Nights out: Meet 5 of Singapore’s hottest bartenders

From a margarita to a bloody mary, we chat with some of the men whose job is to serve up drinks for us to enjoy after the daily grind of work

Sam Wong
Sam Wong
31 Jan 2016

Sam Wong

Bartender, currently guests bartending at various locations

Photo: Courtesy of Sam Wong

A self-professed ‘Ah Beng’ bartender, Sam Wong prefers to keep it local and homey with his cocktail concotions. Kopi O Gao, his award winning cocktail (made of coffee-infused vermouth, whisky and walnut bitters) inspired by his late grandfather, is an example of this local boy tendency to whip up drinks that’s representative of our homegrown flavour. Awards and accolades aside, the well-respected bartender with more than a decade of experience under his belt is not as concerned with competitions as one would think.

You describe yourself as an ‘Ah Beng’ bartender?
Yes, that’s my bartending style. I just put anything and everything I can together. And of course, it must taste nice. Every drink would hopefully have a story, because, you know…an Ah Beng always has something to say. Technique wise, I’m more European (flair focused) and Japanese style (precision focused), which is again very ‘rojak’, like an Ah Beng – can speak English, Chinese, Hokkien…a bit of everything!

So we hear that you started bartending to attract girls?
Yes. I got bored, was an introvert and really wanted to get to know more girls. I thought being a bartender was cool and you get to chat with your customers… so I decided to try it out to become popular (with girls)…and it worked out!

Have you ever ended up on a date after your shift?
Of course, there have been advances from (female) customers at work. One of the most memorable ones was when I first started bartending at Ministry of Sound. She was a regular guest who became a good friend and god-sister and later a "friends with benefits". 

Did you get started with alcohol early? Tell us about your first drink.
It was around Secondary 1 when I tasted my first stout at home. I ended up with a major allergy reaction. I remember becoming really drunk just on my first sip, and my first turning really swollen. Thankfully, I got over the this allergy later on.

You named Kopi O Gao – the drink that won you Occasion Challenge accolades at the South-east Asian leg of the Diageo Reserve World Class competition last year – as your proudest creation yet. Why?
It’s one of my proudest creation not just because it won me an award, but also because the drink really reminded me of my late grandfather – the one person who brought me up as a child. This childhood experience was something close to my heart that I’ll never want to forget. Kopi O Gao is representative of this memory.

So you’ve won awards at bartending competitions, but you say it’s not your thing?
I don’t really like joining competitions because I prefer working behind the bars more. Even though I really love competitions such as the Diageo World Class, which has helped bring me to a different level of bartending and exposed me to what others are doing in the scene, but my personal belief is that you don’t need a competition to tell you that you’re good at your job. Competitive bartending is really unnecessary stress for me…plus winning at competitions doesn’t make you great behind the bar.
 

Naz Arjun
Naz Arjun
31 Jan 2016

Naz Arjun

Head Bartender at Bitters & Love

Naz’s bartending style is quite like his unreserved character – freestyle and unorthodox. From kaya jam to durian, Naz has never been one to shy away from infusing quirky ingredients to his cocktail concoctions. When it comes to talks about mixology philosophy, the 32-year-old is all about having fun, which is also evident in his fashion choices. Naz sports a long sleek hairstyle and dons casual T-shirts at work. In fact, when not shaking up a storm behind the bar, the talented man continues to play music, and secretly dreams of living out his rock star dream someday.

So…you wanna be a rock star?
Yeah! I really love rocking it out on stage. I used to be the lead guitarist and vocalist of a band as a teenager and we called ourselves “The Necromancer” – meaning someone who controls the night. It was a really successful band and we were even invited to play at many cool events like at Suntec and at *SCAPE Youth Park, which were some of the really trendy places then. But our band stopped playing after we went to the army. I wish we’d continued though, I think we could’ve made something out of it.

Any regrets then?
Well I do see my job here as a rock star. You still turn up to work, make people a drink, entertain them and make them “worship” you. People don’t just come to a bar for a drink these days, they wanna be entertained. So I think that to be a good bartender, you need to share similar quality to that of a good rock star. Spontaneity and entertainment. Lots of it.

