When it comes to cocktail bars, it’s a constantly changing world. In today’s dynamic landscape, classics no longer meet the expectations of many bar patrons. From molecular gastronomy-inspired methods to smoke infusions, creative garnishes, and imaginative narratives to accompany the cocktails, the modern mixologist faces a demand for a unique and memorable drinking experience.
This transformation extends beyond the concoctions within the glass. Today, it’s also about the awards and recognition game, especially with big names such as the 50 Best Bars awards thrown into the mix. Young bartenders are not only making their mark but are also being lauded with coveted awards, signalling a paradigm shift in the industry’s recognition of emerging talent.
But rewind 25 years and it was a completely different story for the bartenders hustling back then. CNA Lifestyle spoke with Ding Yew Chye of Manhattan Bar at Conrad Orchard and Lawrence Foo from Republic Bar at Ritz Carlton Millenia Singapore, veteran bartenders from two of Asia’s top bars in Singapore.
And as it turned out, the duo – who are both in their 60s – are a treasure trove of memories about how the bar industry evolved over the years.
Ding Yew Chye has been around the block. The 66-year-old bartender from the award-winning Manhattan Bar, which topped the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list in 2017 and 2018, has been dedicated to his craft for over 40 years.
His journey began in 1982 at what was then known as Pavilion InterContinental Hotel, where he worked at the hotel’s inaugural bar, Atrium Lounge. Back then, Ding recalled, there was a spiral staircase that once connected the 2nd and 3rd floors within the bar.
After 1989, the space evolved into a concept simply known as The Bar. In 2014, it underwent yet another transformation to emerge as the Manhattan Bar that patrons know today.
Today, he’s the oldest bartender at Manhattan bar. The team addresses him as Uncle Ding, and also calls him “The Legend”.
“I have a fantastic relationship with my team. They are all young and full of energy. I always emphasise the importance of having fun and maintaining open communication. Teamwork is essential in a high-paced environment like a bar, so we always try to create a space where everyone is more easy-going and happier while working together. Also, they keep me young!” Ding quipped.
These days, Ding has transitioned into a more behind-the-scenes role, ensuring everything runs smoothly for his teammates in the front-of-house.
“My role evolved when I started delving into crafting syrups from scratch – an art that requires meticulous attention to detail and a commitment to perfection. This transition made me realise that a bartender’s role extends far beyond what patrons see; it involves dedication and hard work behind the scenes.”
With the rise of social media, bartenders are not only expected to make delicious drinks but also cocktails that look good for the ‘gram.
“I believe that being a bartender today comes with its own set of challenges. With the advent of social media and the bar industry gaining more recognition, there are higher expectations and increased competition to be the best. Today’s bartenders must excel in both crafting exquisite drinks and creating visually appealing cocktails.”
Foo cited meeting celebrities such as English singer Jessie J, Taiwanese singer A Mei, and American actor Robert Redford as some of his favourite memories. But beyond famous folks, he simply relishes people from all over the world.
Like Ding, Foo agreed that the biggest change has been the customers’ palate in cocktails and the shift in clientele. In the past, bars had more live music, and the ambiance was more laidback. Now, he observes that bars prefer more upbeat and louder soundtracks.
“When I first started, we had a more mature clientele, for example, those in their fifties. Republic Bar, on the other hand, sees a younger and trendier clientele, who are between their twenties to thirties.”
In the early days of his bartending career, most drinks were prepared at the back and served to customers at their tables. Drinks were more straightforward. But now, more customers prefer to join at the bar, and bartenders are expected to be knowledgeable about the ingredients and concept of the drinks, fostering more interaction.
“In the past, besides preparing drinks, bartenders acted as a listening ear to guests. Now, the profession is more recognised, with awards recognising skills. There is definitely more glamour to the profession than before. There is also more one-to-one interaction with guests. Not only do bartenders have to be good at making drinks, they also have to socialise, be good in conversation, and be knowledgeable about current affairs.”
Having worked as bartenders for so long, what keeps both Ding and Foo working in such a demanding scene at their age? Both shared that it’s more rewarding now with awards such as 50 Best Bars giving them a sense of pride.
“When we won the Best Bar award in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2017 and won a spot in World’s 50 Best Bars, we were filled with joy and pride,” said Ding. “I’m still working at this age, it’s tiring, but as long as I’m in good health and able to contribute, I would be happy to keep working.”
As for Foo, he reckoned the changes in the industry has certainly enhanced his social skills. But while he takes great pride in being an integral part of the team, he jokingly embraced the idea of taking a break soon.”I now work behind the scenes more. It has been a good ride, but a change in environment and some rest would definitely be welcomed!”