8 questions with Peter Chua

Bartender with swag

Peter Chua. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Peter Chua. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

South-east Asia's Best Bartender of the Year Peter Chua dreams up drinks in his sleep

Singaporean Peter Chua is the "it" bartender of the moment, having won the title of Southeast Asia's Best Bartender of the Year at the inaugural Diageo Reserve World Class South-east Asia Finals and Bar Show 2014 last month.

The 26-year-old senior bartender at cocktail bar 28 Hong Kong Street beat 25 contestants from around the region to emerge winner and will represent Singapore in the global finals in the United Kingdom next month.

It is a feather in the cap for Chua, who will be the second Singaporean to compete at the event - considered one of the world's most prestigious international bartending competitions - since local bartender Aubrey Sim, formerly of whisky bar B28, competed in the event in 2009.

The bachelor is known in the scene as a barman with charisma and the ability to win the attention of guests, otherwise known as swag.

He tells Life! winning the South-east Asian title puts him on the right track to help raise the profile of Singaporean bartenders and grow the cocktail scene here.

"The plan has always been to build my knowledge, skills and credibility as a bartender for as long as it takes," he says.

1 How did you get your start in bartending?

My initial plan was to do music because my dad was a musician. But I lost all my contacts for gigs after I completed national service. I was in desperate need for money, so my friend said, "You need cash, right? Why don't you bartend with me in clubs, it's easy'". So I did that for two to three years. But there was no growth.

About three years ago, my friend had a job for a house party that he couldn't do and that's where I met Michael Callahan from 28 HKS and my current bosses. I haven't looked back since.

2 What was the first proper cocktail you learnt to make?

Probably a South Side and a Scofflaw. The Scofflaw was the first drink that opened my eyes, like how a brown spirit such as rye whiskey can taste so delicious. It's rye, dry vermouth, grenadine and lemon juice. That's when I also made my first syrup. I never knew you could make your own syrup. I thought you had to buy this sort of stuff. So it opened my eyes to the possibilities and gave me the drive to learn this whole new world (of cocktails).

3 What is the most memorable cocktail you have had?

When I first started work, Michael made a drink called the Michelada, a tequila- based drink mixed with beer and hot sauce. It also had black pepper and soya sauce, and it was savoury. I never knew you could mix a beer with a cocktail and it would taste so good.

A customer had asked for a drink that was salty and spicy and had a lot of gas, and Michael said he had it. Then he brought this drink and I realised that there's so much to learn in this business.

4 Most horrible experience behind the bar?

There will always be good and bad customers, but I've never had a bad customer who made me want to quit. Working in the hospitality business, you're working with an inconsistent variable. The customers can come from anywhere. We've had our fair share of bad customers and good customers. There's no point beating yourself up over it. If they didn't have a good time, they probably won't come back.

5 Your favourite cocktail?

The Negroni because of its beauty and simplicity. It's one of the few drinks which has sweetness, bitterness and strength in the spirit. Just gin, vermouth and bitters. If you change any of these components, it can take on a whole new feel.

6 Where do you find inspiration for your cocktails?

Everywhere. I work best when I'm sleeping. When I sleep, I dream up drinks. I wake up and tell my girlfriend, "I have an idea for a drink and I'm going to do this." But inspiration comes from stories, songs, conversations with people, movies, books and history.

7 When life hands you lemons, what cocktail would you make?

Anything lemon- and citrus-based, which means a lot of sours. I'd be happy with a bottle of gin, sugar and lemon because I can make at least 20 drinks with that. But metaphorically speaking, if life hands me lemons, I'd be happy to sit back with a bourbon on the rocks.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I want people to come to Singapore specifically for good restaurants and bars. We're not there yet... I hope to be remembered as one of the pioneering bartenders who helped achieve that goal.

melk@sph.com.sg