12 women taking names and shaking up the Asian bar scene

Holly Graham - 29/03/2021

Ahead of the reveal of Asia’s 50 Best Bars, sponsored by Perrier, on 6th May, 50 Best meets some of the continent’s cocktail cognoscenti to learn what makes them tick and how they have been facing up to the latest stage of the pandemic. Here’s a quick-fire intro to 12 bartenders across Asia you need to know about

Chanel Adams, Hong Kong, China
Beverage Consultant, Merchants of Pleasure

Favourite cocktail: 50/50 Martini
Post-shift wind down: Hot yoga
Guilty pleasure: Burgers
Adams began her bartending career at Barmini by José Andrés in Washington DC, eventually moving to Hong Kong to lead the bar programme at Happy Paradise by Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017 May Chow, followed by a stint as head bartender at PDT Hong Kong.

Now, she is leading the coffee cocktail charge in the city, having collaborated with Michael Yung of popular coffee shop group Cupping Room to open Doubleshot. “Our goal was to break the barrier between bartender and barista,” says Adams. “Yung taught me coffee techniques and creative theory and I used my bartending skills to create a beverage menu that highlights both coffee and spirit.”

Adams believes the cocktail scene was set to explode when Covid-19 hit. “Many local bartenders began opening their own bars and were getting global recognition as pioneers for the beverage industry. The closure of bars for the majority of the pandemic has been an obvious financial setback, but has given bartenders an opportunity to sit down and think about the future cocktails they want to create. The ease of access to information has allowed for knowledge and techniques to transcend international borders,” she explains. 

Adams also has a lot of faith in the future of Asia’s bars: “Asia will be one of the first parts of the world to recover from the pandemic. I believe this will allow for stability and create an opportunity for us to lead the world into a beverage renaissance.”

Minakshi Singh, New Delhi, India
Co-founder, Sidecar and Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy

Favourite cocktail: Margarita
Post-shift wind down: Reading and listening to jazz
Guilty pleasure: Binging on good food
Hot off the heels of being the second bar from India to blaze onto Asia’s 50 Best Bars last year, Singh has never been one to rest on her laurels. Having worked in hospitality most of her life, she has broken boundaries by forging a successful career in the booze industry in India – a profession usually frowned upon for women in the country.

She admits the longer she worked in the industry, the more she wanted to know. Upon meeting her now-business partner Yangdup Lama, he helped point her in the right direction, which led to her working in marketing for Diageo and Pernod Ricard. The pair later decided to open their bars, which have been huge success stories.

Singh admits that she and the team went a bit overboard during Covid-19. “We started by selling mixers, then party kits, then had online workshops and internal training. We went on a bit of a ‘learning bender’ as I like to call it, but it’s been very fruitful and extremely satisfying.” Both Sidecar and Cocktails & Dreams have launched new signature cocktail menus thanks to the downtime.

Most recently, she and the team launched The Three Barstools YouTube channel. “While it was way out of our comfort zone, we were keen on launching a channel by the hospitality industry, for the hospitality industry. We touch upon recipes, new brands and generally making cocktails and drinking out cool in India,” she says.

Lolita Goh, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Co-founder, Junglebird

Favourite cocktail: A dry, unaged rum grapefruit Silver Fizz
Post-shift wind down: Spending quality time with my husband and pets on the sofa, eating my kitchen experiments or family meal leftovers while watching TV
Guilty pleasure: Ice cream by the pint and crispy chicken nuggets with hot sauce
Goh is the glue that holds team Junglebird together, which she runs with husband Josh Ivanovic and their business partner Divyesh Chauhan. The team recently had to relocate the rum haven to a new site, deciding to build most of it themselves. “It took us over three months and it was nothing short of crazy, intense and tiring,” she says. “There was definitely blood drawn on a few occasions, buckets of sweat and eventual tears of joy once we reached the finish line. I dare say we have grown even closer and stronger as a family and somehow also managed to put out a new bar and kitchen menu.”

You’ll often find Goh running the floor, tending to guests. “Speaking from the heart about the food and drinks at Junglebird is something I really enjoy. We have a wonderful story regarding the building aspect of the new site, so if left untethered, I can quite easily chew your ear off – obviously only when it’s appropriate. Nothing worse than overbearing staff,” she laughs.

Goh is also the mastermind behind most of the food at the bar, and the pandemic gave her lots of downtime to work on the venue’s offering. “We now have a pretty cool menu that I am rather pleased with. It’s a representation of who we are as Junglebird, what we truly enjoy and our way of sharing the love. We’ve also created a pretty special Cubano sandwich and I think we are the only spot in the city to do it and do it properly. You’ve got to come try it out for yourself!”

Jess “Hutch” Hutchinson and Juan Yi Jun, Singapore
Co-founders, No Sleep Club

Favourite cocktail: Hutchinson: Depending on the day, a 50/50 Sazerac, Margarita or a glass of bubbles; Yi Jun: Any highball or a good glass of wine
Post-shift wind down: Chilling with our French Bulldog Freddie
Guilty pleasure: Trashy reality TV
Hutchinson and Yi Jun are the dream team couple behind 2020 Campari One To Watch winner No Sleep Club, which rocked onto the Singapore bar scene with its edgy yet accessible vibes, bringing a more laid-back approach to funky wines, coffee and cocktails in the city. Both are hospitality powerhouses, with Hutchinson previously running the legendary 28 HongKong Street and Yi Jun initially starting No Sleep Club as a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint after leaving Operation Dagger.

