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Women behind the stick in Hong Kong’s bar scene

Get to know the women who work hard to bring you your favourite drinks

By Time Out Hong Kong
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The bar industry has changed so much in the last 150 years; there was a time in history when it was illegal for women to sit at a bar, let alone work behind the stick. Thanks to the many men and women who have shaped how we drink today, women can enjoy their favourite tipple anywhere and everywhere and excel in a career behind the bar. 

We're celebrating International Women's Day, and we'd like to give the spotlight to the female tipple makers in Hong Kong's prosperous cocktail industry. Get to know the women who work hard behind the stick to bring you your favourite drinks.

Recommended: Want to see women kick-ass behind the bar? Celebrate IWD at these events

Meet women behind the stick in Hong Kong

victoria chow the woods annex

Victoria Chow, founder and managing director of The Woods

Victoria is known in Hong Kong as one of the game-changers in the local bar scene. Having been recognized for her pioneering approach to drinking concepts, she became part of Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia. In 2014, she founded The Woods, one of the first bars of its kind in the heart of SoHo. The place offered cocktail tasting menus and drink pairings. Today, the concept has evolved from a brick and mortar cocktail bar to a monthly pop-up concept, catering service, and also extending the services to The Woods Annex, a private tasting library where people can taste over 400 bottles of spirits from Victoria's collection. 

"Wines were my first love from a young age when my dad would bring me to Napa Valley while we were living in California," she shares. "My interests grew to include craft beers in college when I lived near a craft brewery. When I came back to Hong Kong, and while I was working at an events agency, I continued to study wines through the WSET program," she adds. Victoria was fascinated by the 'spirits' portion of the WSET syllabus and noticed a lack of artisanal cocktail bars in town, and this drove her to create the beginnings of The Woods.  

She says that being a woman in the drinks industry has played to her advantage, "we bring a different aesthetic and energy to creating cocktails and running bars," she explains. "I love being able to incorporate my passions for design, culinary arts, and spirits all into one. I also love introducing people to new types of spirits and flavours and seeing people have fun experimenting outside their comfort zones the next time they go out." For aspiring women bartenders her advice is to keep learning, not just within the cocktail framework but explore various categories such as arts – floristry, sculpting, poetry – to expand their creative thinking. "And don't forget to balance this out with the business element!" she enthuses. "Pay as much attention to pricing and operations as you do to creating cocktails."  

Catch Victoria in her spirit tasting/appreciation sessions at The Woods Annex, book a slot at thewoods.hk

natalie lau - the old man
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Natalie Lau, former bar manager at The Old Man HK

Natalie always dreamt about working overseas. She then started thinking of the kind of jobs that would allow her to achieve her goal, and she thought bartending might do the trick. "I started in Aqua Spirit in Tsim Tsa Tsui with zero experience, but the bar industry is great. Colleagues in the industry teach you new things every day!" After her first bartending gig, she moved and worked in London for a while. In 2018, she worked as the bar manager of The Old Man HK. "I love that being a bartender makes me feel young," she shares. "Every day, we grow by learning, and we meet different people that inspire you in different ways." 

She is continuously inspired by Roman Ghale, one of the founders of The Old Man. "My 'people skills' comes from Roman," she says. "The ways he treats staff and greets guests and friends, the ways he makes a boring story into an interesting one, he never teaches you, he shows you!"

As a woman behind the bar, she believes that women need to show what they can do and do better than their male counterparts so that they will be respected in the field. "There are still some guests stuck with the old-school thinking that female bartenders can’t make good drinks," she shares. "That's okay because we should make them trust us! As long as there is an opportunity for both genders to be in any job position, it is good for any industry to grow!"

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 Shelley Tai

Shelley Tai, bar supervisor at Quinary

Ten years ago, Shelley worked as a part-time bartender because she didn't like the thought of working in a regular office. So she continued and bartending became her profession. She has since worked in some of Hong Kong’s bars and restaurants including Drop and FINDS, and now shakes it up at Antonio Lai’s Quinary. In 2019, Shelley won the prestigious 2019 Diageo Reserve World Class bartending competition and represented Hong Kong and Macao in the global round held in Glasgow, Scotland. 

