It puts your memory to the test
Seriously, working at a cocktail bar is no joke. You need to have anything from a dozen to over a hundred cocktail recipes memorised, as well as knowledge of their variations and the ability to adapt according to taste profiles. You need to know when to shake and when to stir, when double straining a drink is needed (hint: it involves egg white). If you work at a bar that puts a large emphasis on spirits, you’ll have to be able to describe the nuances between say, a single malt scotch and straight bourbon whiskey.
It’s a lot of fun and half the time you feel like a mixologist in a lab experimenting with flavours. Sure, it’s something that comes with practice but people always tend to underestimate the sheer volume of study that’s involved.
And yet, you’re often stereotyped as unintelligent
There’s just something about being a female bartender in Singapore. Sometimes even the most well-meaning people tend to associate ‘working in hospitality’ with ‘unintelligent’ or ‘unsophisticated’. It’s an unconscious bias that manifests itself unnervingly often – customers come off as patronising or condescending when addressing people in the service industry. It’s pretty ironic, given the level of memorisation involved in bartending. And that mentality tends to disregard the fact that many people have a life outside the bar.
I’ve worked alongside a host of amazing women – some of them writers, painters and aspiring bar owners. Others are putting themselves through university. It’s not a lack of ambition or intelligence that saddles them with the job – to the contrary, it’s the incredible drive they possess to pursue their passion and make ends meet at the same time.
You get all the gossip
You know that recurring TV gag where a depressed dude plops himself down at a bar, orders ‘something strong’ and starts spilling his guts to the bartender? Well, this is more or less true. It’s a scenario that often plays out on a slow night during the work week. Something about bartending must make you approachable, because people tend to let their guard down and get really loose-lipped as the night wears on (this may or may not have something to do with the volume of alcohol consumed). Not only do you get to hear the juicy tidbits about people’s love lives and careers, sometimes you get to witness it too!
And you learn how to read people
All hail Tinder and this rise of online dating. Bartenders become very astute at picking out whether a solitary drinker is actually ‘waiting for a friend’ or a low-key Tinderer instead. You learn the tell-tale signs – they arrive to scout out the location, leave and then return. Or they order a drink at the bar and sit there nervously picking apart the coasters. You learn the do’s and don’ts of dating from afar. People watching, especially on a slow night at the bar, is the greatest teacher.
Unwelcome advances are part and parcel of the job
I’ve talked about female bartenders without mentioning the most obvious and unfortunate aspect of the job – unwelcome advances from customers. Lucky for me, while I was working I seldom felt harassed, and the most I’d get was verbal back and forth. Sometimes it was cheeky, sometimes it was just plain crude and sometimes (rarely) things would get handsy.
To take a more optimistic view – rather than saying all men are crap – I try to attribute it to the pack mentality. You know, when a group of guys are drinking together and out to impress and out-do each other, so they act in ways they wouldn’t when alone. Still, no women should have to stand there and take lewd comments. So you do learn how to fend off their advances. You learn to read the room and whether the best response would be feigning obliviousness, humour, or calling their bluff with a sarcastic one-liner.
Friends before coworkers
One of the best things about bartending is that your coworkers and regulars become your family. You see them on a daily basis, navigate the ups and the downs as a team, and defend each other against drunken customers who are #thirstyaf. There are many ways to bond with people, but doing so over a beer is one of the most tried and trusted methods out there.
Plus, working at a bar will eventually land you with a group of regulars. It’s a quid pro quo arrangement. You’re on a first name basis with them and remember their drink orders, while they often swing by with random novelty gifts from their travels… or maybe just Haribo candy to see you through a long shift.
To quote the immortal words of Christina Aguilera (or James Brown, depending on how old you are), bartending is still widely thought of as a man’s, man’s, man’s world. But the last few years have seen an explosion of female bartenders, especially the cocktail haunts of Ann Siang, Keong Saik and the CBD. Watch this space – they’re taking the all-boys club by storm!