Life as a mixologist is not as easy as it seems.
“Last summer, I was distilling my own Absinthe at home when the gas tank suddenly exploded due to the heat. During the chaos, I put out the fire on my own and burnt my hand in the process,” Japanese mixologist Hiroyasu Kayama recounted through an interpreter.
Welcome to a day in the life of Hiroyasu, the owner-bartender of Bar BenFiddich in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
Opened to great fanfare in 2013, Bar BenFiddich was named one of the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2018 and 2019.
Hiroyasu was invited by the Association of Bartenders & Sommeliers Singapore (ABSS) to demonstrate his craft at a cocktail pairing dinner at The Fullerton Hotel on 6 June. He also taught at L’Fiesta, a masterclass for aspiring bartenders, which was held at Nanyang Polytechnic.
According to Hiroyasu, being in the bar business “is hard”. Mixologists work long hours and their bars also face intense competition in countries with well-developed bar culture, such as Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Samuel Kwok, the bar manager of Quinary, echoed similar sentiments. Quinary is a multi-sensory cocktail bar located in Hollywood Road in Hong Kong.
Voted as one of the Top 25 Bartenders in Hong Kong by Drinks World Asia magazine, Samuel was crowned the champion of Diageo World Class Hong Kong and Macau in 2017– one of the largest bartending competitions in the world.
Samuel Kwok helms Quinary as a bar manager. The bar, which was launched in 2012, has snagged multiple accolades, including being among the World’s 50 Best Bars and Asia’s 50 Best Bars.
Samuel shares that there are many bars in Hong Kong that closed down before their contract ended.
“The monthly rental for Quinary is very high. The salary for one bartender alone is S$2,800 and we have six bartenders. Half of the bar sales go to all these expenditures,” Samuel revealed.
Another key challenge is an acute shortage of bartenders. “In Hong Kong, many young bartenders hop from bar to bar for higher pay and position. Not for knowledge,” Samuel explained.
Fortunately, in Quinary’s case, the sales from their three best-selling drinks are enough to cover their expenses.
Likewise, Vijay also experienced finance issues for his bar in Singapore. He is the owner of Native bar, which is also a World’s 50 Best Bars.
“The bar is owned by me and a few childhood friends. We are always finding our way around finance issues.”
Japanese mixologist Hiroyasu Kayama shares his tips of the trade.
When asked about his tips for success, Hiroyasu shared: “The Japanese hospitality culture – omotenashi is very important. I focus a lot on the start and the end of the customer experience.”
“For instance, when a customer walks in with insecurities, you have to make them feel welcomed and at ease. Before the customer leaves, you have to ensure that everything is done perfectly. If you can do the start and end well, the customer will walk out feeling that they had a great experience at the bar.”
For Vijay, he differentiates his bar from competitors by creating a uniquely Singapore identity. Everything in the bar ranging from the liquor used, the cocktail ingredients and even the aprons reflect this commitment. For instance, Native bar’s Peranakan cocktail, made from leftover milk curdle and cooked with pandan, was inspired by the traditional dessert Kueh Salat.
Beyond that, Native bar is also big on sustainability.
Vijay said: “We do our own compost. Then we use it to grow herbs which we use in our cocktails. We also use solar power that goes directly to our power lines.”
In Samuel’s case, the key to success is quality control, which is an important and difficult element to achieve.
“I am always there to ensure that the quality (of the drinks) is good. I also give directions to my staff and continuously remind them to stay calm. Otherwise, when things get hectic, it is very easy to end up becoming a robot working soullessly,” shared Samuel.
Vijay Mudaliar reads a wide range of topics to improve his skills as a mixologist.
Despite their success, all three mixologists stressed that the learning never stops.
“It’s good to be improving, even by a few percents,” said Vijay. He regularly reads a wide range of topics, from eco-culture, bartending to books on flora and fauna. His secret to maximizing his time? Read while waiting for his flight.
When asked how he improves himself, Samuel shared that he takes online courses.
Besides learning to improve their skills, being knowledgeable helps to improve customer service.
“You need to be knowledgeable about different ingredients so that you can share with customers,” explains Samuel.
Likewise, Hiroyasu is a big believer in learning. Besides reading widely, he also experiments on different cocktails to improve on his craft.
Ultimately, all three mixologists’ passion for their work and interest in learning showed through their actions. During their free time, they attended each other’s masterclasses and listened with rapt attention.
Perhaps the best way to sum up their attitude is with a Japanese quote that Hiroyasu shares at the end of the interview.
“There is a 100-year-old saying in Japan. It goes something like ‘it is never enough. I am going to keep dancing until I am in the other world’. Regardless of what you want to do in life, just keep pursuing it until you die,” he said.
The Association of Bartenders & Sommeliers Singapore’s (ABSS)’s cocktail pairing session aims to be a networking and learning platform for industry professionals.
Hiroyasu, Samuel and Vijay were invited to participate in the Association of Bartenders & Sommeliers Singapore’s (ABSS)’s cocktail pairing session. The event, which is also supported by NTUC’s e2i, comprises a series of masterclasses and networking events targeted at industry partners to support outreach, recognition and training.
L’fiesta is a series of classes to prepare students in institutes of higher learning with the relevant skills required to become Bartender 4.0.
Today’s bartenders and mixologists need to be adaptable and equipped with technology skills, in addition to having a solid foundation in their skills.
Explaining what is Bartender 4.0, Gilbert Tan, chief executive officer of e2i said: “Bartender 4.0 is an archetype under Worker 4.0, which refers to a worker who is adaptable, equipped with technology skills, job-specific knowledge and skills to face the demands of Industry 4.0.”
The Boston Consulting Group defines Industry 4.0 as “the rise of new digital industrial technology which makes it possible to gather and analyse data across machines, enabling faster, more flexible and efficient processes to produce higher-quality goods at reduced costs.”
According to Gilbert, the objective of e2i’s Bartender 4.0 initiative is to help bartenders to not just survive, but also thrive and increase the vibrancy of Singapore’s bar scene.
Bartenders today also face a new set of challenges.
“Consumers nowadays are more discerning. Currently, they are leaning towards bespoke and creative cocktails and experiences, and are more appreciative of creativity and customisation in their drinks. Besides learning how to craft cocktails and experiences, bartenders also have to learn how to run a business in Singapore’s competitive F&B scene – where to find the best suppliers, the best ingredients, how to market their business, and so on,” he adds.
Given that many professionals in the bartending industry are consistently honing their skills, e2i plans to build a comprehensive roadmap for bartenders and mixologists.
As part of this initiative, e2i surveyed 100 industry professionals, including management-level staff to identify the skill gaps and customize training solutions and initiatives. The findings show that industry professionals want to develop adaptive skills in terms of customer interaction, inventory management, cost and quality management.
In terms of technology skills, both management and professionals wanted to focus on digital technologies and automation. Lastly, for technical skills, the top two most sought after skills are molecular mixology beverages and food pairings.
Based on the findings, e2i plans to curate and customize solutions to these training needs in the future.
“As the bar scene evolves, e2i is working towards becoming an ecosystem integrator for all employers, training providers and workers in the bartending and F&B industry. Together with ABSS, we hope to have more initiatives to drive the Bartender 4.0 concept,” Gilbert shared.
If you are a Singapore-registered company that wants to improve your workers’ productivity or need help with your employees’ training, contact e2i’s industry specialists today to find out how they can customise training programmes or provide assistance for your business challenges.
By Elena Owyong