Women bartenders crashing all-boys club

More women are helming the bars in the bartending world

Bartending is still widely considered a man's world, but a new breed of women bartenders is storming the all- boys club.

They are young, creative and unstoppable - pouring, shaking and stirring their way up to prominent positions at established cocktail bars in Singapore.

At least 10 established cocktail bars - making up about one-third of such bars here - have women behind the bar creating popular concoctions that give their male counterparts a run for their money.

Just a few years ago, there were only a few women in the business, such as Ms Kino Soh of bar Hopscotch and Ms Aubrey Sim of whisky bar B28.

Some of these women bartenders also compete internationally, including South Korean Bannie Kang from Nutmeg & Clove in Ann Siang Road and Hong Kong native Jackie Lo of rum bar Sugarhall in Amoy Street.

SundayLife! toasts six female bartenders who are making a splash and checks out their meanest drinks.

melk@sph.com.sg


JACKIE LO, 28, OF SUGARHALL

Where: 102 Amoy Street. Open Monday to Saturday, 6pm to midnight

A love of the sugarcane-based spirit, rum, led Hong Kong native Lo to leave her career and family in Shanghai for a chance to work at Sugarhall, a rum speciality bar in Singapore.

She says with a laugh: “I feel like rum represents females, while whisky represents males. So every time I’m recommending rum to a customer, it feels like I’m recommending a girlfriend.”

Ms Lo has been bartending for five years, but she has been in the service industry since she was 18, working in various hospitality jobs such as being a waitress and a captain at a hotel lounge.

Her father is a chef at a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, while her mother is a housewife. She has a younger brother, 27, who works as a bar manager in Hong Kong.

Her first bar experience was at a club lounge in Hong Kong, before she moved to take up a stint at Langham Place Hotel Hong Kong as a bartender.

Between 2010 and 2013, she won several awards in bartending competitions, including taking first place at the annual Hong Kong Bartending Competition 2011 and Hong Kong De Kuyper Cup Cocktail Competition in 2012.

She was runner-up in the China finals of the Bacardi Legacy rum cocktail competition in 2013.

Ms Lo, whose husband is a bar owner based in Shanghai, has also worked at Madison Bar in the Chinese city.

Seven months ago, she took a leap of faith and moved to Singapore when head barkeep Aki Eguchi asked her to join Sugarhall as a bartender.

She got to know Mr Eguchi from cocktail bar Jigger & Pony, which she used to visit whenever she came to Singapore.

She says of her love of bartending: “I like to see people smile. Even if they’re not happy, I would make them a drink and if it cheers them up, it will make me happy.”

Her inspiration for drinks comes from everyday life, including watching “a lot of cooking shows, such as MasterChef, Junior MasterChef and Jamie Oliver’s television shows”.

She adds: “Even a trip to 7-Eleven can inspire me. I would see a mint chocolate drink in the chiller and go back to the bar and make a drink with chocolate liqueur and mint,” she says.

Among the difficult requests she has received is to create “very salty and spicy drinks”.

The cocktail? “I have a special drink for that. Gin, pineapple juice, Tabasco sauce and salt.”

As for her own favourite cocktail, Ms Lo’s choice is a favourite among many bartenders: the classic Negroni, made with gin, vermouth and bitters.

“I love Campari, just anything with Campari,” she says.

Signature drinks

From May 7, bargoers can try two new rum cocktails from Ms Lo.

The Sky Lantern uses Chalong Bay rum infused with Earl Grey tea, Becherovka herbal liqueur infused with passionfruit, orange and beet, honey and lime juice. Plum & Suckers is a mix of rum that has been infused with pineapple and Choya, orange bitters and nutmeg tincture.

Both cocktails are priced at $22++ each.


NOREEN ONG, 27, OF MAISON IKKOKU

Where: 20 Kandahar Street. Open Sunday to Thursday, 4pm to 1am, Friday, Saturday and eve of public holiday, 4pm till late

If you want dessert in a glass, you can do worse than to try one of Ms Ong’s tasty concoctions.

