Mixing It up at Top of Central
After a long day at work, you would always want to look for a bar to remove yourself from the structures of work. The question is: Which bar would you rather choose? A classy hotel bar where wine and cheese are served, or a stylist street bar where you can taste cocktails with different textures and aroma?
By Isabel Ng and Vincy Wong
<span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Advisor: Ms Sandra Lowe</span>
Pages editor：Carol Chan</em><em>
After a long day at work, people often find a bar to release the pressure of the day in a drink or two. But who are the geniuses behind the rich, colourful cocktails that grace the bar menu?
Two mastermind bartenders, Imelda Ng and Toby Lo, dish the dirt on their experiences over a cup of tea in Central.“I almost prepared nothing before I went up on the stage.
My ex-manager wanted me to try out new things and to train my guts — mixing a cocktail in front of hundreds of people,” said Lo, assistant managerof Quinary Cocktail Bar, referring to his first competition in 2011.
It was Lo’s former manager who suggested he enter the Hofex All World Open Cup held by the Hong Kong Bartenders Association.
On the other hand, Ng won her first contest — the Tag No 5 Vodka Competition in 2015, which was also the same year she took up her mixing career.
“We were asked to create two drinks, one before and one after dinner. I made a drink with Som O, inspired by my favourite Thai Pomelo Salad,” said Ng, who is the head bartender at the Caprice Bar in the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong.
Most liquor brands host a ton of cocktail competitions annually to promote their beverages via collaboration with bars and bartenders. The location of the competitions are usually street bars with a few judges and a small audience.
“Being able to do an impromptu performance is the most difficult thing for me. I never like to practice, and it feels like the more I practice, the more I am controlled by my script,” said Ng. Lo disagreed, saying “It’s about muscle memories, the more you practice, the higher the chance your hands won’t be shivering and you clearly know what to do in a competition.”
Ng shared an interesting story. “A Chinese competitor used a Chinese ingredient — fish sauce when mixing a cocktail, then one judge who was a vegan did not drink any of it. During that year, no one dared to use eggs or other animal derived ingredients for their cocktails,”
she said. Branding seems to also be a key component as contestants are expected to promote their cocktails on Ng and Losocial media.
“Most of the competitions require competitors to create a cocktail with a story. And you present the story together with the drink within a few minutes,” said Lo. “The key is to make connections with people in the venue, but not only with the judges.”
“To promote your drink, you need to put a lot of hashtags on your Instagram posts and ask your friends to like the post to increase your drink exposure,”Ng added. “While you are promoting your drink, you are also promoting the host bar, the liquor brand and the competition.You are promoting everything.”
Apart from the judges, customers are also the ones bartenders need to please, but some can be cranky rather than friendly.
“When the bar is fully occupied and there’s a new customer, they aren’t willing to wait. But instead, they will ask or stand next to customers who look like they have finished their drinks, and ‘force’ them to leave,” said Ng.
In a hotel bar, she said it was not appropriate for staff to speak up because there were strict regulations limiting their actions with difficult customers.
However, in a street bar, Lo said it was more flexible and easy-going. “When this situation happens, we can ask them to share the table with others. But if they continue to give us hard time, we can just ask them to leave,” he said.
So what’s the difference between a hotel and a street bar?
For the uninitiated, many believe both venues are places where people can hang out, drink and have fun. But the difference is in the rules.
“Besides a competitive salary, the hotel offers attractive employee benefits, such as overtime allowances, free medical insurance and, best of all, they support us joining different competitions and willing to help us prepare the ingredients, too,” Ng said.
But even though street bars do not have that a large amount of tempting employee benefits, some still enjoy the special atmosphere.
“Here, the work environment is more flexible and free. We don’t have strict rules on hours (as long as we coordinate with the teams) and how we have to keep our distance from customers,” Lo said. “You are literally closer to customers. We can be friends and invite them to drink together after work, too.”
And what about the future of a bartender? For Imelda Ng, her plans are to take care of new staff members and be well-prepared for the company management courses.
“And of course, to have a better work-life balance [trying to take less Uber] and spend more quality time with family,” she said.
For Lo, he is preparing for a competition in Taiwan in January and the next major step in his life.
“My wedding is going to be a few days after the Taiwan competition. But luckily, my fiancée and I had already worked out most of the wedding preparations, so it won’t be a big problem for us,” he said. “But regardless of whether I win or lose in Taiwan, I have promised to take the next six months off for rest and relaxation.”
The atmosphere in the bartending industry is more like family than what people may think.
“We have peer group chats to share industry news, exchange competition news, or even help others to find specific ingredients, too,” Ng said.
It was difficult to pick just one person to be thankful for, so Ng gave a shout to all the peers she has encountered on the job.
“We are like family here. It’s relaxing to be surrounded by them, we talk about things that happen at work and enjoy a drink or two after work or during our days off,” she added.
For Lo, his ex-manager had influenced not only his work ethic but his personal life and personality today.