amanda Wan: World class bar­tender

A fe­male bar­tender does Malaysia proud in an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By MICHAEL CHEANG cschuin@thes­

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.

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