One of her signature drinks is a cocktail called Tiramisu In A Jar, in which Chivas Scotch and coffee liqueur topped with fresh milk froth replicate the flavour of the Italian dessert. It was first served during the gourmet festival Asian Masters in 2013 and is one of the popular items on Maison Ikkoku’s menu.

Other dessert cocktails she has come up with include a take on lemon meringue using homemade limoncello, vanilla liqueur and lemon juice, and rum and raisin ice cream using rum, fresh black grapes and milk froth.

Her interest in baking and work experience – she used to work at Singapore-based cupcake bakery chain Twelve Cupcakes for 11/2 years before joining Maison Ikkoku – are her influences.

She is mentored by Maison Ikkoku’s owner Ethan Leslie Leong, who is a top mixologist.

Since joining the bar two years ago, Ms Ong, who is single, has worked her way from apprentice to the rank of senior bartender, often experimenting with local ingredients.

A diploma holder in tourism management from Shatec, she was first exposed to craft mixology when she took part in a bartending competition in school a few years ago.

“It was a very girly cocktail, pink in colour and using white chocolate and strawberries. But it was the first cocktail that got me interested in the craft,” she recalls.

She credits her mentor Leong for teaching her just about everything on the job, from the basics of craft mixology to tips on how to deal with drunk customers.

Her family has also been supportive of her vocation. Her mother, a widow, does administrative work in a mattress company and her two sisters, who are 28 and 24, work as a graphic designer and an accountant.

Although the middle child admits the job can be “labour intensive”, she counts herself lucky that her male colleagues are always a helpful bunch.

“They’re like my right and left hands,” she says with a laugh.

Signature drinks

If you are not persuaded to order Ms Ong’s rendition of the classic margarita cocktail topped with egg white foam and Himalayan salt – she is a big tequila fan – try her other signature cocktail, the G’s Pride ($32++).

The drink, inspired by the favourite scent of one of her friends from British perfumery Penhaligon’s, is a herby ginbased cocktail that has a similar taste profile to Solero lime and cream ice cream, using basil, cardamom and lemon, smoked with hickory woodchips.

For a more spirit-forward drink, try the Horonigai ($28++), a mix of Pavan muscat liqueur and Yamazaki Distillers Reserve whisky that is smoked with orange peel and rosemary.

As its name suggests – horonigai is Japanese for bittersweet – the drink is likened to a bittersweet Old Fashioned cocktail.


BANNIE KANG, 26, OF NUTMEG & CLOVE

Where: 17 Ann Siang Road. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 5pm to midnight

Do not be fooled by South Korean bartender Kang’s petite size and soft demeanour.

Her cocktails can pack a punch and showcase skills and techniques that few other bartenders can measure up to.

The soft-spoken bartender at Nutmeg & Clove is a familiar face in the Singapore competitive bartending arena – and often the only woman too.

Last year, she was the only woman to make it to the top three in the Diageo Reserve World Class Singapore finals, considered one of the most prestigious bartending competitions in the world.

Her win allowed her to compete with some of the best bartenders in South-east Asia.

She says competitions inspire her.

“If I don’t know something, when I see other competitors and their techniques, I get ideas, even in their presentation style,” says Ms Kang, who has created innovative cocktails using ingredients such as homemade Guinness cordial and tea espuma (foam).

A diploma holder in hotel management, she picked up basic bartending skills while working in Seoul, but really got into craft mixology when she joined bar anti:dote at the Fairmont Singapore hotel in 2013.

The bar, headed by American Tom Hogan, was among the first few hotel bars in Singapore that specialised in bespoke cocktails. Last year, she left anti:dote for Nutmeg & Clove.

Of her love of bartending, Ms Kang says: “The thing I like most is meeting people and learning from them.

“When I practise and create drinks, I sometimes have an inner fight with myself, but I love the process. Even if it’s stressful, when I feel I’ve reached a new level in bartending, I feel happy.”

She lives alone in Singapore. Back home in South Korea, her father works for a telecommunications firm and her mother is a housewife. Her younger sister, 17, lives with her parents just outside of Busan, while her older sister, 29, is a nurse in Seoul.

As a bartender, Ms Kang is known for her fancy and technically difficult cocktails, but as a drinker, she much prefers a simpler option.

“I love beer or just a simple gin and tonic,” she says.

