All images by Stephanie Lee for Rice Media
As I stand on the porch of an unassuming executive condo in Sengkang, I question if I am in the right place. Then, I spot a small sign hanging by the entrance that reads ‘Section D’. I’m here.
An inconspicuous doorway lined with slippers and shoes does little to hint at the true nature of the home within. Upon entry, I’m greeted by Dannon Har, his wife Jamie Chua, and a floor-to-ceiling shelf of liquor bottles gleaming in the glow of golden downlights.
Dannon, the co-founder and mixologist of Section D, points out the bottles on his bar shelf with pride. Jamie, the co-founder, joins us as Dannon gives us a quick tour of his storage space turned brewing room and bar shelf by the main door. So this is Singapore’s premier home bar.
Jamie shares that Section D was named after the three D’s of the house—Drinks, the Doorway bar, and Dannon’s area of expertise. From among the myriad of bottles glittering under the downlights of the bar, Dannon lifts up one, simple and unadorned.
The bottle of Sherry Cask Arrack is missing the typical gold-embossed label of famous brands, almost as if it doesn’t want to be identified. The clear glass lets me see the deep garnet-red liquid swirling within.
Arrack, for the uninitiated, is an alcoholic drink produced in India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. It is made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers or sugarcane mixed with grain or fruit from the region.
“My prized possession, I think, is this one because it is a custom-made spirit just for Section D,” Dannon shares, holding up the bottle like a proud father cuddling his firstborn infant.
He tells me that the spirit was aged by a local barrel ageing service, where base spirits, barrel types, and other minute factors of the distilling process are curated by the customer.
“The base is a gula melaka spirit—no one else in the world has it. This base spirit is very rare,” Dannon explains to his enthralled audience.
“Most people use barley or other neutral grains like corn, but this one uses gula melaka, which is very Asian. And that’s what I like to highlight at Section D. Homemade and very local.”
Custom-made, local, and 68 per cent alcohol by volume? A fine inclusion to any respectable liquor collection if you ask me.
Home First, Bar Second
Since 2020, Dannon and Jamie have opened their home to visitors, inviting guests for a unique omakase bar experience right in their living room.
Jamie serves as a hostess and chief storyteller. Her background in marketing complements Dannon’s writing prowess and mixology chops to make Section D pop.
Throughout the house, their shared passion and love of drinks are evident in the bottles proudly displayed. Anything that catches the eye has a story and a personal connection to it.
“That’s the bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan I used when I made Jamie the original Proposal cocktail. She said yes,” Dannon points out, almost chuckling.
“It was a big flask. Of course I said yes,” Jamie chimes in.
He then shows us a faint dark mark near the kitchen ceiling. “That’s from when the alcoholic kombucha exploded.”
My eyes wander to a single magazine propped up with pride of place on his television console.
“This was the magazine I made for Jamie when we got married,” he says. “I was in the magazine industry when I got married. So I thought, instead of a photo album, why not make a magazine with all our stories inside?”
Work becomes craft, and craft becomes identity. While he might not have expected it at the time, this transformation of work to craft to identity would permeate his career, taking him to where he is today.
Dannon began his career in journalism in 2011 as an intern at CNBC. He focused on TV production before he moved into digital content.
From one writing job to another, his journalism resume spanned travel news, business news, and hard news. He moved from The Straits Times to his longest stint of four years at SG Magazine, where writing about cocktails, bars, and wines made him realise his true calling.
“I wanted to write about alcohol. No more Hello Kitty Cafes. Nope. I’m going to write about alcohol only,” he affirms. This led to him creating a digital publication called Spill Magazine, centred on alcohol and the local bar scene.
Learning from producers, bartenders and other experts enabled him to become a self-taught mixologist. The results of Dannon’s natural curiosity have been put to good use at home in the esoteric drinks he concocts. “I should want to drink it myself; that’s the main motivation.”
Like so many others, the Circuit Breaker brought the concept of career into stark scrutiny for Dannon. Together with Jamie, a menu was born from the seed of an idea, and a vision for a home-based bar took root.
