Our search for women who know their spirits has now led us to East Africa, where Joan Samia is making waves, one drink at a time.
Over the years, Asia and Africa have both emerged as vibrant and emerging markets for spirits and cocktails. But a lesser known fact is the significant amount of challenges female bartenders in these regions face. This isn’t an alien problem in uber-traditional cultures and communities that seem to identify an occupation like bartending as one that is reserved for men.
However, there are always some amazing women, breaking the glass ceiling and challenging the stereotype, carving a niche for themselves and those who are keen to follow. In the recent past, we have introduced you to some female powerhouses of the beverage community in Asia – Charmaine who gives us life goals, Jun who is stirring things up in Singapore’s newest members club 1880, and Hutch who is the last word on what you should be drinking.
Our search for women who know their spirits has now led us to East Africa, where Joan Samia is making waves, one drink at a time. We were fortunate enough to be connected with Joan via friends in the industry when we mentioned looking to profile female bartenders and mixologists across regions, and highlight their contributions and challenges. Joan lives in Nairobi, Kenya and looks after four East African countries as Bacardi’s Portfolio Ambassador to East Africa. An actress turned bartender, Joan tells us about her journey navigating the slightly tricky cultural landscape of Africa, her learnings, her observations, and aspirations.
Tell us a little bit about how you entered the world of spirits/cocktails?
Hospitality was a field I entered, and in my head, it was to last for a couple of months, before I decided whether I wanted to continue with my old job which was Acting. Yes, I was a professional actress before all this happened, and the bar was the best accidental place I ever saw. Being close to it, seeing how the bartenders went around their work, I saw home, I saw a place that I wanted to be part of. It was rediscovering art all over again and this was second chance in being an artist not in performing, but in creating something.
How did you pick up the skills?
Deep down I had a feeling it wouldn’t be easy. I had to wait for 3 months from the time I requested to join the bar and in that time, I had to wait on tables and keep praying that someone would quit or get fired! That is how badly I wanted to join the bar team. Finally I got my chance and it took 6 months before I was allowed to work a night shift! I had to prove myself, I felt I needed to be the best and I didn’t care that I was more disadvantaged for being petite or from coming from zero knowledge on bar skills , or that is was taking longer, I was determined. I read a lot , took the challenges positively and am also grateful I had mentors who saw potential in me and polished me.
Tell us about the journey in the very beginning – what did you find was your biggest challenge?
One of my biggest challenges was trying to figure out how was I going to explain to my family that was a bartender. Society still viewed this as a man’s job and any woman working behind the bar was viewed as a woman who was there to look pretty and attract men -so basically all the “wrong reasons”. I decided to live a lie for 5 years and always said I was a waitress whenever anybody asked. Only the ones who had seen me at work knew exactly what I did. I was underpaid compared to my male colleagues, but I never gave up. I wanted to be the best and the bar that I was working at was the best then. I kept telling myself that I needed to get as much knowledge as I can, then move on and demand better pay.
Being one of the few female mixologists in the region, what do you think is the reason for the low numbers of women in the trade?
From my observation, I have come to realise that, it’s not that we don’t have better female bartenders in the region, but women are not confident enough to take on bartending responsibilities from the men. They are afraid, and most don’t get into completion or they don’t even apply for managerial positions in the bar. There are women now working at the bar, but still afraid to outshine the men.
Also, most bar owners hire female bartenders for all the wrong reasons, there are a few who see the potential in female bartenders and they do actually hire them for skills. This is also something that pushes the women away when it comes to bartending jobs. In some places the customers don’t take female bartenders seriously and also judgment from society.
How do you think the ratio of women in the trade can be improved? What steps can be taken to get more women behind the bar?
First, society needs to understand that this is a job like any other.
Bar owners need to have more faith in hiring bartenders and for their skills as opposed to their appearance.
Women need to be confident, and put themselves up for these jobs.
There should be equality when it comes to bar salaries as this will motivate women to get behind the bar.
And finally, it’s not an easy job, women should be prepared to work like machines, do equal job to the guys otherwise, we shall still be referred to as the weaker sex, which we are not!
With regards to your journey, what was the most memorable part for you?
The most memorable thing that this journey has taught me, is humility, discipline and patience.
Also, the achievements along the way. In 2016 I represented Kenya in a global cocktail competition, and soon I was featured on CNN African voices. I am currently the east African brand ambassador for Bacardi- Martini. I am grateful to God that my hard work is finally paying off.
What are your goals for yourself as a mixologist?
My biggest goal is to leave a legacy of mentorship and change to the Kenyan cocktail culture, I want future bartenders to be able to learn from my journey, creations, and also the training programs that am working on.
Who are you heroes in the industry?
My legendary hero is Ada Coleman – she opened the doors and proved that even back then a woman could be a leader behind the bar. And the best bar at that.
In my generation I am inspired by Lauren Mote, Tess Posthumus and Varia Dellalian. I look up to them, they have opened up my eyes by teaching me that I don’t have to be a winner to be the best, maybe that’s not the calling, an the calling is to transform the lives of different bartenders around the world, create cocktails in all corners of the world and leave a legacy. And that is what drives me.
Is there any advice you would like to give to young girls in the region who want to explore a career in the beverage industry?
For any girls looking out to be bartenders, all they have to do is seek education on bartending, be knowledgeable, be ready to work long hours, but most of all acquire the bartender attitude which is you have to want this badly enough to be able to bear fruits from it.
What is your go to cocktail after a hard day’s work?
My current go to cocktail is the 8-fashioned cocktail. Am in love with Bacardi 8 aged rum and this calms me down, it’s a twist of the old fashioned. And since I love my old fashioned, why not have one with premium rum .
60ml Bacardi 8
10ml sugar syrup
3 dashes Angostura
We are in complete support of Joan and the unintentional waves of change she is creating within the beverage circuits of East Africa and can only hope that young girls and women in the region get inspired by her and get behind the stick. Share Joan’s story or simply write to her on Instagram and raise a toast.
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