Signature drinks

A popular drink is Ms Kang’s Cooling Sour Plum, which mixes pisco (a type of brandy), sour plum, basil leaf and egg white. The cocktail is available at anti:dote, but is served without the egg white.

She also has a rum cocktail called Lord Of The Rings, which uses a Guinness beer cordial, fresh pineapple and a hint of lime juice. She made it for the Diageo World Class competition in 2013.

She may not have all the ingredients on hand to recreate this cocktail, but is able to do a similar variation of the drink upon request.

The cocktails are priced between $23++ and $25++ each.


CHRISTYNE LEE, 26, OF JIGGER & PONY

Where: 101 Amoy Street. Open Monday to Thursday, 6pm to 1am, Friday and Saturday, 6pm to 3am

It was never the intention of Ms Lee, a Malaysian, to become a bartender. In fact, she had plans to work as an air stewardess with Singapore Airlines.

So when she first worked at cocktail bar Jigger & Pony as a hostess and bartender six months ago, it was meant to be a short stint before joining the airline.

But her passion for craft mixology grew over the past few months and she soon decided she was in this business for the long haul.

She says: “I like that I can create a cocktail on my own. I used to face difficulties recommending drinks to guests at first, but now I’m comfortable and confident. The best thing is that I can make guests happy with the drinks I make.”

She is not new to the food and beverage scene. She moved from her hometown in Ipoh, Perak, to Singapore when she was 18, working as a hostess and captain in hotel lounges and restaurants for eight years.

Ms Lee, who has an older brother, 30, and younger sister, 15, was raised by a single mum, 54, who is a housewife.

Since joining Jigger & Pony, she has been mentored by the bar’s programme director Aki Eguchi, a prominent Japanese bartender in Singapore, and Mr Boo Jing Heng, one of the more senior bartenders.

She says: “My mentors always tell me to think out of the box. Because I’m new, most of my inspiration comes from classic cocktails and I try to do a twist on those. It’s a good start for newcomers like me.”

She is starting to prove herself, having emerged as first runner-up in the rookie category of the Vedrenne Grand Prix 2014 bartending competition.

She says her family, who live in Ipoh, are supportive of her career choice, although they were initially concerned.

“Back then, they thought a bar was a place for complicated people. But they didn’t know that these days, cocktail bars here are very proper,” she says.

She adds that she still has a lot to learn about the craft, which is why she enjoys bar-hopping around town and speaking to industry folk who visit the bar.

“Before joining Jigger & Pony, I never drank. Now, I’m sort of like an alcoholic,” she says with a laugh.

Signature drinks

This year, she has come up with two signature cocktails that she is entering for the annual Diageo Reserve World Class bartending competition.

They are Mr Toffee, which uses Haig Club grain whisky, Pedro Ximenez sherry and brown rice, and the accompanying Ms Tiny, which uses Tanqueray 10 gin, pear and passionfruit, shaken with egg white.

Both drinks are available at Jigger & Pony and priced between $22++ and $26++.


HILDA TAN, 21, FORMERLY FROM THE SPIFFY DAPPER

This spunky woman, who is now working as a bar consultant, was formerly the head bartender of gin bar The Spiffy Dapper.

Ms Tan got into bartending because she liked working with her hands and she liked the way cocktails looked.

After finishing school in 2013, at the age of 18, the single-minded teen went to “every single bar in Tanjong Pagar, Clarke Quay, Sentosa and Orchard” asking for a job. The problem was, no one was hiring at that time, she said, not even nightclubs.

Her efforts paid off after four months, when cocktail bar owner Abhishek Cherian George of speakeasy The Spiffy Dapper in Boat Quay decided to take a chance on her.

She declined to talk about her family, saying only that her mother is a housewife and that she has a younger sister who is in primary school.

In the early days of her career, she said she was constantly nervous. She did not even know how to make a classic cocktail such as a whisky sour.

But her mentor George said: “Fake it till you make it.”

And so she did, working hard to educate herself in the process.

With the bar being a gin speciality place, Ms Tan had to learn the profiles of about 95 different gins and how each would taste with the 13 types of tonic water stocked at the bar.

