The time is 10pm. I’m surrounded by a horde of impatient faces. At every side of Capital’s massive island bar, there are people waving, trying to catch my attention. Or maybe they’re just dancing with their hands in the air. It’s hard to tell. I shuffle up to the least intimidating group. ‘Two whisky sours and two gin and tonics.’ I breathe a sigh of relief – at least these are drinks I know how to make.
An hour before I step into the chaos that is the SUITS night at Capital – when ladies drink for free 'til midnight and men get one-for-one drinks – assistant bar manager Nehru Baskaran gives me a crash course on what I need to know in order to survive.
The first drink he adds to my limited repertoire is the whisky sour. It’s not a drink I thought many 20-something girls looking to get smashed at the club would order, but hey, what do I know.
'I console myself with the fact that if I screw up, at least the drinks are free'
Nehru Baskaran (right)
Back to basics
And clearly, like Jon Snow, I know nothing. I fill orders for whisky sours all night long. I get to work: 30ml of whisky, 30ml of lime juice and 15ml of sugar syrup – toss it in a Boston shaker full of ice and give it a vigorous shake. It might sound simple enough, but still, I get it wrong. The ice goes in first, followed by the sugar syrup, lime juice then whisky.
‘The cheapest item goes in first, so if you screw up you can pour everything out and not waste alcohol. We’re a fast-moving bar, so it’s all about saving as much as possible,’ Baskaran says. It’s a great tip because I can’t tell you the number of times I had to start over because I poured in too much syrup or juice. Eventually, I give up following the recipe and start to wing it.
I console myself with the fact that if I screw up, at least the drinks are free, so it’s not like anyone’s going to complain. But even without the pressure of having to serve a paying customer, it doesn’t make my guest shift any easier.
My adrenaline races as I make drinks right before the eyes of the person who ordered them. I feel them scrutinising my every move. Half a shot of gin meant for the glass ends up on the table. I groan internally, flushing from embarrassment, and also from the cocktails I made earlier in the night and the Graveyard I was offered to celebrate my first night as a bartender. I free pour a little extra gin into the glass to make up for my clumsiness. If I’m not going to serve these customers the tastiest cocktail they’ve ever had, the least I can do is get them drunk, and fast.
'I probably lost Zouk more money than I brought in'
A B-52 shot
Spills and thrills
My two hours as a bartender passes by quite uneventfully – I take orders, get better at making drinks, and waste less alcohol. A girl orders a whisky with orange juice. I try not to judge. After the last order at the free flow section of the bar, someone fishes out a ruler and measures the spirit that’s left in each bottle.
‘If a 750ml bottle is empty, that means 25 30ml shots were poured. Other bars and clubs work on a point system, where each bottle is measured in tenths,’ explains Baskaran. I apologise for the shots that ended up on my shoes, and we celebrate the end of the hectic shift with… a much-needed glass of water.
It’s amazing how fast time flies – even with all eyes on the bar and the beat pumping in the background. Still, I’m disappointed nothing terribly interesting happens during my shift, so I ask for stories that I could repurpose as my own when I tell my friends about my experience as a bartender for a night.
Natalie Ong (left)
‘I made a flaming Lamborghini for a regular once, and he decided to drink it with a short straw instead of a long one – he singed his eyebrows off that night. Now, every time he comes in he points at his eyebrows and I give him a little nod,’ Natalie Ong, a 26-year-old who has been bartending at Zouk for eight years tells me. ‘Another dude ordered a flaming Lamborghini and right after he finished, he puked all over the table.’ Classy.
Other bartenders have been puked on and punched by drunk customers, but even then, the gig seems to be worth it. ‘I joined Zouk to make some extra pocket money while I was studying in poly but I stayed because I love the job. It’s a fast-paced environment and it’s a thrill every night. We also get to listen to the sets of the best DJs for free and if we’re lucky, they take pictures with us backstage too,’ Ong explains.
For me, the rush and exhilaration made for an evening I won’t soon forget, but I don’t think I’ll be quitting my day job. For one, I probably lost Zouk more money than I brought in (sorry guys!). But more importantly, the late nights, long hours and hard-toplease customers are too much for this nine-to-fiver to bear. I’ll just stick to drinking. Cheers.