"What I love being a bartender is that every day is fresh and always a surprise!" she states. "I’m able to create my own craft, meet new people, and hear different stories." Her career has allowed her to travel, visit most of Asia, and her recent win in World Class sent her to Scotland. She says that the world of bartending has significantly changed, "Back then, I used to get comments like 'smile more', and everyone expects you to be fun and bubbly because I am female. Now there is more gender equality, and people are drinking better, and we female bartenders gain genuine respect for our crafts," she adds. 

She cites industry leader and Altos Bartender’s Bartender of The Year 2019, Monica Berg, as someone she looks up to for inspiration. "She was one of the judges at the World Class 2019 global finals, and she gave me lots of useful advice." For crafting behind the bar, she takes influences from master mixologist Dave Arnold, the author of the book Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail. "It was one of the first few books I read as a bartender. Instead of being a conventional collection of recipes, the book is all about scientific approaches to cocktail-making." 

Find her behind the stick at Quinary, chat with her over glasses of old fashioned, whisky highball, or ask for her signature Yuk Bing Siu.

03/03/20

Laxmi Wustmann, bartender at Stazione Novella

Laxmi has been in the F&B industry for five years and has spent most of that time working on the floor. "A year ago, I realised that if I ever wanted to be able to open my own business, it would be smart to experience different aspects of front-of-house," she shares. "I knew I had to spend some time in different areas and have always been intrigued by the bartender position." Once she started with the craft, she loved the endless possibilities it offered. "I love the bartending community. It is a vibrant community that is not limited to creative people who makes the drink but also the people who join us week after week sitting in front of the bar while I work," she states. 

Laxmi says that she is inspired by many people in the industry but is thankful especially for her Black Sheep Restaurant family, who continuously support her growth. "I have been lucky to work in healthy environments and places that promote talent, ambition, and passion over gender," she explains. According to her, as a bartender, it is essential to focus on what you love, take every chance to learn, and always be grateful. "There has been a considerable growth in the number of female bartenders," she shares. "Not only is the bar scene growing all over the world, but young women are also more exposed to it and feel inspired by it." She says the industry is a tough environment – long hours, late nights, varying schedules, and the immense pressure of from the bar. "I believe it is going to become the norm to have females in a role that was once dominated by men," she adds. 

Catch her at Stazione Novella and ask her to make you a classic Sazerac served straight up and lightly sprayed with absinthe; or ask for her all-time favourite cocktail to make, the espresso martini. "If you stop by after 9pm you can add on a house-made Nutella-filled bombolone!" she exclaims.

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Arlene Wong, bartender at The Pontiac and Asia brand ambassador for Mr. Black 

Arlene's interest in the bartending industry started when she worked as the open manager of Mexican restaurant 11 Westside and Kennedy Town's hidden bar, The Wilshire. Under the guidance of renowned mixologist Daniel Eun, she learned the tricks of the trade. Two years ago, she eventually pursued her passion in bartending and started at The Pontiac. "Hospitality is in my blood, but I'm most comfortable behind the bar," Arlene shares. "That's where I am myself at most. Creating and making a drink that guests enjoy is one of my proudest moments," she says. Initially, her mother was not keen on the idea for Arlene to work behind the bar, but now, her mom is proud of seeing her hard work and presenting in bartending competitions. 

"I choose to work in a safe environment, where women support each other," she says. "Pontiac is a great outlet for me because our regulars understand that we are a women empowered bar and not a women-only bar." For inspirations in the spirit industry, she looks up to Laird & Co's Lisa Laird Dunn, a strong working mom who balances her career and family whilst taking care of an international brand. Arlene also gets her motivation from industry legends Campari Group’s Symphony Loo and The Pontiac's owner Beckaly Franks. "My mama bear," Arlene shares. "without Beckaly, I wouldn't have the courage to showcase my true self." 

Catch Arlene behind the stick at The Pontiac and request to make her signature drink the Moonless Sky made with Mr. Black, Old Duff Genever, and bianco vermouth.

LZ Zapanta, bartender at The Diplomat

LZ started her career at her dad's restaurant and worked her way behind the bar. She, later on, joined the team of The Pontiac where she learned a lot from her fellow bartenders and celebrated mixologist Beckaly Franks. "I enjoy the learning aspect of it all. Bartending is constantly changing and always evolving. It has taught me a lot about the world and has given me the chance to break out of my shell," she states. "I'm typically a shy person, but when I'm behind the bar. I feel empowered."  