In her free time, she read up on cocktails and bartending techniques.

Before she turned 21, she became the head bartender of The Spiffy Dapper.

Mr George says the young bartender “has a crazy drive to keep on proving herself”.

He adds: “She was my first apprentice and employee and she rose very fast. She always looks at the ‘why’ behind everything, such as the cocktails, and she is able to digest information well.”

Ms Tan is thankful for the opportunity to shine in a small team.

“Other established bars have their own bar teams and it may take longer to work your way up, so I’ve been lucky.”

A month ago, she left The Spiffy Dapper to be a freelance bar consultant, coming up with cocktail menus for new bars.

She says: “I see myself in the industry for the long-term and, eventually, I’d like to be involved in a distillery and to learn more about distribution and supply chain management.”

Signature drinks

Ms Tan has a good knowledge of gin, so it is not surprising that her forte is gin cocktails.

Among her signature drinks is the Hanalei Bay, a savoury cocktail inspired by author Haruki Murakami’s 2006 short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, using gin, citrus, sugar, egg white and olive oil.

A more refreshing and herby option is The Cabbage Cat, a vodka cocktail that uses citrus, homemade melon syrup, muddled fresh dill, star anise and Japanese cucumber, shaken with egg white.This cocktail is available at The Spiffy Dapper.

The cocktails are priced between $20 and $25 each.


KELLY D’CRUZ, 23, OF THE SECRET MERMAID

Where: B1-08 Ocean Financial Centre, 10 Collyer Quay. Open Monday to Friday, 5 to 11pm

As a bartender, Ms D’cruz gets strange requests from her customers from time to time, including one particularly bizarre request to create a cocktail to make the drinker feel like “I want to harpoon a whale”.

But the head bartender of American craft spirits bar The Secret Mermaid is always up for the challenge, experimenting with American craft spirits and even moonshine, a type of high-proof, distilled white spirit, typically made from corn mash.

The cocktail she made for that customer?

“I’m pretty sure it was something pretty boozy with moonshine. Whenever people give me odd requests, I always tend to give them moonshine,” she says with a chuckle.

Her mother, 62, runs a tuition centre, while her father, 68, is retired from the pest control business he used to run. She has a sister, 24, who is studying for a film degree in England, and another sister, 29, who is pursuing a master’s degree in human rights in Bangkok.

Ms D’cruz started out as a part-time server at a dive bar in Chijmes while studying for a diploma in fine arts (painting) at Lasalle College of the Arts a few years ago.

Eventually, she moved from serving to bartending, mixing basic cocktails such as lychee martinis and margaritas. “It was nothing fancy,” she says.

After three years, she left to work as a bartender at Japanese restaurant Tanuki Raw in Orchard Central, where she learnt how to make classic cocktails such as the Negroni, Old Fashioned and Manhattan, and flavoured martinis.

For the past year, she had been cutting her teeth as a bartender at The Secret Mermaid, where she trained under former head barman, American Kevin Petrie.

There, she received a crash course in craft distilleries and different types of bourbons.

She says: “It was a bit of a challenge because we had about 70 to 80 different products and I had to learn everything, such as which distillery the spirits are from, and learning and memorising the taste profiles took a long while.”

Having recently taken over from Mr Petrie as head barman – he is moving back to the United States – she admits there is pressure on her to live up to expectations, especially when she is only 23.

She adds: “I guess being a female bartender as well, there’s always the pressure that I may not know as much as someone else, that I haven’t been here long.

“But I’m honest about what I know and don’t know and I just learn as much as I can and improve on that.”

Signature drinks: Ms D’cruz says she enjoys experimenting with homemade syrups, bitters and reductions.

Among her new drinks that will feature on the bar’s menu in a couple of weeks is the Sangria Sour ($18++), a variation of the New York Sour cocktail which uses a red wine reduction and homemade cherry bitters.

There is also the creamy Chai Chocolate ($18++ to $20++), which uses chai-infused vodka, Milo powder and milk.

ot sure what to ask for? Ms D’cruz recommends a tasting flight of a particular spirit ($15++ to $24++) to get bargoers acquainted with the flavour profile before she proceeds to make them a cocktail.