After Rusty Cerven, 1880 Singapore has a new liquid alchemist heading up the beverage program and she’s a force to reckon with.
Meet Juan Yi Jun. We caught up with Jun to ask about plans for 1880’s stellar bar, her views on female bartenders in Asia, her mentors, and her story.
We’ve also spoken to a few of our friends in the Asian bar circuit and the word on the street is that Jun is a badass and her drinks, even more so. Grab a seat, let’s hear what she has to say.
- What do you think has been largely responsible for the low numbers of female bartenders in Asia?
I don’t think there is a definite answer to this, I have seen many female bartenders in and out of Asia and the gap is quickly closing. When I decided to bartend, like any young Asian girl I was heavily persuaded not to go serve drunk men cheap alcohol. Women are still being hired to wear tight dresses to pour beer, and of course the less mentioned nightclubs where women serve men in general. The bar industry was not the career of choice for most people, not to mention females. Hiring managers have said to me they “try not to hire women as they will be working with male bartenders in a small space, and I don’t want any ‘accidents’ happening, and you scream molest.” – I would call that a large barrier to entry.
If you have heard the history of the Singapore Sling, it was concocted when women who drank publicly were frowned upon, and disguised their drinking. A mere 10 years ago, women in India were banned from bartending and women in Sri Lanka today are not legally allowed to buy a drink at a bar. It is really hard to imagine that these stories are real and still happening.
Bartending is also laborious work; the women who actually choose it spend 10-12 hours a day on average, on our feet 5/6 days a week. The pure physicality of it, other than the late nights, have weeded out the smarter females who prefer a work/life balance and not subject themselves to the rigorous routine of the industry and competing with their male counterparts. Because of this same reason, there will be bars that prefer male bartenders for the simple fact that they are physically stronger and thus are thought to be more resilient to these factors.
- How has this changed in the last 5 years?
Within the last 5 years, Asia has been put on the map in the World’s Top 50 lists and people are starting to pay attention. Twelve of the world’s best bars now are in Asia, five of which are in Singapore and it has become fashionable to be seen at top bars with now-celebrity bartenders. Local bars like Tippling Club and 28 Hong Kong Street have led this charge since a little more than 5 years ago where product and hospitality are a focus. They got consumers to treat cocktails and the work behind it as seriously as food. I see customers become more occupied with what they are drinking and where they are drinking it, rather than the gender of the person who made the drink. The spectrum of consumers now range from those who have specifically researched and sought us out for a drink, to those that only come for the perfect Instagram post. Regardless, the demand for well-made cocktails and a top hospitality experience has greatly risen. A lot more detail and attention is also given to the craft and quality of a drink, as with the people who make it. I would like to believe that this creates the opportunity for an equal playing field for both men and women, where gender is taken out of the equation and focus on what is being served; at least that is the hope.
- What steps can be taken to balance the male/female ratio in the Asian bar community?
I think where women lack in physical strength, they make up for it in tenacity and attention to detail. The natural nurturing nature in most women is also an amazing quality to have in providing exceptional hospitality. Whatever kind of woman you may be, I do believe that with the right attitude, anyone can be a successful bartender. Acknowledging this would be the first step. Sometimes, the biggest obstacle is ourselves.
A fair part of the current bar scene is a game of noticeability and media attention. In these cases, the men do get more competitive than women… as with any competition; and from the outside, chances are that the bartenders you read about will be men. I believe this is not an issue about numbers, but simply that women are less likely to attribute their success to themselves. That said, the female bartender population is rising, bars like The Pontiac in Hongkong are representative of a strong female force consistently serving a full bar nightly, on top of earning yearly votes in the lists for the top bars. I was lucky enough to run Operation Dagger under Luke, and the head bartender after me is also female. The male to female ratio seems less and less of an issue during this time, it will become one if you allow it to be.
- In terms of your personal journey through bartending – where did it all begin and what has been the path of this growth thus far?
I started bartending for the same reasons most teenagers my age did – money of my own. I was 17 with zero obligations, and worked every chance I got, from cafes to nightclubs. After graduating from Graphic Design, I quickly learnt that the office was not for me. In 2011, I decided to get back into bartending for real, but I also wanted to be amongst the best. F&B was still considered a job you end up doing when all else fails, or a temporary phase while you look for a legitimate job, so I knew it would be easy for me to get my foot in the door. I looked up the best bars in Singapore, and applied straight to Tippling Club. Run by Chef Ryan Clift, it was the first restaurant to offer a cocktail pairing along with his progressive tasting menu. He was making food no one in Asia had seen and served cocktails to match. Actually the job offered to me was for Ding Dong, his Asian bistro, but it included a training period at Tippling and I grabbed any chance I could to be there. Tippling Club was a creative hub that had the most disciplined chefs and bartenders I had ever worked with. It was also during this time that I met Luke and Aki, and when they shared their vision of a cocktail bar that focused on the same techniques and on flavour rather than spirit, it was a done deal.