Her bar manager at Sachin Gurung, renowned mixologist and owner of The Diplomat, John Nugent, and her dad, are her constant inspiration. "My dad got me in this field, Sachin made sure I got where I needed to go, and John keeps pushing me to be the best version of myself." 

"As a woman, we're constantly being challenged," she states. "I love to show my guests that I can do what men do and even do better." She says that in a male-dominated field, it's easy for a woman to lose confidence. "It's important to surround yourself with the people that push you to be better and give you that confidence in any professional field." 

Catch her behind the stick at The Diplomat and order a Jane Bond Martini, her martini variation for Women's Day made with Absolut vodka, Plymouth gin, fino sherry, Lillet Blanc, orange bitters, garnished with an orange twist. 

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Heather Cheng, bartender at Stockton

Before joining the bartending world, Heather worked as a copywriter and a video editor for advertising and social media agencies. Burnt out with the ‘client-pleasing’ nature of the job, she started searching for other places to exercise her creativity. "I wanted to encounter people in a more sincere way," she shares. "I used to work part-time as a food runner, which made me think of the F&B industry. From that moment, I decided to enter F&B full-time and started on my journey to becoming a bartender." According to Heather, bartending allows her to 'befriend interesting spirits/Spirits.' 

"I try to learn from everyone around me," she says. "I want to develop my skills in all areas of the profession and draw inspiration from multiple sources. It doesn’t matter if I am a woman, a man or LGBT; I am just doing what I love," she explains. Though she shares that there are still challenges being a woman behind the bar and have experienced instances when some guests would request the ‘guys’ to make the drinks or to answer their questions. 

"Today, there are a lot of women who work as bartenders," she says. "The problem is we only see those who work in famous bars or those with higher positions." She says that most of them happen to be men, so it seems that there are fewer women behind the bar. 

Heather believes that humility, respect for others, respect for the craft, and motivation to strive for self-improvement is what makes a good bartender. Visit her at Stockton and ask her to make any of her recommended sour drinks. 

Samantha Poon, bartender at 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana

Samantha used to be a nursing student in Australia before she delved into the world of mixology. She realized that nursing was not for her about two years into the course. Her interest in bartending began after visiting a few bars around town. "Curiosity was the biggest reason why I become a bartender," she shares. Shy and introverted, she was amused how bartenders seem confident, approachable, and talkative to people. She started behind the bar when a friend offered a trail to work in their bar. "I started working on the floor serving drinks, cleaning table, assisting the bartender, cleaning glassware, and assisting wherever needed help."

She credits Annie Walker and Lisa Berry, women she used to work with back in her town for her journey in the cocktail industry. "They gave me a lot of courage to take the leap and change my career," she shares. 

"If you are a woman behind the bar, you are a minority," she states. "I am lucky that I haven't experienced discrimination, but I do feel that there is some gender-specific behaviour that people expect from women bartenders—for example, being asked to smile. These comments are often directed to me and not my fellow male colleagues," she shares. She believes that gender should not define a character, "be the person that you want to be," she adds. 

These days find her behind the stick at 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana and order her signature drink, Exchange Alley.

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Jo Lo

Jo Lo, bartender at Room 309

Jo graduated with a hotel management major in university and spent some time working in the hotel industry but realising that it's not the course she wanted to pursue. She then went to European Bartender School for a month in Sydney and bartended at a Latin restaurant in Brisbane after her training programme. According to Jo, she loves talking to people and moving around and bartending allows her to do that. "Cocktails are a kind of art form to me, and I find it very satisfying when I craft a cocktail," she says. "What makes it even better is when people appreciate the cocktails that I make, and that keeps me going!" she adds.

She takes inspiration from Hong Kong's celebrated pioneer mixologist Antonio Lai. "Antonio has all these fun, ambitious ideas living in his head," she shares. "His philosophy in molecular mixology was entirely new to me before I came back to Hong Kong. Antonio gave us equal opportunities at the bar and always motivated us to be better bartenders. I’ve been working with Antonio for a year and four months now, and I still have a lot to learn from him!" she exclaims.  

According to Jo, the bar community is supportive of gender equality; that's why there are many successful female bartenders these days. "Girl power is getting stronger these days, which means there are more equal opportunities for female bartenders to showcase their talents," she states. She says that the most important thing for a bartender is to keep learning and to improve, to be humble and always believe in yourself.

Drop by at Room 309 and request for her to make her signature cucumber wasabi martini with a shiso twist.

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