What are some of the things that influence your cocktail creations?
My mum used to have a small Malay food stall where I’d help out as a kid. So I’ve a good knowledge of flavour profiles imparted from my mum, ever since I was a kid. Now, a lot of my creations are influenced by the Malay cuisines and the style of food I’m familiar with. For example, there’s a chendol cocktail I’ve created, a kueh lapis one, and even a teh tarik style. I’m thankful that people find these drinks unique.

You work opposite hours to the rest of your friends. It must be hard maintaining relationships?
I think working opposite hours keeps me a little more focused with my life because I only spend time with myself most of the time. I live a very separate life from those who work in the day, and that’s a good thing because I never have to be in a rush for the public transport.

And this affected your love life?
Yes, it’s a very different lifestyle and that leaves little room for relationships now. But it’s a lifestyle I chose. I guess you can’t always have everything.

You sport a really cool hairdo, is this done intentionally to keep up with your image?
I’ve never planned to have this hairstyle, it kinda just happened. It was about three years ago after a relationship ended. I was going through a rough time and basically did not care about my hair for about six months until I had to start work again. When I went to the salon to get my hair shaved off, as I always would, the hair dresser told me not to and she straightened my hair out instead. I thought I looked like a lesbian after, but my colleagues at work said “you look good”, so I just decided to keep the hair (and it's been) 2 years now. Who knew suddenly long hair in men would become a trend and you see “man buns” all around now!

Bitters & Love is located at 118 Telok Ayer Street, Singapore 068587

*Note: Portions of these interviews have been edited for brevity.

 

Joel Fraser
Joel Fraser
31 Jan 2016

Joel Fraser

Managing Director of The Cufflink Club

Photo: Courtesy of Joel Fraser

For someone who studied art and dreams of painting, serving up alcohol for a living may seem to be an unlikely career choice - but not so for British bartender-businessman Joel Fraser, who moved to our sunny island six years ago to join The Tippling Club as bar consultant, and is now the owner of three local businesses.

So from arts to alcohol. How did you get started in bartending? Was it something you always knew you wanted to make a career of?
I was working in the private members club of affluent suburb Cheshire, I remember meeting the Beckhams, Hulk Hogan, Lenox Lewis and Jimmy Chew as I turned about 21. When you’re that age, it’s easy to get caught up in this lifestyle where these celebrities know your name and you’re drinking champagne and doing shots with them. I think I was attracted to the glamour of it all.

You must get a lot of female attention at your job. Share with us some encounters.
I’m just there to do a job :) I met the 2 loves of my life (girlfriends) in the bars I was working at or owning, so I’m happy to attract attention, it's been good to me.

What about unwanted advances, how do you brush them off?
I’m always polite. I’m a big boy and can handle myself.

Since your job mostly goes on till late, you must find it hard to maintain relationships?
Being the boss allows me to get the time off required to maintain friendships and relationships, it's true it's tougher when you’re younger and working until 4am each night. I also love travelling, I’ve been to over 50 countries and I’m typically away each month. I play football also on Sundays with friends and I consider myself a gourmand too, I eat like crazy.

“Jiak the Ripper”, “50 Shades of Grey”…you seem to have some interesting names for your cocktail creations. How do you come up with them?
I get inspired by current events, literature, art and nostalgia. A great example of this was when the book "50 Shades of Grey" was released and I’d be on the train each morning and I’d see this book peeking out of every woman's handbag. This lit a creative bulb and that day I got to working on my interpretation of an earl grey martini…the “50 Shades of Grey”.

What was your first alcoholic drink and how did it taste like? 
Jack and Coke at 18 years old. I was always a good boy growing up and still to this day haven’t tried a cigarette. I started drinking quite late on by comparison to my friends. 

The Cufflink Club is located at 6 Jiak Chuan Rd, Singapore 089262
 

Ethan Leslie Leong
Ethan Leslie Leong
31 Jan 2016

Ethan Leslie Leong

Director, Executive Chef, Master Mixologist of Maison Ikkoku & FORT By Maison Ikkoku

As the face behind Asia’s Most Expensive Cocktail, The Jewel of Pangaea, a well-respected mixologist with heavyweight clients like CHANEL and Mont Blanc, an ambassador for Urban Homme Face & Body Studio for Men and a Director of two successful bars, Ethan is understandably a busy man. Despite his packed schedule however, the meticulous man remains dedicated to his craft, preferring to go hands-on in every aspect of his bar business – right down to preparing his own ingredients.

