Shirmy Chan is making waves across Kuala Lumpur both as Bar Manager at 61 Monarchy Bar and overall amazing human. How do we know? Word travels.
Shirmy was raised a fisherman’s daughter. While the sea and waves gently rocked her boat, her real passion she discovered, was the mysterious sea of spirits. Over the last decade, Shirmy has picked up the ropes and made her way slowly but surely through the labyrinthine beverage industry as a hospitality professional, a bar manager, and an award winning bartender.
She is currently the only female bartender in KL to be featured in “SPIRIT of ART – TATTOOED BARTENDERS” by Giffard, and secured a place in the “Top 10 of Ada Coleman Awards 2017”.
We were led to Shirmy Chan by a dear friend who tells us that Shirmy doesn’t just make impeccable drinks, she also gives excellent life advice. Well, there’s an offer we couldn’t refuse!
We asked Shirmy a few questions about her life, work, and plans. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that we’ll be watching her next move closely and hopefully getting some good life advice over a drink.
Give us an insight into your introduction to bartending. Where did it all begin?
I discovered bartending can be a profession while I was working in Shangri-la Hotel as a service crew. This was my first job back in 2009. I had the opportunity to work with my mentor, Amanda Wan, Malaysia’s first female award winning bartender. She passed on the fundamental professional techniques of bartending which got me really interested in this career.
When you took up your first bar shift, how did your friends/family react?
It was difficult for me to explain to friends and family about the role of a bartender. At first, I explained to my mother that I just wanted to explore the possibilities in this career and to gain some extra experience, but deep down I knew that I would stay in this role for good. It’s been 6 years already I still feel that way.
With the help of social media nowadays it’s easier to explain that. There was a time my brother told me he was sharing with his friends some social media links related to me, to explain to friends that his sister is a reputable bartender in the country. I think he is proud of me.
How did you pick up the skills, which we hear are second to none!
It took me few years to move from being a hotelier to a bartender. My first bartending job was in 2013 at Omakase + Appreciate, Kuala Lumpur as an apprentice and part of the opening team. It was the first proper speakeasy cocktail bar in Malaysia established in 2013 also one of the Asia’s Top 50 bars in 2016.
Omakase + Appreciate has an innovative concept of making customised cocktails. It is operated by a small team with high traffic of customers. I needed to remember as many recipes as I can. I used to have reference book by my side and I have a habit of recording my regular customers’ preference and combinations of flavour-matching. The learning curve was really steep and I polished my skills a lot within the first 6 months of opening.
What did you find was your biggest challenge when making your way up the ranks in bars?
I never thought of making my way up the ranks. On the contrary I am thankful for entering the industry in the right place at the right time as I picked up the trend of cocktail-appreciation and also for being one of the first few female bartenders in Malaysia. I have a lot of opportunities to grow and excel.
I think my biggest challenge right now is what and where next. Everyone seeks progress in life and career. What is the ultimate goal of bartender career? From apprentice to senior, eventually move on to management level as a bar manager, or eventually a bar owner one day. I have to always be ready for the next role since in each stage the requirement is different. Other than that, different bars’ operation approaches are different. I will continue to seek inspiration in the industry.
Any specific incidents that reminded you of the challenges female bartenders face?
Sometimes, I need to handle misbehaving male customers that challenge my ability and verbally harass me. I learnt to ignore them diplomatically because there is no point in arguing with intoxicated customers like that. It is important to keep myself safe behind the bar. Still, I need my male colleagues to be more aware of this difficult situation and to take over the scene.
Male ego is a challenge in any industry but we (female professionals) should not be let down by this. Actions speak louder than words. I earned respect and reputation through my skills. The more I interact with customers the more they can understand my role and really appreciate me as a bartender, not just a girl working behind the bar.
Would you say that a career in bartending today is more realistic/achievable than it was 5-6 years ago? How do you think things have changed to make this a more achievable dream for many?
I would say it is easier. Nowadays there are more branding events and competitions so it is easier to catch attention. Back then there weren’t that many events for talent to showcase the skills and to connect with others in the industry.
But never forget the fundamentals of bartending – master your skills first then create your signature drinks or skills to impress. Attention only catches our eyes, impression can last forever.
What advice do you have to give young girls looking to make a career out of bartending? Where should they begin and what should be the one guiding/motivating factor to keep in mind, in your opinion?
For girls the first thing is to find out who you want to be behind the bar and what’s in it for you. I would say the opportunity is really quite good for female bartenders in terms of building relationships with customers as they are more curious about the “rarely seen” female bartenders – that makes it easy to start a conversation. Communication is important and it is a skill every bartender needs to master – be mindful and interactive, at the same time, leave space for customers to let them experience the drinks in their own time.
Fundamentals of bartending skills and cocktails is essential before one can go on to the next stage. Bartending requires accuracy, time and consistency. With stronger fundamentals, one can bring mistakes to very minimum. Even a senior or master seeks improvement on daily routine. Hard work is the key to achieve your dream. There is no short cut.
Tell us a little bit about the bar you work at now in KL – 61 Monarchy.
A whisky connoisseur’s delight, 61 Monarchy is the quintessential hidden bar that specializes in whiskies. It boasts a wide range of whisky selection (400 bottles and counting) from around the world, fitting for those who have a thirst for whisky, and whisky knowledge. It also features a fine selection of wine, champagne, spirits as well as whisky-based artisanal cocktails. The lush tropical prints and wicker chairs lend a British colonial feel to this premier destination. So put your tasting hat on and order some impressive bar bites off the menu while you’re at it.”
It feels like putting yourself in the world map but indulging in the wide range of Scottish whisky my bar offers. The cozy ambience always opens up the customers’ mind.
What makes you happiest about being behind the bar?
To see customers treating my bar like their safe house where they can be their true self makes me happy. Sometimes a quality conversation about life beyond drink is precious. I feel trusted and welcomed to share their life and be there for their ups and downs. I guess this is why I have customers following me for years and eventually become friends.
Building a connection with customers through drinks also makes me happy. I create a new drink everyday but I never name them. I only name a drink that I customize to a particular customer. And I would not make that drink for others. This is how personal and emotionally connected my drinks can be.
When you’re not mixing drinks for friends, what do you like to make yourself to drink?
Old Fashioned. The classic never fails. And the repeated stirring is a great way to balance the drink, and also my mind.
Unwind with Shirmy the next time you’re in Kuala Lumpur. Follow her on Instagram.
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