My Bag

Singaporean bartender Sam Wong flirts with customers as 'part of the job'

Mr Sam Wong started bartending when he was fresh out of national service.
Mr Sam Wong started bartending when he was fresh out of national service.ST PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN

Bartender Sam Wong says it is a misperception that they are all playboys with no proper schooling

He dropped out of school at the age of 15, but Singaporean bartender Sam Wong says it is a misperception that only those without a formal education go into the profession.

Bartending is a craft that requires skill and commitment, adds the 32-year-old.

"I've had two people with degrees work for me. So the industry is not just for those without an education."

Mr Wong, who now runs his own bar consulting firm and is the regional brand ambassador in Asia for British soft drink company Britvic, says it takes time to study bartending and it is not something just anyone can do.

"Knowing about the different whiskies alone already takes a lot of time and it's something a school won't teach you."

He points out that bartenders can also get globally recognised qualifications such as certificates from British organisation Wine & Spirit Education Trust.

"Those certificates are tough to get. I think even lawyers would find them difficult to study for."

  • ON HIS BAG

    I got this about six months ago from Changi Airport for $29.90. I don't remember which store I bought it from. I needed a new backpack and red is my favourite colour. I usually wear dull colours, so I select brighter accessories that are more striking.

The bachelor, who has been married twice and has three children with his first wife, says the job pays better these days.

"Good bars now offer a starting pay of more than $2,000 with yearly increments as well as pay jumps if you win awards."

Mr Wong is no stranger to bartending competitions. In 2015, he was a Diageo World Class finalist for Singapore and South-east Asia. Two of his cocktails also won Occasion Challenge accolades at the competition that year.

The annual event is considered one of the world's more prestigious mixology competitions.

Mr Wong started bartending at the age of 21. Fresh out of national service, he started as a bar assistant at the now-defunct club Ministry of Sound in Clarke Quay.

In 2006, he obtained a diploma in hotel and casino management with the Boston Business School in Singapore. He then worked at different nightlife establishments, including Orgo Bar & Restaurant at the Esplanade and Jigger & Pony in Amoy Street.

In 2013, he started cocktail bar Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall in Boat Quay. Two years later, he left to join another cocktail bar, Nutmeg & Clove in Ann Siang Hill.

But the energetic mixologist says he did not stay for long. Though he declines to reveal why he left early last year, he says he then took a one-year hiatus from bartending.

"I needed a break. After my 11th year, I was tired."

During his break, he started a consulting firm, Instinctive, which helps clients with training, menu planning and bar layout.

His latest project is contemporary yakitori and cocktail bar Chikin in Bukit Pasoh Road. He created all 20 drinks on the menu, each inspired by Japan's culture and seasons.

For example, the cocktail My Sakura, a stiff drink made with sakura liqueur, sake and gin, is inspired by the frenzy surrounding the sakura season. Another cocktail, called the Oold Fashion, contains honey, angostura bitters and a whisky that is sous vide with oolong tea for four hours.

How does he know what flavours go well together? It is a mix of instinct and research, he says.

"I think it is just like how chefs know certain flavours will match others. After so long, it comes instinctively.

"I also talk to bartenders whom I respect - I explain what type of flavours I want to get and they suggest different techniques or combinations."

And, Mr Wong points out with a laugh, it is also not true that bartenders are "playboys".

"We are just very flirty behind the bar because it is part of the job. We flirt with guys too. You have to be friendly."

He adds that reading the customers and being able to give each one a unique experience is a skill.

"Everybody thinks being a bartender is just about making drinks. Of course, that is a big part of the job, but it is also about understanding the people who come to your bar," he says.

"People come to spill their sorrows or celebrate or they just want to have a good time. As a bartender, you must be able to read that to serve them better."


Things in his bag 

CAP FROM AH SAM COLD DRINK STALL

I carry this around all the time just in case my hair gets too messy.

LAPTOP

This is where I keep all my secrets. My concoctions, costings, contracts for work and new products that Britvic, for which I am an ambassador, is launching across Asia. This is my life.

ORGANISER

This helps me keep track of my schedule. It also has all my tasting notes from Chikin, my consulting firm's latest project, because we're still trying to improve the drinks. I got it from a stationery store in Singapore.

HYPERX HEADPHONES

I use these to listen to music and when I play computer games at home. The sound quality is great and it is noise-cancelling as well.

Mr Sam Wong started bartending when he was fresh out of national service.

JIGGER AND BAR SPOON

I don't like using other people's bar tools, so I always bring my own wherever I go. I actually have a box that holds all my tools, including the jigger, bar spoon, shakers, strainers and a knife. I'm also particular about how the tools feel in my hands, so it is easier to always use my own.

POWER BANK

It's just to charge my phone so that I can use it all day. I keep it in this colourful pouch because all my accessories are colourful.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Serving up the truth about bartenders'. Print Edition | Subscribe