Conversations with Sophia Kang

By Charles Windle and Stella Soon

Sophia Kang is the Head Bartender at Manhattan, a bar at Regent Singapore that has been ranked #1 on ‘Asia’s 50 Best Bars’ and #3 on ‘The World’s 50 Best Bars’. In this article, Sophia talks about how she developed her skills, as well as her plans going forward. She shares valuable insights about her journey from serving tables to leading a world-class bar in her current role, allowing us to understand her role better and inspiring those who may also wish to be bartenders.

I start my shift around 2pm. I start with some paperwork or administration like promotions, changing menus and featuring what’s coming up. During that time, the boys in my team would conduct their bar prep – selecting glassware, plucking garnishes, squeezing fresh juices etc. We prep for 3 hours, go for a little break, open at 5pm, and then work throughout till 1am. After clearing up and everything, it’s around 1.30am. The hotel provides a taxi, and I reach home around 2am.

Our job does not only involve mixing cocktails only. Beyond that, we entertain guests who are seated at the bar counter and handle bill management.

You are certainly expected to multitask. At our busiest, both our sitting and standing areas might be filled up with more people waiting outside. Sometimes, guests approach us while we’re making cocktails. You need to know how to handle various situations while keeping track of all the different orders and combinations.

We have more staff on rotation over the weekend, so operations eases a little then. Usually, there’s a person that’s ‘calling the drinks’ (i.e., assigning orders). We have a system in place with three different stations. One station is shaking, the second one is stirring, and the third one is shaking again. Each drink is different, and involves different steps. The Negroni, for example, is a stirred drink. So the guy who’s in charge in the middle station will be assigned that cocktail. And the guy that’s doing shaken drinks, for example the New York Sour, would make the drink in the first station, or the last one. The person who calls the drinks assign them respectively.

It’s a fairly complex system, but it works well as long as everyone manages their station well. The person who calls the drinks also needs to do straight drinks (e.g., gin, tonic, or whiskey on the rocks). The orders keep coming, so we have a line to order the completed drinks. We cannot complete drinks for guests who happen to be closer, because that would go against our system. This system of making drinks is extremely organised, and helps improve our efficiency by helping us keep track of all orders.

Most days are good days. We rarely have guests that are difficult to manage. Nowadays, people come to the bar curious about the variety of drinks that we offer. They ask a lot of questions, which makes it important for us to know our stuff. Some of these interactions might include complaints of course, but I think handling complaints is also part of the steep learning process.

There’s no real right or wrong. It really depends on the situation. If someone orders a drink after our ‘last order’ cutoff, I might still be accede if the request is not too complicated. If the timing is just too late, or if the situation requires it, I may have to politely decline. We sincerely try to make sure everyone is happy. I think that’s the best way of solving any problem, by achieving a win-win.

Another case in point is our dress code, but sometimes, guests are not aware and may come attired in slippers or flip-flops. We would try to prepare footwear and disposable socks that might help them. We really don’t want to turn them away because they’re here to have a good time. This is why we also state the dress code clearly on the website and keep guests informed during the reservations process.

To meet new people, because compared to office jobs, you will meet different people every day. There are regulars, of course, but there are always new guests – which make for interesting conversations. That’s one of the key reasons why I love hospitality – talking to people from around the world.

Little compliments from our guests stick with me. It’s the small things that make a difference. When you go to restaurants for example, when people say “oh this food is really nice”, it’s a small thing, but for the chef, it could mean the world. In the same way, this motivates me too, when guests tell me they like their drink.

Finally, I like how every cocktail, and every spirit comes with a story. Of course, I try to remember everything, but we have around 800 different bottles and more than 200 cocktails. This makes me motivated to study and deep dive into our menu. If one of my bartenders ask me and I don’t know, I feel responsible as the head bartender to know all the answers. This makes me want to study harder and guide others. My job is also to motivate and enable those junior to me, to rally them and form a cohesive family.

I was a wait staff in Basilico, the hotel’s Italian restaurant, located just next to Manhattan. I was working there for almost 7 months when I heard that Regent Singapore was going to renovate the bar. Before the renovation, the space was just a classic international bar with a grand piano, billiard table, and big screens for watching sports. I was looking to learn new things, so I decided to try for a position. The wine that comes with Italian food is amazing, but it didn’t really feel right for me. Whenever I tried to study I’d get so lost, so I was thinking “Maybe I should try something new”. So I transferred to Manhattan.

Going further back, I actually grew up in Korea. I had just graduated before I came to Singapore. I have actually never worked in Korea before. I only worked part-time for 3 months because I always had plans to work overseas. I settled on Singapore, also by chance. I scored a scholarship in school that allowed us to choose between Australia, Singapore and the US. I wanted to go to the US, but it was quite competitive. They suggested a job in Australia to me, but I didn’t want to go to Australia because I heard the jobs there were in housekeeping. My priority in going overseas to work was to improve my English. That was the most important thing. But if I went into housekeeping, I was hesitant there wouldn’t be much opportunity for me to practice. Australia did not make sense as an option, which ultimately led me to Singapore – a country that aligned with my interests and that I eventually felt comfortable with.

