spain, put a sticker reading ‘Eat A D**k’), Hutchinson highlights that the bar has become popular among families too, proof of the team’s ability to make everyone feel comfortable.
The bar's clientele enjoying the space
How did No Sleep Club manage to nail the tricky balance between constancy and change? “When a crisis happens, a lot of people start to look at others, thinking that they might find a manual on what to do,” says Yi Jun. “For us, we sat down and asked: ‘what are we best at? What is Peter best at? What is the venue best at?’ Whatever strengths we had, we analysed them and then we pushed. And if there was anything that we lacked, we worked hard to find out how to change, and we did that every single day. We didn’t look at how other people were doing things.”
“We just had to realise that we've grown up enough and that we now know what is going to work best for us,” chimes Hutchinson. “We shouldn't doubt what we set out to do.”
Even after all the soul-searching and constant improvement, the bar’s result at Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, sponsored by Perrier, was a surprise for the couple. As they followed the award ceremony live with their regulars at the bar, they shared moments of nervousness and extreme excitement with those who navigated the last year with them, until the reveal that they had been voted the No.8 venue in the continent – when the whole place erupted into cheers.
Yi Jun, Hutchinson and the team celebrate the bar's result at Asia's 50 Best Bars 2021
“In 2020, we navigated around what we couldn’t do and tried to come up with something even more beautiful,” says Yi Jun. And even with a new four-week lockdown in Singapore announced from 16th May, the No Sleep Club crew has already quickly adapted, with a cocktail, wine and brunch menu available for delivery from the first day of restrictions.
Ultimately, for the couple, it’s all about being happy and making others happy. “We just want No Sleep Club to be a creative space, and I feel like we’re getting there,” says Yi Jun. “It’s a creative studio that uses food and drinks as a medium.”
“It’s a clubhouse!” interjects Hutchinson. “Yes, a creative clubhouse,” agrees Yi Jun. “That’s the point: it’s for the people who are there, but it’s also for us, because we won’t stop. We just want to keep creating and doing new things.”
Watch as Juan Yi Jun and Jessica Hutchinson take you inside their bar:
Missed the live event? Catch up on the virtual ceremony and check out the full results for Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, sponsored by Perrier. To stay up to date with all the latest bar news from around the globe, follow us on Instagram, like on Facebook and subscribe to 50 Best Bars TV YouTube channel.