A Conversation with Some of Asia’s Best Female BartendersMay 24, 2019
It doesn’t come as a surprise that most first impressions of the bar industry involve it being a male-dominated one. Perhaps, it’s the rough environment—having to deal with rowdy customers and drunken encounters, the obvious presence of liquor, and the unruly sight of patrons dizzily trickling out of the bar when the first rays of sunlight hit the pavement.
True, the bar industry could be raucous, but what has been under the radar is the growing number of women stepping up and making a name for themselves in it. Remember the movie Coyote Ugly? Liliana Lovell, the owner of the real Coyote Ugly bar at 1st Avenue, New York, made sure that all her “fellas” were having a good time. Despite wreaking havoc and shots flying all over the place, she and her girls had it under control. It’s about high time that the spotlight was shed on the ladies, too.
Enter the first all-female #50BestTalks held at Como Dempsey, Singapore, last 10th of May, a thought leadership forum featuring outstanding female bartenders from Asia: Victoria “Tori” Chow, owner of The Woods (Hong Kong), Bannie Kang, head craftsman at Anti:Dote (Singapore), Sasha Wijidessa, sous bartender of Operation Dagger (Singapore), and Pinsuda “Annie” Pongprom, head bartender of The Bamboo Bar at The Mandarin Oriental (Thailand; also the best bar in Thailand this 2019). From humble concoctions to stunning libations, these women share their experiences working in the bar industry.
“To tell you the truth, there isn’t much discrimination in Asian bar industry,” says Tori. “If anything, most of the conflict arose when I told my family that I wanted to enter it!” she laughs. “Especially with my Mom, I knew she was coming from a loving and protective place, but what a lot of people sometimes forget is that the cocktail world goes beyond the drinking culture as we know it. It’s knowledge-driven; it’s a form of art,” Tori continues. Bannie nods in agreement as Sasha chimes in, “if there’s any form of discrimination, it comes more from the customers. For some odd reason, they can’t believe women are capable of making a good cocktail.”
Annie agrees and expounds more on some of the challenges she faced in the industry. “I used to be a flair bartender, but I had a change of heart and wanted to focus more on cocktails and less on theatrics. I was just a waitress back then at The Bamboo Bar, and I needed to muster up the courage to tell my boss that I wanted to explore bartending.”
“No one says ‘I want to be a bartender’ when they grow up,” says Sasha. “I was studying Pharmaceutical Science when Luke [Whearty] approached me, asking if I wanted to be a bartender at Operation Dagger. I was working at another bar then, but I found myself enjoying it passionately. Luke told me I didn’t need an education, and that he would take care of me.
“Leaving an educational path like this to pursue my passion was a tough choice, but I see myself applying what I’ve learned in making drinks. Processes such as fermentation—I’ve applied that to the wines at Operation Dagger, and it helps me explain to customers what the drink is about since we’re into experimental cocktails that involve a lot of science,” says Sasha. “I remember, there was this one time I explained one of our cocktails to our customers that involved 12 drops of oil coming together. He really wanted to know the science behind it, so I explained it to him until he finished his drink!”
“I work at a hotel bar, so it’s kind of a different story for me,” says Annie. “There are a lot of rules and levels of approval, but it pushes us to do better, and it maintains a level of standard.”
“Working at a hotel bar is also great because you get a lot of PR support! There are rules, yes, but it’s more of a good thing than a bad one,” says Bannie.
“As someone who runs her own bar, I really needed to get a business mentor (my sister!) to help me run it,” says Tori. “At The Woods, we really focus on education for both our team and our customers—that’s our mission; we want to help them understand what goes inside each cocktail and give them a backstory. For example, tequila is notorious for being the spirit people love to shoot, but that’s not all there is to it. There’s the agave and the years it takes to distill the spirit—there’s a lot of love and soul poured into every drop.”
“I think it shouldn’t be a surprise that women are behind the bar these days, but most of the time, it still is. Most of the challenges come more from the customer’s side as Sasha pointed out earlier,” Annie says. “There was this one time, I was going around Anti:Dote, and one of the customers waved at me and asked me to call the bartender,” recalls Bannie. “I say just own it,” Tori says. “If you lead the bar, then say it. I really believe in using hospitality—this industry we are mainly in—for the greater good, and we should never underestimate ourselves and our capacity to make change.”
When asked about what piece of advice these inspiring women could give to all bartenders out there, here’s what they had to say.
“Never stop learning, never stop asking questions, and attend all the classes you are privileged to attend—and find a mentor!” exclaims Tori. “I agree with Tori,” says Bannie, “keep learning and always remember to stay humble.” Sasha rounds off the conversation and says, “don’t let anyone ever define you by anything else other than how you do your job.”
As the number of women bartenders is growing, so is the number of women drinkers. Tori, Bannie, Sasha, and Annie all encourage women to also go out, have a drink by themselves, and to not be bothered, too. Drinking, after all, is a highly enjoyable activity whether alone or with a group of friends. Take it from these amazing female bartenders—the future (and present) is filled with female spirit, indeed.