KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Female bartenders are not entirely a new or even rare concept. Even before the 15th century, records exist of female innkeepers who doubled as barkeeps, with some of them even producing their own liquor. Nowadays, bartending has evolved into so much more and here in Malaysia, the women are back – making their mark in this field.
We sat with bartenders Angel Ng of PS 150, Janice Lau of The Pawn Room, Demitria Dana Paramita of BonVivant, and Leow Yinying of Omakase + Appreciate at Coley Cocktail Bar in Bangsar to get their insights on this ever evolving industry, as well as the challenges they face daily.
All four of them got into bartending in college. As their interest turned into passion, they found themselves in an industry that welcomes women. Often times, they are celebrated too but it’s never without challenges.
There’s always something new
Coming up with a new idea for a cocktail is always a challenge that they love. The girls say that creating new cocktails will always mean drawing inspiration from what has come before. “Penicillin [the cocktail] was invented around 2005 or 2007 but if you look at the ingredients, it’s definitely been thought of before – ginger, honey, whiskey,” Angel says.
These ladies admit that customers do challenge them on a daily basis, which helps them improve their craft. Especially when the age old refrain ‘Surprise me’ comes from a customer.
“At least give us an idea of what you prefer. I could give you a glass of water and be like; “Surprise!'” Angel quips. “One man’s meat can be another’s poison. Just tell us if you want something gin based or whiskey.”
There’s a consensus among all of them that while it looks all fun and glamorous from the outside, there’s actual work involved. From lifting kegs and bottles, to cleaning up.
“It’s okay to carry heavy things, but when you do it on a daily basis it gets really tiring,” Yinying says. “Sometimes, it’s also hard to reach the top shelf,” Janice adds. However, they admit that these are parts of the job and shouldn’t really deter anyone from trying it out. “For lifting heavy bottles, you can always ask for someone to help you out. For the top shelf, there’s always the ladder,” Janice says.
A common misconception about bartenders is their alcohol consumption. “I’m a lightweight,” Angel admits. “People who are really serious in this industry, they really love what they’re doing. It’s not just drinking, it’s an art form.”
“A lot of people who love to drink get into it because of it [alcohol] but that changes after a while. It does look glamorous – partying, fun, and all. But that’s not what bartending is all about,” Angel adds.
Janice pipes in that customers often find this unbelievable. “They tell us, ‘How can you serve me a drink if you don’t drink.’ We always tell them that, ‘We taste’. And that’s enough.”
The worst customers
“There’s always the sexual innuendos. The most basic that we always get is when we do a shake [for drinks], they say ‘Oh, you shake that very well’ in that tone,” Angel says.
“If you’re a guy, customers tend to treat you differently. If you’re a guy and you start to be firm with them, they tend to back off. But for girls, they’ll still be pushy,” Yinying, who’s been creepily followed by a male customer, says.
Aside from being whistled or clapped at, the cat-calling and other misogynistic treatment abounds. All of which, they find rude. They say that after years of working in the industry, they’ve also learned to brush it off.
They advise people who go to bars that it’s always better to enjoy your drink and never overdo it. “We once had this customer who puked on a carpet and it needed to be thrown out,” Demitria recalled. A common thing in bars as well is when groups try to get one person drunk and do not even take care of them later on – Janice and Yinying had to do it once for a customer.
Angel also narrated how women who go to a bar for a bachelorette party tend to abuse a bar’s male staff after they’ve had one too many. “The guys at the bar even get told to take their clothes off!”
Men and women – it’s all the same
Like any other industry, there’s still a double standard when it comes to bartending – and it goes both ways. The girls lamented how females are constantly pushed into the limelight. Some bars go so far as to use their female bartenders for promotion even when they are new and still have a lot to prove. This is due to the belief that having a female bartender attracts more clientele. This, Angel says, is quite unfair to some of the men who are serious and are doing well in their craft.
Shouldn’t the women be happy? Doesn’t this seem like an advantage? On the contrary, females are sometimes seen as only good for publicity and despite their hard work, the job promotions end up being given to males.
“Almost every industry can be suited for a woman. If a guy can be a famous hairdresser, why can’t a woman be a great bartender?”
Even in competitions, it’s quite rare to see a female bartender make it to the top despite having great skills. All four of them admit that they currently work in places where they are appreciated for their work and not just their gender. However, they wish for the treatment they get from their workplaces to be a lot more universal.
“There was a magazine who asked me once how I felt about being a female bartender. I told them that we’re bartenders. It’s not about gender. Everyone is doing the same job,” Demi said.
More women welcome
At the end of the day, all four ladies say they look forward to seeing more women take on bartending as a career. If one has the passion and determination, it can be quite a fulfilling path with much room for career growth – especially with the cocktail scene in Kuala Lumpur‘s rapid expansion.
“It takes a different type of strength to take on this job,” Angel says. “At the end of the tunnel, it’s rewarding but you got to start at the bottom. Don’t get discouraged because nothing comes instantly.”
There’s bound to be heavy lifting, cleaning up, and even wounds from all the limes you have to cut. But if making liquid, consumable art is something that you’re into, they believe that you will feel the same way they do – that it’s all worth it.