Unmanning the Bar: 5 Women Shaking Up Asia’s Bar Scene

Meet some of the cool women shaking things up in Southeast Asia’s best drinking dens.

Jul 2, 2019

By Alessandra Gesuelli

The world over, talented young women are making their mark in the hitherto male-dominated bar industry. Hong Kong is the stomping ground of Victoria Chow, the mastermind behind The Woods and Kwoon, Asia’s first artisanal pre-batched cocktail series. In Singapore, Sasha Wijidessa manages Operation Dagger, where the hooch bottles have no labels, and Bannie Kang is head craftsman at Anti:Dote, using spices and herbs from her native Korea. In Bangkok, multi-award-winning maestro Pailin “Milk” Sajjanit heads up hard-to-find, plush den 008. Here are some other outstanding ladies manning the bars across the region.

Natalie Lau

Bar Manager, The Old Man Hong Kong

In 2017, Agung Prabowo had big ambitions for his new Hemingway-themed bar, and he poached Natalie Lau from American Bar at The Savoy in London to fulfill them. Today The Old Man sits atop the Asia’s 50 Best Bar list and in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best. They’ve opened two other venues, The Sea, in Hong Kong, and The Old Man in Singapore, and are running a pop-up til August 31 at The Bamboo Bar in Bangkok. 

“We created a new standard for Hong Kong,” Lau says. “All the staff are bartenders, and everyone is proactive in speaking with guests about the cocktails—or about anything in life.” Bartending here means mastering the use of culinary gadgets and lab equipment to combine flavors, coaxing out interesting notes rather than making eye-catching garnish, an attitude she says is new in the Hong Kong market.

Take Lau’s favorite drink, The Sun Also Rises: copra fat–washed Applejack, curry leaf–infused gin, sweet vermouth, sous-vide pandan leaves, and kaffir lime. “It is a very complex drink. The flavors come up layer by layer, and it creates a long, lingering taste.” Much like the novel that inspired it. theoldmanhk.com; The Sun Also Rises, HK$90.

Priscilla Leong

Head Bartender, Long Bar at Raffles, Hong Kong

Way back when Long Bar was the place for gentlemen and plantation owners to gather, etiquette dictated that ladies couldn’t consume alcohol in public. Long Bar’s Ngiam Tong Boon saw an opportunity and created a cocktail that looked like juice but was actually brimming with booze. Hello, Singapore Sling.

Almost a century on, Priscilla Leong has taken over the renovated Long Bar, and is renovating their classic drink. Much like Raffles Singapore, reopening next month to its original colonial splendor with contemporary innovations: “we wanted to retain Long Bar’s heritage, and stay true to the integrity of the iconic Singapore Sling recipe, while revitalizing it with craft ingredients to suit the modern palate,” she says.

The grenadine is all-natural, the custom bitters “provide a backbone of spice to play off the cocktail’s fruity notes,” Leong says, and the bespoke gin, Widges, is made by Langley’s Distillery in England. The new Singapore Sling is a touch more gin forward, which we think is exactly what the ladies—and maybe gentlemen, too—always wanted. raffles.com; Singapore Sling, S$28.

Shelley Tai

Bartender, The Quinary, Hong Kong

Her warm smile and graceful manner lend her strength as a host at work, where she never cracks under pressure, essential for working at Quinary, a high-volume multisensory bar helmed by master mixologist Antonio Lai. “Bartending to me is two parts: the bar and the tender,” she says. “The bar represents the craftsmanship and the creativity. The tender part allows me to show care and hospitality.”

Only in her early twenties, she uses her talent and love of experimenting to contribute to the menu of cocktails engineered to stimulate the senses, using techniques from the kitchen world. Tai’s favorite creation is a drink made of Yuk Bing Siu, a Cantonese rice liqueur. It’s infused with coriander, mezcal, amaro Montenegro and toasted rice syrup. It has a smoky, sweet, spicy flavor with aftertaste of toasted rice that lingers pleasantly. quinary.hk; Yuk Bing Siu, HK$150.