You’re looking very stylish today, do you tend to pay attention to your image?
I’ve always been very concerned about how I look. I know what I look best in and also shop for my own clothes all the time. Apart from my busy schedule, I need to take some time out for workout too. I try to go to the gym at least 3 to 4 times each week, and stay for 2-3 hours each time. I believe that as you grow older, you should look sharper, and exercising helps you achieve that.

Have you ever received female attention while working behind the bar?
Well, not really…I think my customers are all cool. Of course, I do spend time chatting with them and some of the regulars do end up becoming friends.

Tell us about a time you received a challenging drink request from a customer.
I once had a customer who worked in the arts scene asking for a drink with a “wok-hei” flavour (in Cantonese, referring to a characteristic charred flavour imparted to food that’s been stir-fried in a wok over very high heat). At first I went “what?”, then I gave some thought to it and managed to create the cocktail using truffle, vodka and coffee.

Having created The Jewel of Pangaea, what other challenge do you have in mind for the future?
I’m always open to taking on challenges, so maybe somewhere special…like making a cocktail underwater?

Tell me about your first drinking experience.
Back in the early 80s, most clubs were doing tea dance parties, which only open in the day. I was only around 14 when I attended one of these events where I tasted beer for the first time. I remember it being really awful, really bitter! I only had half a mug of beer, and I still had to make my way home on a bus, feeling so drunk.

FORT By Maison Ikkoku is located at 5 Cox Terrace, Singapore 179620. Maison Ikkoku is located at Level 2, 20 Kandahar St, Singapore 198885.
 

Boo Jing Heng
Boo Jing Heng
31 Jan 2016

Boo Jing Heng

Senior Bartender at Jigger & Pony

Albeit young, 24-year-old Jing Heng is already making waves in the local bartending scene. With newly minted accolades such as the Rising Star Award and the 5 Star Classic Award at the latest edition of the prestigious Southeast Asia Diageo World Class Finals, Jing Heng seems poised to be the next rising star in the local bartending scene. But things weren’t always as smooth-sailing for this impish lad, having faced disapproval from family when he first joined the industry at 18.

So you consider yourself to be living your dream?
I’ve always wanted to work in the bar ever since I saw a bartender at work during my internship at a hotel. I remember thinking… “how do you mix something up to taste so amazing?” But my parents disapproved, so I joined the construction industry for awhile but didn’t like it at all. I was always turning up late for work and wanted badly to return to bar work. I later found this job at cocktail bar Jigger & Pony. Thankfully, my parents visited my workplace and found it to be very different from what they had imagined. They’re okay with my career choice now and I’ve been working here ever since.

Has your career as a bartender affected your personal life?
My hours are reverse from most people, so yes, you do start to lose some of your friends from schooling days. Right now most of my friends are people who are also in this line and we visit each other’s bar on our days off.

What are some of the weirdest requests you’ve received from customers?
I’ve ever had some ladies ask me to dance behind the bar. I don’t really know how to dance, so I just “moved around” for them to see! There were also occasions where I ran out of the bar to get things like watermelon and Mee Rebus because of customer requests. For some reason, a customer wanted to have the drinks served in an empty watermelon fruit…I now make sure to have the fruit stocked behind the bar!

Aside from dancing, what other things have you done to treat your customers?
Magic! I love magic tricks. I obviously can’t do things like disappear before them or cut things up, but little tricks with cards, lights and coins are well-received.

Your latest cocktail creation is named *Meeting Loch Ness. What’s the story behind it?
I stayed back after work one day to develop a new cocktail for a competition. But I got quite drunk and fell asleep. In my dreams, I met the Loch Ness Monster who appeared as my pet. I even fed it chocolate and played with it. After waking up, I did some research about Loch Ness and found out about the Scottish Highlands and the Singleton whisky, which eventually became the inspiration behind the new drink.

* Meeting Loch Ness is made up of 3 different serves of The Singleton Glen Ord 12 years - Singleton neat, Singleton with dark sugar and angostura bitters, and Singleton with dark sugar, chocolate bitters, house blend of Worcestershire sauce and angostura bitters. The drink is available at Jigger & Pony, priced at S$22++. 


Jigger & Pony is located at 101 Amoy Street, Singapore 069921

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