Of course! My time at Manhattan improved my English tremendously. The transfer was initially a big worry, because to work in Manhattan, you have to pass the BarSmarts test. BarSmarts is a US certification, which requires candidates to know all the spirits and the history/techniques of distillation and fermentation. We have to go through the test within 60 days of getting a job at Manhattan. That was my first challenge. The good thing was that my friend was really helping me along, because I’m not a person that learns by reading but by learning from example. Massive thanks and credit goes to Cedric Mendoza, Manhattan’s former head bartender, who has since moved to Sydney.

It’s been wonderful which is why 5 years on, I am still here! I think the most important thing for job seekers is to realise what makes them happy. When I was serving tables for almost a year, it already felt too long.

I felt a deeper yearning to have deeper conversations around drinks, which is why I moved to the bar and could ask questions  like “Why is this drink made like this”?” or “Why do they have such different tastes if you only changed the spirit”. It was during one of those times that I was questioning Cedric, that he offered me to try making the drinks myself. He pointed me in the general direction about what I needed to do, but left the rest for me to figure out in order to satisfy my curiosity.

That’s when I asked for a position at Manhattan. Being a bartender is actually quite a physical job. You have to shake cocktails continuously which can be rather hard work. I actually lost 5kg when I first joined. I trained for 1.5 years to become a bartender.

They also wanted to see how capable I was. I was put on a 5-day week, with 3 days serving tables on the floor, and 2 days behind the bar. They wanted to see how I was going to handle it. The first 3 months were so hard. I had to remember all the recipes — before, it was just names, and a rough sense of what went inside each drink. But now I had to remember how to make it, and what the quantities were. It was so hard. And Fridays or Saturday were extra hard because I was almost shaking twice the number of drinks. But even today, I am still motivated by the process.

Actually, after he left, I felt a lot of pressure. It’s not that I didn’t want to assume the position. I just didn’t expect that it was going to be me as the next person to succeed Cedric. It really came as a shock. After I became head bartender, I had so many interviews. People were asking, “Since you became head bartender, what are you going to change.” I’m not here to change anything. I just want to continue what we do well. And I’m looking to see how we can do it better. People are coming to Manhattan because of our drinks, sure. But another important thing is hospitality: how we welcome them, how we make them comfortable. These are things we can always continue to work on.

This is somewhat building on Manhattan’s existing reputation. People already have expectations when they come because this bar has been well-known for awhile. If you come with high expectations but don’t get a good experience, you’re going to leave disappointed. That’s what we don’t want. So we try to standardise the experience on the floor and at the bar – to be as consistent as we can. This increases the need to train all our staff well, especially since some of our staff are new.

I didn’t have any expectations. It took me a long time to be a bartender, almost one and a half years. I couldn’t see myself working at a bar that was always filled with people at first, but I worked really hard to improve. I did not get the point of working on the floor for two days and then three days at the bar. I wanted to have a full shift at the bar because it made sense to me, and I felt like I could grow more. They eventually accepted my request so I transferred to the bar full time.

It’s also not about gender, it’s about personality and how you’re going to work behind the bar. That’s what I always tell people who want to be a bartender. Someone might be really good at hospitality and someone might be really good in his knowledge of drinks – it’s unifying these unique skills and expertise and asking for help when you need it.

I think all jobs have their share of hardships. I am always encouraging the floor staff, who are all ladies, to take up positions behind the bar. And I try my best to mentor them to give them that added encouragement. I try to be the bridge between the wait staff and the bar and having done both roles, I think I can lend some insights into both roles. Actually, when we hire for the bar, we look for someone with floor experience, instead of hiring new bartenders. After me, there was another guy from the floor who joined the bar. Different bars have different cocktails and recipes, so it can get messy. Instead of teaching new bartenders one by one, I want to see people move from the floor to the bar seamlessly. I think staff who have been with us for a while also process the information a lot faster. We also have the chance to get to know what they like, and try to tailor their learning to what works best for them. I think helping people do what they would like is the best way to motivate them.

Career-wise, it’s still hard to be a female bartender. When I moved to the bar, my mother wasn’t happy because what we used to have in Korea is very different. The drinking spots in Korea resemble karaoke places. But here in Singapore, it’s very different. Manhattan is located in a hotel, with security. After a year, she came to  understand what my role was here. She’s now very supportive, and even wants me to stay. Of course she misses me a lot. But she is happy that I’m working here doing what I like. My mother married quite early, so I think she wants me to do whatever I want before I settle down.

