One might expect the world’s best bartender to be a bit more chuffed about her new title. It was, after all, the very competition that got Bannie Kang into bartending in 2012, when the then-waitress smuggled herself into the competition under the guise of wanting to compete — just so she could get a crash course in mixology.
It’s a bit of a Cinderella story, then, that seven years on, Kang would return to top the class. But as the self-effacing South Korean says, its not just about her.
Kang might have since left Anti:Dote to relocate to Taiwan, but don’t mistake it for a sabbatical: She has plans to set up a new bar there with her husband. Still, she found a little time to take a break from the rush: People from all over the world had come to Anti:Dote following her win, requesting to see her to have their drink made by the world’s best bartender.
Usually, she’d be glad to oblige — but recently, she took a different tack.
“I try to introduce them to the cocktails on the menu, or to the other bartenders on duty,” she says. “Because we put a lot of effort to create the drinks menu — not just me, but the whole team. And I want everyone to be the star.”
It’s safe to say that the genial Kang’s a team player, though that much is obvious upon meeting her. She pronounces her first name as ‘Bun-nie’, and accordingly handed out rabbit-eared headbands to her supporters at the Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year competition.
Kang moved to Singapore in 2010. Back then, she was just a waitress polishing cutlery. “I only knew what soju and beer was,” she laughs. She worked at the former City Space bar at Swissotel, where, coincidentally, the 2010 Bartender of the Year served as beverage manager.
According to Kang, the bartending scene back then was less about taste, and more about who could put the flashiest ingredients in a cup. So when she saw her colleague creating cocktails with “fresh ingredients” and “weird things people never used in cocktails”, Kang was awe-inspired.
“I felt like he had an aura surrounding him,” she gushed. And so she threw herself into classes and on-the-job training, finally becoming a fully-fledged bartender in 2013.
But things weren’t always smooth sailing for her. When we met, she sat at a counter in Anti:Dote clad in a very happy shirt, vest and tie — but, as Kang lets on, her uniforms back in the day used to be a lot more risqué.
“Last time, the outfits for female bartenders were very revealing,” she says of her former workplace. “The back would be totally open, and sometimes customers might get touchy.”
For the affable South Korean, her friendliness was sometimes mistaken for something more. Kang says that she received room keys from male patrons twice in her career, though thankfully, that doesn’t happen too much these days.
Badly behaved customers were just one of her concerns. As a junior bartender, Kang also faced another problem: No-one wanted to order drinks from her. They’d ignore her entirely in favour of the head bartender, or worse, another junior bartender, only male.
“They probably thought that a woman can’t make a strong drink, that I’m only there to make fruit juice or something,” she says, blanching.
It’s part of the reason why Kang is so keen to give her younger colleagues, or even anyone else behind the bar, a fair shot.
“When I was young, people didn’t want to give me a chance. So I know that feeling,” she says. “If nobody gives them a chance, then they’ll never be able to try.”
For now, as she enjoys her brief sabbatical, Kang has entrusted the reputation of Anti:Dote to her colleagues. She knows that the bar is in good hands.