A Sense of Place
The bar was launched on the 1st of June, 2020, the day Circuit Breaker ended.
For Dannon, the timing couldn’t have been better. “Throughout Circuit Breaker, everyone drinks more quality spirits at home. Instead of going for the cheapest gin, they will go for something that costs S$20 more. And then they start experimenting and mixing their own drinks,” Dannon notes.
The changing palette and growing curiosity of Singaporeans encouraged him to present Section D as a way to expose his guests to the possibilities of mixing in the home.
Passion was becoming a possible career at the time. But Dannon admits that at the beginning, they thought it would never be viable.
Section D started as a side gig, with earnings secondary to the love of drinks and running a home bar. The need to earn a living wage was the ultimate deciding factor for viability.
On its own, Dannon admits that Section D’s drinks sales were insufficient in providing a livable income. However, the business proved to be an effective catalyst for other opportunities.
Through Section D, Dannon inked partnerships with companies to conduct corporate events and provide bar consultancy services. He also teams up with local manufacturers who use local and Asian ingredients.
His journalistic background proved helpful. It helps him to cogently communicate possible concepts and plans to instil a uniquely Singaporean facet to businesses. Companies that prioritize a local sense of place inevitably veer towards Section D for consultation.
Beyond the Glitz of Awards
For his parents, partnerships with brands and his continued writing for Spill Magazine provide some semblance of legitimacy and validity in his choice of work. Their son is a journalist, they tell friends and relatives, which seems more secure than “home-based bar owner and mixologist.”
But as long as Dannon can support his household, his parents are content with his choice.
While the diversity of business opportunities brought about by Section D pays the bills, it is Dannon’s pride in the craft that makes it a career.
“I wanted to be true to what I wanted to do and produce things with my own two hands.” Fortunately, his immersion in the local bar scene allows him to do just that.
After all, Dannon notes that there is still room for improvement despite Singapore’s excellence in the global bar scene. From Jigger and Pony to Manhattan to Atlas, local bars have won award after award.
But for Dannon, there is more to excellence than just awards.
“We have won enough awards. It’s like a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars asking themselves, ‘What’s next?’ A sense of place is really what I want to see more. From my humble abode, I try to convey that to people who come here.”
‘You have to be proud‘
With this in mind, he exemplifies this local sense of place, showing what a 100 percent Singaporean bar would look like through the lens of a 100 percent Singaporean.
Through his personal stories and cocktails, Dannon and his guests explore Singapore’s own relationship and culture with alcohol—all while mixing local ingredients with his own two hands.
Dannon displays a little of what his two hands can accomplish in his home kitchen. He demonstrates ‘fat washing’, a process which infuses dark rum with butter readily available in local supermarkets.
The process seems deceptively simple. But the result is rum with a creamy decadence and rum butter that could potentially create the alcoholic kopi gu you that dreams are made of.
“If I’m proud to be a writer, that’s fine. If you’re proud to be a hawker, that’s great. But what is important is that you must be proud of it,” he says.
“Right now, being in the alcohol scene, writing about alcohol, making alcohol, that makes sense to me. This is a career that I would identify with.”
Shaken, Not Stirred
With Section D, Dannon breaks away from the institutional definition of a career. However, the endeavour was not without challenges. He sailed a new course and now finds himself in unchartered waters.
Dannon admits that being the first home-based bar owner he knew of was harrowing. He wonders why private bars are so few and far between in a country where private dining has been taking off.
“I wondered if there was a big stumbling block that I wasn’t aware of, and that’s why no one else was doing this,” he reminisces.
“But now, looking back, obviously it was just my own mental block. Jamie encouraged me a lot to push past this.”
The question of why there were no private bars turned into a personal challenge.
With home-based bars conspicuously missing from the scene, Dannon is happy that people have been receptive to the idea. So receptive, in fact, that other home-based bars have popped up. Some seem to follow his direct business model.
Surprisingly, instead of competition, a community of support and collaboration formed between Dannon and other home-based bar owners. Some of the other founders even admitted that they got into the business after visiting Section D and were inspired by what he created.