I go back once a year. It’s hard to do more trips than that due to my schedule. There’s almost a different event every month, so I have to pick the less busy periods. I definitely cannot go during the regional and global awards ceremony nor the festive seasons so that’s already more than half the calendar year gone. I also think that a break that’s too short will not allow me to spend quality time with family. So if I go, it’ll be for at least two weeks. Anything less would just be wasting time on the plane.

It has changed a lot. First of all, the guests have changed compared to five years ago. Before, they used to drink mostly scotch and wine. If they were asked about what they liked, they might have mentioned a general comment that they wanted something sweet. In that kind of situation, it’s quite hard to make a recommendation because I need to know what flavours they might generally like. Nowadays, people know what they’re drinking and they can be certain about the spirits that they like.

And of course the team has also changed but we are still strong as a team. No one is perfect on their own, right? We always look for opportunities to help each other. We train together as part of our training programme.

How big is your team?

Right now we have around 15 people, including bartenders and wait staff. We don’t see each other every day, because we take different off-days. But on Friday and Saturday, everyone’s back here to work.

No. When I joined Manhattan, I only knew about Jack Daniels because Jack Daniels was the whiskey that my grandfather used to drink. I had no idea about the rest of the drinks. It was very hard for a newbie to start work here, because when Manhattan started its operations, we wanted to introduce craft spirits, not just commercial ones. So if some people ask for a Gordon and tonic — Gordon is a gin brand— I could not suggest alternatives because I didn’t know other kinds of gin existed.

There was never a big drinking culture in family, except for my grandfather. He used to teach taekwondo in the US army. That’s how he got into American whiskey. it’s so hard to see people in my generation asking for whiskies like Jack Daniels. They mostly go for soju or beer, because they were never exposed to whiskies. Whiskies are also expensive. Soju is only like, 5 Singapore dollars, but imagine how much a bottle of gin would cost in comparison?

This is a hard question because I take each day as it comes without too far a consideration of the future. I follow what I want to do. When I first joined, I never thought that I was going to be a bartender. And suddenly, I did! So when I moved to the bar, and people asked “what do you want to do now, because you’ve become a bartender already?” But my goal was never just to be promoted. I was actually just curious about what is happening there. That was my only goal. Learning about management just happened to come with learning about bar operations. Everything just fell into place.

So I don’t really have a plan. Right now I’m still adjusting, because I only became head bartender in April. I’m still new, only 6 months into the role, so of course I have to develop the drinks programme, I have to learn the management routine. I think it will take me 5 years to learn everything. Right now I’m just adjusting. There are a lot more things to discover and master in my path.

Most of the cocktails in our in-hotel Rickhouse (where the cocktails are aged in American oak barrels) are very spirit forward. A lot of ladies and guests who don’t like strong drinks, always seem to still want a drink from the Rickhouse because it is a definitive experience at Manhattan.

So we tried to think about something that we could offer them, which is how we came up with the Aviation. Aviation consists of gin, Maraschino, a little bit of sugar and lemon. It’s quite refreshing and aged in the barrel, you might pick up some orchid and floral notes from the creme de violette.

Sometimes you need to know what people want. I try to get a sense of this, instead of just making what I like. Making people drinks they don’t like will not get them to come back. I often find myself setting a middle ground between what I think is good and what guests might like. We always work toward garnering regular guests. Whenever the guests leave, we always say “see you tomorrow”.

What’s your own favorite cocktail? What do you like?

My favourite cocktail is a Whiskey Sour. These tend to be a spirit with either lemon or lime, syrup and egg white.

Customised cocktails (‘bespoke cocktails’) are difficult because we need to think about what we are making. It’s hard, but at the same time, it’s also a good opportunity because it might be on the next menu. It’s easier when someone asks me, “Oh, I want this one, this one, and this one.” It’s easy to just put things together. But if someone asks for “Oh, I want this one, but I don’t know the rest of it.” I just have to make it with some creativity. It’s my job to work on it. On the spot, there’s a bit of pressure knowing that someone is waiting for you to deliver. I quite enjoy it though.

I heard your team’s working on a new menu. So can you give us a sneak peek?

No! You have to wait for its anticipated release somewhere closer to March 2020. We still aim to strike some familiar ground, around the same concepts executed before. We don’t want to stray too far from what our guests have already come to expect of us and maintain a sense of place. The style of drinks will probably be the same. But of course the sources of inspiration would be different. On our first menu we focused on districts of New York. Our current menu is focused on the different eras spanning 19th century till current day. Who knows what surprises the next menu will bring.

I still think of myself as relatively new. I’ve been bartending for only three or four years. But, based on my experience, I think it’s about how much passion you have. With passion, you can go through what you want to do. But if you don’t have passion, you cannot go persist through challenges. People keep pointing out that I am a female, but I don’t let it be a limiting factor. I also have the support of a good team. I can’t do this alone. I also actively support my team. So I don’t really want to suggest that I got this by myself. It’s all about passion and teamwork.