amanda Wan: World class bartender
A female bartender does Malaysia proud in an international competition.
VODKA, strawberries, balsamic vinegar and ... condensed milk? It may seem like a strange combination for a cocktail, but baulk all you want, this strangely smooth and tasty cocktail won 24-year-old Amanda Wan the title of Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year for Malaysia.
“I like eating strawberries with balsamic vinegar and sugar as a snack. So I started wondering, ‘ How do I turn that into a drink?’ ” explained Wan, who had to concoct a cocktail using Diageo’s Ketel One premium vodka during the National Finals of the competition in Singapore.
“Ketel One is a very smooth vodka, so I had to try and make the drink smoother. I didn’t want it to taste too tangy, which hits you too hard. If you add cream, the acid from the balsamic vinegar separates the cream, and you get ugly-looking floating bits.
“During the final week (before the national finals), I decided to try it with condensed milk, and surprisingly, it worked! The acid from the vinegar actually counter-reacted with the sweetness of the condensed milk, so it made for a rather balanced drink.”
That cocktail which she named One Last Straw, also earned her a trip to Athens for the international finals of the competition recently, where she competed with 23 of the most talented bartenders in the world to become the global Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year 2010.
One of the largest global stages for the craft of bartending, the year-long programme serves to educate and inspire bartenders to create exceptional cocktails and experiences in the best bars around the world.
This year, over 9,000 bartenders worldwide participated in the programme. They were judged on their creations using Diageo Reserve Brands spirits (which include Ketel One and Ciroc vodkas, Tanqueray No.Ten gin, Don Julio tequila, Zacapa rum, and Johnnie Walker Gold Label and Blue Label blended Scotch whisky) as well as their skills, creativity and presentation.
Despite becoming Malaysia’s Bartender of The Year, Wan admits that she has a long way to go before she can even call herself a good bartender. After all, she has only been a professional bartender for two years at Hilton KL’s Vintage Bank.
She has always enjoyed creating drinks for other people. “I started out in beverages when I worked for Starbucks a while back. I loved the process of being behind an espresso bar, creating something on the spot for customers, and the sense of selfsatisfaction when you fulfil someone’s needs and give them what they want,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Wan made the transition from caffeine to alcohol, working behind the bar at fine dining outlet 7AteNine when she was 18 going on 19. Of course, before she even got to touch any of the spirits there, she had to pay her dues by washing glasses, stocking up the bar and even mopping floors.
“Eventually, they saw that I could work hard and fast. The bartender took me under his wing and taught me the trade,” she recalled. It was then that she started to gain an appreciation for the fine art of bartending, mixing cocktails and serving customers.
“I got hooked on making drinks and meeting people at the bar. I love pastry and wanted to study it, but you never get to meet people when you’re working in the kitchen,” she said. “But at the bar, you get to meet so many new people. I’ve met some of my best friends ever while working at the bar!”
All the same, with cocktail culture still in its infancy in Malaysia, Wan didn’t get many opportunities to experiment with her drinks.
“I would have certain ingredients that I liked, but because no one ordered it I had no chance to try them out. Fortunately, I had one regular customer, my favourite customer at 7AteNine, who would come in and ask me to make him anything I wanted,” she said. “Every time he came to the bar, I would be so excited because I could try out my new drinks, so much so that I never remembered to ask for his name!”
After working at 7AteNine for six months, Wan went back to college and eventually graduated with an honours degree in hotel and tourism management. And what did she do right after that? Why, return to the back of the bar, of course.
She did a six-month industrial training stint at KL Hilton’s Vintage Bank, and after giving it her all, she was offered a full-time job there.
“My mum nearly killed me! No one else would get a first class honours degree, and then go and work in a bar!” she said with a laugh. “But I managed to convince the family that this is what I wanted to do, and now after working at Hilton and winning the World Class competition, they can see where this is going.”
According to Wan, the Diageo World Class programme helped her understand bartending as a real profession – and it is not just about making drinks.
Throughout the programme, Diageo conducted training courses, imparting knowledge about spirits and the value of the drinks the bartenders make so they can educate their customers.
One thing’s for sure, though – contrary to popular belief, it isn’t easy being a bartender, let alone a female one.
“Many people think my job is easy, that I only make drinks, work at night so I don’t need to wake up early ... but they don’t see what we do before going behind the bar!” she lamented. “There’s a lot of preparation to be done, such as getting your ingredients, garnishes, washing glasses, even stock checks and paperwork.”
Being one of only two girls in the competition in Athens had its pros and cons. “One disadvantage I had was no one took me seriously at first! Most people thought I was a reporter or with the company ... anything but a bartender! On the other hand, I was also more pampered than the rest,” she said with a laugh.
Although Wan did not win in Athens (she did finish in the top five in two of the tasks, however), the stint opened her eyes to the endless possibilities of the job.
“The competition helped me in so many ways. Most of the other participants were veteran bartenders – some even owned their own bars. The collective experience there was just so mind-blowing, I was asking questions non-stop!” she said. “There were so many different countries and spirits I never even heard of, and I learnt a lot about how other bartenders work in their respective countries. It made me realise that I still have so much to learn.”
While she admits that she doesn’t feel like a real bartender yet, she does have lofty goals, among them coming up with her own signature cocktail.
“I still have not found a signature cocktail yet. Then again, I am still new in the business – other bartenders are light years ahead of me. I do have an advantage, though – I’m like a blank canvas that can absorb a lot of new things, I don’t have a certain style to hold me back from learning new things,” said Wan, adding that she prefers spirits with big flavours, like whisky. “Vodka is a big challenge for me because it’s so subtle, but I love the big flavours of whisky. There are not many whisky cocktails around, so hopefully I can become the master of whisky cocktails in the future!”
She would also love to own a bar one day. “I’d love to have a small place, somewhere to call my own, where I can run it the way I want to, make cocktails for my regulars and friends,” she said, with a dreamy look in her eyes.
In the meantime, Wan is determined to learn as much as possible and hone her craft in any way possible. Nothing, it seems, can stop her from trying to be the best bartender there is. She’s even laying down the gauntlet for her prospective customers: “If you see me at the bar, let me make you something I haven’t done before! Challenge me!” she concluded.
Malaysia’s Bartender of the Year: Amanda Wan concocting a drink at the Vintage Bank bar in Hilton KL. She is the only female Malaysian bartender participating in the Diageo World Class Bartender Of The Year 2010.