Operation Dagger was borne out of an idea to create flavours in ways people have not experienced before. It was a time where speakeasy bars were the rage, and classic cocktails were the only thing to drink. Dagger was a subverted this idea by designing drinks and serving it in a progressive way. It was a perfect fusion of what I knew well and what I loved. Opening Operation Dagger had taught me many lessons; People did not always want something new, especially with their booze. It had to be coupled with an approachable and personal service that enabled a conversation about how the cocktails were made and why they were served the way it did. We made no compromise on any of the products or the steps taken to make them. With 3 people at the opening of a bar, it also meant you need to move double time. I have never met a more hardworking and committed couple than Luke and Aki, to each other and to the venue. When the people who hire you are mopping floors and clearing bins, you take up any job you can to make sure you are doing enough. On top of an incredible work ethic, every drink on the menu was excruciatingly researched and tested before making it to the guest, with a cocktail menu that changes every three months, a feat that very few bars have managed. An Amuse Bouche is also served with to every customer before any cocktail and is painfully thought through as with every detail of the experience. Focusing on flavour instead of the spirit meant that we welded the power to tailor any cocktail down to the exact flavor we wanted, as opposed to re-creating classic cocktails over and over. This was a whole different ball game, and we now had the same possibilities chef have with food. It was a small space with very limited seating and it was saved for people who were coming to look for us and would enjoy what we do, and it paid off. This was a learning journey that was more valuable than anything I’ll ever earn.
- How did 1880 happen to you?
In design you learn to garner skills and techniques to solve a problem, and to create something beautiful in the process. If dagger was where I had gotten these skills, I wanted to see what I could use them to do. There was a memo written by Marc Nicholson on LinkedIn that was shared with me before he opened of 1880, and it felt like a call to action to something bigger than myself and what I could do. More importantly, an important focus of the club and its members was that it had an equal stage for women, empowering them in ways no other club had sought to do. In this competitive world of cocktails; rankings, awards, and famed bar personalities, a lot gets lost in the mix and we start to lose sight of why we do what we do. When I read the piece by Marc, it was a needed breath of fresh air, and reminded me that there should be meaning in our daily routines. Sounds a little dramatic, but everything about 1880 was over the top; it was something I was not used to, but it also had the same approach with its ideals – that a simple conversation can bring change.
- What plans for the 1880 bar in the next few months?
1880 houses a great list of incredible people who create change every day. Bringing them together in a single space allows you to meet an amazing meld of minds from different worlds and share ideas. Colin Buchan has created a menu that has food you know, but executed so perfectly in ways that few chefs would be crazy to do. We just launched a new cocktail menu that will match this in a way that is simple in reception, but requires a solid amount of work in the backend. The prep for this is intensive and I have definitely made it more difficult for myself and the team with this one. With a large operation like this, we are also making sure to minimalise waste and fully utilize every ingredient. Fruit peels and pulp are made into teas for the spa, or a new infusion for our house kombucha or ferment. Waste from the kitchen is also largely used in the cocktail R&D process. With a fixed clientele who know already what they want, it is a different challenge to create a menu for; almost like having a whole venue of regulars and vvips. The idea of a simple and recognizable menu is to create something that people feel comfortable ordering.
It is executed also with the intention of creating an opportunity for members to ask why this drink is different than they know it to be. If we can achieve this without creating a large protest, I think that would be a win.
- What are you most excited about when it comes to Asia’s vibrant beverage scene?
One of the best things about this industry is that it forms a close knit community, and you feel at home in any bar in any country. Bartenders always find a way to make you feel at home if they know you are one of their own. Being in close proximity allows bartenders in Asia to travel frequently and share ideas to keep up with each other. We have amazing ingredients and have the advantage to draw from traditional cultures as resources to create new experiences. We used to look to the West as a standard and in the years of learning and gathering new information and skills, Asia has come into its own and is growing rapidly into its own identity. Many bars are now looking into their own local ingredients and cultures, staking its claim amongst the top bars proving to be a force to be reckoned with.
- Tell us a little bit about your most instrumental mentors/heroes in the industry and how they influenced you.
Easy. Chef Ryan Clift is the first mentor that has created a large paradigm shift in the way I think food or cocktails should be made. He was also always supportive of his team and worked just as hard as we did. He created a space where the kitchen and bar shared the same counter and saw no boundaries between the two. It was my first insider view into chef discipline. Luke Whearty and Aki Nishikura, if I haven’t mentioned already, have probably the biggest influence in my life and career. In working together on the creative branding for Operation Dagger, we shared the same love for art, music and design and it allowed us to create so much more and put it back into the venue. Everything in the space was done in-house, and every piece had a reason. They definitely allowed me to see that inspiration comes from many places, and not just from your own industry, and not just from cocktails. Their dedication and work ethic are hard to match in anywhere I’ve seen, and they had also very generously trusted me to run the operation when they were not around. In a country where top bars are run mostly by expats and international ‘talent’, Luke and Aki were very supportive of this one local (and female) and I am forever grateful.
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Every bartender wants to open their own place. What I actually do with the space is where I would like to separate myself from the herd. Ideally I’d love to be able to break new ground and create a venue where people would have a different experience, where they will walk away saying they want to be back again without remembering what drink they had. A bar without a bartender would be ideal for me, where the show is not the person but the experience created for the guest is the main agenda. Art and music is also a definite must. I have 5 years to decide how I want do this successfully so let’s keep our fingers crossed!
We suggest keeping a keen eye on Jun’s work. Follow her on Instagram.
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