The job of a bartender may seem like a carefree one where you can drink and play around with shakers and bottles all day, but behind that is years of practice.
He has to be both merry-maker and party pooper, for tipsy customers who have had way too much to drink. Sometimes, he literally has to throw his weight around, playing bouncer to prevent inebriated customers from making a public disturbance.
Three weeks ago, Youth.SG visited Mervin at Wave House Sentosa to learn more about being a bartender and mixologist.
We learnt more about his experience as a bartender:
Tell us about yourself.
As I am working every day, I do not have much free time, but when I was younger and had more time, I did a lot of experimenting with drinks. I joined quite a number of competitions and went overseas to gain more experience and knowledge. One of the things I enjoy most now is chilling at the beach and practicing flairing (the juggling ‘tricks’ bartenders do to entertain customers) with my friends.
Tell us more about what a bartender does and the difference between bartenders and mixologists.
Bartending is a skill in mixing drinks, building rapport with customers and getting to know their likes and dislikes. Contrary to popular belief, our job is to create enjoyable concoctions for our customers and not to make them drunk.
You start off as a barback, where you learn the basics: how the bar is run, where different items are placed, how to use the mixing tools, familiarising yourself with the different cocktails and also assist the bartender in operations. The main job scope of a barback is washing the glasses, cutting the garnishes, and making sure that the necessary things are in stock. You then move on to be a bartender, and with experience, you can be a mixologist. A mixologist is someone who is skilled in mixing current cocktails and whilst coming up with new ones.
How and why did you come into bartending?
I started out as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant bar. Over time, I got curious about bartending, so I began to watch what my colleagues did at the bar, gradually picking up a little here and there. I got very interested and decided to study food and beverage operations to allow myself to learn more. But as for bartending, it is really just from my own experimentation and learning on the job.
Describe a typical day at work.
It is mostly handling customers’ different needs and wants, likes and dislikes and mixing drinks that suit their taste buds. To round it up, it is preparing different drinks every day in fairly large quantities.
Mervin had us be his guinea pigs after the interview as he whipped up a new concoction for us to try. It is literally hot off the presses or in this instance bar counter– even his colleagues had not tried or seen it before:
Share with us a memorable experience you had and why you found it memorable.
I would not say memorable but one of the most common situations is when a customer sits down at the bar and they do not know what they want to drink even after flipping the menu a few times. As a bartender and mixologist, I will approach them to help. I will ask them about the kind of taste, spirit, or fruits they like and use my knowledge and experience to come up with something suitable. It is a challenge, but ultimately, it is rewarding when you surprise the customer with a drink that they like (especially if the customer is fussy).
You won the Asia Pacific Bartender of the Year 2004 and also concocted the Singapore Flyer Cocktail. Tell us more about these achievements.
I joined a lot of competitions before and even though I did not go very far, I did not give up. Eventually, after about 45 various competitions, I won the Asia Pacific Bartender of the Year 2004. My inspiration for that competition came when I found a rare liquer which is no longer available in Singapore. I used that together with dry ice and edible flowers to come up with my winning presentation.
As for the Singapore Flyer Cocktail challenge in 2007, I was working for a company that was a product sponsor for the challenge then. I used Johnny Walker, which is whisky, as it was the product that was being sponsored. It was challenging as not many people like to drink it. My edge was my inventiveness, many competitors used common fruits for the cocktail such as orange, lime, mango and kiwi, but I used the rose apple (jambu).
How long have you been in this industry and how has it changed over the years?
I have been in the industry for over 20 years.
The mentality of bartenders has changed. When I first started, bartending was taken more seriously compared to now.
Previously, a drink or cocktail could just be a mixture of different alcohols. Today, bartenders and mixologists are using all kinds of fruits and vegetables in a drink and also delving into molecular mixology at the same time, which involves having scientific understanding of how different alcohols react. We have to also constantly improve on our flairing as it gets more and more challenging – previously we had to juggle two bottles but it can go up to five bottles today.
Is there anything you do not like about your job?
Cleaning the bar and making sure everything is well-maintained. Every week, we have to remove everything bit by bit for the cleaning and maintenance, which is really tedious.
What advice do you have for youths considering a career as a bartender?
You need to have the interest and passion. Never give up, keep trying.
It is good to surprise customers if you want more tips. Take things seriously as there is never a shortcut. If you are really keen, you can take up a bartending course – there is one at Shatec. However, even with any kind of certificate, you have to be willing to work as a barback first before you move on to be a bartender and mixologist.
Being a bartender and mixologist:
Educational requirements: Not necessary, but some related training will be beneficial.
Qualities needed: Eagerness to learn, hardworking, perseverance, your own style.
Working hours: 10 to 12 hours daily, work during weekends too.
Salary range: $1,100 to $1,200 for barbacks. An average basic of $1,600 for bartenders and increases with experience. There will also be tips and allowances depending on what company you work at.
Career prospects/advancements: Barback, bartender, mixologist, molecular mixology.
Specialisations: Restaurant and hotel bars (slow-paced, interactive), beach bars (chill-out, relaxed, interactive), cocktail bars (require an in-depth knowledge on all your products), clubs (require speed).
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