Lolita Goh

Co-Founder, Jungle Bird, Kuala Lumpur

If 250 hand-curated rums sounds like caramel-colored heaven, then fly as fast as you can to JungleBird, Kuala Lumpur’s first rum bar, co- founded in 2017 by Lolita Goh. It is one of the hottest destinations in the city and the most awarded bar in the country. Goh’s latest passion project is a fermentation program, making ginger beer, vinegars, tepaches and lacto-fermented fruits using local ingredients and leftover produce that would otherwise have gone to waste. Kakariki Orchards is a New Zealand– inspired gin cocktail with homemade kombucha, plus feijoa, lemon, honey and lavender-infused kombucha soda.

The bar is named for the Jungle Bird, a rum drink with pineapple juice, lime and Campari that was invented in the 1970s as a welcome beverage for guests at KL’s old Hilton Hotel’s Aviary Bar. “This tropical creation has seen a recent revival,” Goh says. She serves it with Diplomatico Mantuano rum, which imparts soft and sweet notes with herbal hints. But if that’s not your bag, hey, there are 249 more options— plus their homemade grog. junglebirdkl.com; Jungle Bird, RM38–RM80.

Suwincha “ChaCha” Singsuwan

Head Bartender, Rabbit Hole and Liberation, Bangkok

When your aunt and sister are bartenders, a career mixing drinks is as steeped in your blood as that white- truffle oil you’ve fat-washed in gin.

Suwincha “Chacha” Singsuwan heads two popular speakeasies, the sultry, award-winning Rabbit Hole and its even harder-to-find baby sis, Libération. “My cocktail style is minimal. I do a lot of preparation, and present the finished drink quite neat,” she says. At Rabbit Hole, the menu is categorized according to nose: “We process them a lot to get the most aroma to the cocktail.” Prep time might be a full day, like for one of her faves at Libération, the Vegan War. She clarifies tomato juice, heats up red cabbage to extract the purple color, and adds carrot slices to prize out their taste. The alcohol is vodka redistilled with basil.

Look out for a third Singsuwan- helmed joint coming to Bangkok’s Langsuan area in November, which “will be vintage deco and play jazz most of the time.” rabbitholebkk.com, liberationbkk.com; Vegan War, Bt390.

Explainer

NON-ALCOHOLIC SPIRITS

What is it? Imagine an herbal G&T that you can sip on all day without fear of a hangover, health risks if you’re pregnant—or that dangerous sense of confidence that’ll let you text an ex. You’re the target for Seedlip (seedlip.com), a line of gin-like, booze-free spirits made by blending individually distilled botanicals. it is part of a larger trend towards mixed drinks with less or zero alcohol-by-volume. “Low ABV cocktails allow bars to be even more inclusive for potential guests. Bars can be intimidating to people who choose not to drink alcohol,” says Charlie Ainsbury, of craft-spirits distributor and bar consultancy Proof & Co. In fact, studies show that millennials are actually drinking less than their predecessors—but a glass filled with soda water or a sugar-bomb of a mocktail just doesn’t cut it.

Where can you get it? Pioneer Seedlip is widely available in Singapore and Hong Kong; try top-ranked mixology valhallas Operation Dagger, Native and The Old Man. Diversifying the non-liquor cabinet, Lyres (lyres.co) has a full line of “spirits” that range from absinthe-like to coffee “liqueur.” They’re now only available in Australia, but are moving into Southeast Asia soon.

What to order? The Old Man has a section of non-alcoholic options on the menu wryly titled “Not Hemingway’s Favourites.” order the African Safari for a zesty mix of rosemary, Seedlip Spice, turmeric-tamarind cordial, and citrus. — Veronica Inveen

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Unmanning the Bar: 5 Women Shaking Up Asia’s Bar Scene

Meet some of the cool women shaking things up in Southeast Asia’s best drinking dens.