Rather than ruthlessly vying for customers, they meet up for drinks at each other’s homes. “We’re not competitors because the scene is so small anyway,” Dannon says.
Seeing the evolution of the local bar scene, he believes that Singapore is ready for home-based bars. The private dining scene was growing because the timing was right. It shows the sophistication of the consumers.
“If you want to get wasted, you don’t go to a home bar, and they know that. Drinkers are more sophisticated, and they want something else. And private bars are here to cater to that.”
Self-Expression from Cask to Cup
For Dannon, private bars cater to the consumer’s needs and his own. The intimate setting of a private bar allows him to receive instant customer feedback. He admits that the validation from the customers is heartening.
“I focus on the taste,” he says. “And if they understand that, however esoteric it is, they understand me.” To Dannon, the customer’s positive feedback proves that he is on the right path, however uncharted.
On his own, Dannon is free to indulge his alcoholic whims and fancies. He can use lesser-known local ingredients like gula melaka as a base to distil into arracks, whereas so many others use standard staples such as gin, whisky and rum.
With his continued inspirational brews and cocktails, Dannon hopes for more work with brands through Section D.
The next logical step would be to open a public bar, Dannon tells me, but he admits that he wants to avoid the added responsibilities of running a full-scale business.
A public bar would take away the intimate setting, the connections with his guests, and the creativity and freedom he has in enjoying his hobby-turned-hustle. Dannon is not willing to give that up.
“I want to be the one making the drinks,” he says firmly. “I don’t want to win any bar awards; I don’t want to cater to everyone. I’m free to just express myself.”
Thyme Waits For No Man
With no role model to mirror, Jamie and Dannon continue to mutually push each other on, working as partners to keep the business going.
“The moment I expand it, will it lose its home touch? But it has to grow, so that’s the dilemma, that’s the struggle,” he says.
Despite this uncertainty, he shares that ideas are being implemented to ensure the bar’s longevity and maintain the brand’s reputation for experimental and unique drinks. Dannon wants Section D to continue exploring fresh recipes and elements of drink-making, even if it means sacrificing large-scale commercial viability.
One example Dannon gives is ice. He shows us a tray of ice, some made of regular tap water, others with coconut water. There are even some with a single sprig of thyme frozen inside each cube. “Frozen-in Thyme,” Dannon calls it.
Yet, it is time that proves to be a double-edged sword for Dannon. As long as there are projects and bookings in the pipeline for the next three months, he can feel secure in the business’s success.
An Identity Found
Over the past two years, Dannon has understood and appreciated the value in this new niche career he has carved for himself.
Still, there were times when he was uncertain of his abilities and rejected bookings for fear of over-committing. Had he known that it would turn into a viable career, he would have been far less apprehensive about starting on this journey.
Regardless, he is happy for the pace that brought him here and the enjoyment he found along the way.
“This is my home. Jamie and I have dinner here. Whatever happens, it should not feel too much like work,” he says. For Dannon, Section D is a career, a job and an identity all rolled into one. How many of us can confidently say that of the work we do?
“The pandemic made me really think hard about work and life. So many people were losing their jobs. If I am no longer working as a writer, then what am I?” Dannon reflects.
“I wanted to carve out a niche for myself, something no one can take away from me. And I want to do it in my own home.”
We sit around his table, sipping some of Section D’s sherry cask arrack. Cubes of coconut water round off the Gula Melaka flavour. As the ice gently melts, every sip’s flavour profile differs from the last.
Our raised brows and exclamations of “Oh wow!” barely articulate how silky and good the arrack is. To the side, I can see Dannon wearing a smile of pride and contentment.
In walking his own path, Dannon knows that this path belongs to him, and no one can kick him off it any time they want. Ironically, in leaving the security of societal norms, Dannon feels safer than ever.
And soon, another will join Dannon and Jamie on their path. In a few months’ time, Dannon can show off his sherry cask arrack and his actual firstborn infant.
“Only I own this path now, and Jamie, my future child, and I are on it together.”