The interview: Peter Ng, founder of Maduro, on music, whisky and cigars

By Hamish Mcdougall

After spending 15 years as a professional – and highly regarded – jazz pianist both in Singapore and on the international circuit, Peter Ng eventually started and settled down into his core property business in London. It was only when he found himself looking for somewhere to smoke a cigar that he conceived of, and then opened Robusto – the first incarnation of Maduro. The now beloved jazz, whisky and cigar club recently relocated to the Sofitel hotel in Sentosa, where Boulevard caught up with Ng over a Montecristo…

Boulevard: Prior to launching Robusto, you’d never worked in hospitality – so how did that happen? How did it all start?

Peter Ng: Robusto was set in a charming shophouse, where my friend ran the whisky bar downstairs. And he mentioned to me that he wanted to open a cigar room, and it all happened off the back of that. For 10 years, it was my smoking room – I lived just up the road!


Blvd: So was it essentially a space where you could get out of the house and have a cigar?

Ng: Yes!

Blvd: And has that been the guiding principle ever since?

Ng: Oh yes. I wanted a place to have a smoke where I could meet up with friends. Later on, the opportunity to move to Dempsey came along, and I immediately liked the space, signed on, and the next week I flew to London to buy all the furniture. It wasn’t a licensed cigar bar, so I promoted it as a jazz club.

Blvd: What do you see as the connection between jazz and cigars? What holds it all together culturally?

Ng: Me, really! I was a professional musician for about 15 years. And cigars have always been a passion. I’m in London half the time – my core business is in property. And I’ve seen some of the best clubs there – Five Hertford Street, The Arts Club, Annabel’s, how they’re set up – and I wanted to bring that back to Singapore.

Blvd: Since the time you first founded Robusto, there’s been an increasing movement towards healthy lifestyles and away from cigarettes and smoking. How would you say the cigar culture has changed?

Ng: I’m not sure that it’s changed much, actually. I would say that, in general, cigar smokers are individualistic, but also private. Wherever you go in the world, when you find a cigar bar and go for a smoke, you often end up in conversation with someone – well travelled, professional, but with an understanding of lifestyle. It creates a space for conversations, but also for business. I think I’ve done most of my deals over a cigar.


Blvd: One of the key differences, for me, between cigarettes and cigars, is that cigarettes typically become a habit: often a relatively mindless activity and not even especially pleasurable. Whereas cigar smoking is almost the opposite: wholly mindful, a rare moment to step away from it all. Do you see that in your clientele and how they use the club?

Ng: It’s certainly a different culture. People come here after work to take time for themselves. Some come every day. We have some very regular customers who come for a cigar after lunch or dinner. But also visitors who are travelling from all over the world.

Blvd: And does that cigar culture change around the world, continent to continent, East to West?

Ng: No, it’s the same everywhere. There’s a certain behaviour, an enjoyment of space and time. Wherever you are in the world, you can find like-minded people in a cigar bar like this – if you know where to go. There’s something about it – that faint cigar bouquet in a hotel lobby. It just makes you want to sit down and enjoy. Amidst the rush of life today, the pace, cigars give you downtime. You find space for yourself.

Blvd: So do you have different cigars for different occasions?

Ng: I smoke three to four cigars a day. Each for a different purpose. The reason why I started, was because I had just given up cigarettes, and so I tried smoking a cigar, loved it, and then started enjoying one after lunch. The best cigar to start the day, when your palate is clean, is something like this – a Montecristo.

I know I can pick that up, and I will love it. And then because of the different strengths of each cigar, the next one, in the late afternoon, has to be something stronger. And then in the evening, after dinner, I might have a good robusto. And then at night, I’ll tail off with something like a corona, something to put me to sleep.

Blvd: And your other great love is jazz, how did you fall into that?

Ng: I was classically trained in piano, and then taught myself jazz. I discovered it late in my teens, and just started to improvise. I’ve always found it a joy – food for the soul. For 15 years, I played professionally, because I didn’t know what else to do! But I met many amazing people, because music has no pretences. And so the people you meet, the invitations and friendships that develop – in later years I did some of my biggest property deals with people I met playing piano.


Blvd: And you’ve also taught yourself how to run a club!

Ng: I’m still learning! How to position it, marketing, staffing, suppliers. Because it’s no longer a mom and pop operation. Jazz bars don’t make money, so we are talking about Maduro as a whisky and cigar club that has live jazz. I’m bringing up our whisky collection as it’s something people look for to complement cigars.

Blvd: Sounds like it’s moved beyond a place for you just to hang out and smoke cigars?

Ng: I realised the club business is about personality, about the founder who imposes that personality. And I found myself,
increasingly, totally involved in that. Thankfully, the market has changed and I don’t need to go to London so often – Covid was a wonderful thing for me, because I couldn’t travel, so half the time I was in my cigar bar.

Maduro is a culture, not just a bar. The space has been curated – with humour, with colour, to give it a vibe. But you have to manage it carefully: the space, the service, and also the clientele.

Blvd: And you have graffiti artist Cyril Kongo painting a feature wall for your courtyard, how did that happen?

Ng: A friend of mine took me to his gallery, and he has a piano there, so I just sat down and played – and he was amazed. He’s an artist and smokes cigars, and we have the same sort of mindset and became good friends.

And so one day he flew in and came to this space and said, Peter, I’d like to paint this wall. I said, Sure, let’s do it. To me, it’s all part of the space – art and music, whisky, cigars. It all comes together.

— Latest listings —