The pair have been the queens of adaptation during the pandemic, constantly changing their offering and services to match what their public craved. This included partnering up with their hospitality neighbours to send food and drinks to frontline workers. Being lucky enough to stay open due to their working kitchen while many of their friends' bars were forced to close sparked an idea: “We had a bar station spare, so decided to open it to any unemployed bartenders to allow them to make their own drinks and earn extra cash as a collaboration,” explains Yi Jun. “Not only did it allow them to earn some money, it helped our team learn from other people.”

Dew Choi, Seoul, South Korea
Senior Bartender, Charles H

Favourite cocktail: Cosmopolitan – the first cocktail I learned to shake!
Post-shift wind down: Chatting with colleagues over food and drinks
Guilty pleasure: Drinking alcohol and sometimes spending a few days away from all contact, sleeping all day long
In Seoul’s mostly male-dominated bar scene, Choi is the shining star behind the stick at The Best Bar in Korea, Charles H. When it comes to hospitality, Choi prides herself on her observational skills, her memory and attention to extremely delicate details.

Choi believes South Korea’s bar scene is on the up, saying: “An older generation of bartenders stuck in certain ways has now been replaced, making way for bartenders with more sophisticated service styles and technological skills. I think the Korean cocktail market will soon evolve and lead the change. I am supporting from the centre of this movement and thinking about why these changes can and will happen. It’s not just about adapting the ingredients of a cocktail, it’s about new forms of cocktails and improvements in service methods.”

Looking more widely, Choi similarly believes that Asia’s bar scene on the whole is on the ascent: “As a whole, Asia is producing better bars and getting better results in awards and on the global stage. Relationships are close here and there’s lots of collaboration, which opens up even more of the region’s colorful culture.”

Suchada “Fahbeer” Sopajaree, Bangkok, Thailand
Co-owner, Wasteland

Favourite cocktail: 20th Century and Vieux Carré
Post-shift wind down: Thai massages and good food and drinks, followed by turning off my mobile phone when home and reading every day for at least 10 minutes
Guilty pleasure: Irish cream liqueur in coffee and melon liqueur in shaved ice
Formerly the flame-haired front woman of #Findthelockerroom, Sopajaree co-founded Wasteland, Thailand’s first sustainable bar, with her partner Kitibordee “Gov” Chortubtim and their friend Dharath “Tot” Hoonchamlong. Wasteland focuses on what is perceived as waste and how that waste can become cocktail ingredients.

Sopajaree calls her bar a “community sipping space”, which takes in waste from the kitchen of the award-winning restaurant Bo.Lan and other F&B establishments. “There's a lot of research into what is edible and what’s not, and how we should process it once it’s been given to us from the kitchen, because hygiene and food handling are very important,” Sopajaree explains. “It's challenging because changing people’s perception of food waste is still a very new concept in Thailand.”

Sopajaree says one way they make their drinks more approachable is by making them as simple as possible without the use of gadgets. “Each drink has its own story and we are always happy to share them, because if we inspire other bartenders or guests to make them at home, that will lead to reducing food waste even more,” she says. “Hospitality and artistry go hand in hand and are not limited to what's on the menu.”

Beckaly Franks, Hong Kong
Co-Owner, The Pontiac

Favourite drink: Shot of amaro or agave and a glass of white burgundy
Guilty pleasure:
SmartFood white cheddar popcorn and breakfast in bed
Franks is Hong Kong’s matriarch of the bar industry. Her neighbourhood dive bar The Pontiac has gone from strength to strength with its all-female team, pumping out craft cocktails and rock’n’roll vibes every night. Before moving to the city, Franks tended bar at Portland’s celebrated Clyde Common, and was the first woman to win a global cocktail competition final.

Everything we do at The Pontiac is awesome and creative,” says Franks. “We constantly have events, do limited edition merch and recently, for International Women's Day, we teamed up with Habitat for Humanity's activation Women Build. Together we made hygiene kits for the women in Hong Kong who are unable to acquire those necessary goods.”

As much as The Pontiac is all about the down and dirty good times, the bar has become a hub of inclusivity and is popular with the local LGTBQ community through what Franks calls “its creative, sensitive and entertaining hospitality”. Franks faced roller coaster ups and downs with Covid-19-related restrictions, having to constantly close, open or flip the bar into a café. However, it will take more than that to shake Franks and the almighty Pontiac, whose motto is “Commit to the lit.”

Marcia Xiao, Guangzhou, China
Co-founder, Hope & Sesame

Favourite cocktail:
50/50 Martini
Post-shift wind down: Working out, jogging or gardening
Guilty pleasure: Making sweets and pastries for others
Marcia Xiao is one quarter of the team that founded The Hope Group, which consists of four bars across Guangzhou and Shenzhen, a bar consultancy agency and Xiao’s own pet-project, Marcia Fermentology. Under her ‘fermentology’ track, Xiao has created Moming Kombucha. “Though I’d been drinking kombucha since I was a child, there was a lack of good places to find it in China, so I decided to fix that by opening my own kombucha bar,” she says.

Xiao says the cocktail scene in Guangzhou is gradually getting more interesting. “Many cool places have opened recently and bartenders are experimenting with different techniques,” she explains. “Hotel bars are picking up too in terms of drink quality and creativeness.”

What she modestly omits is that Hope & Sesame has been a trailblazer for the city’s bar scene, with its innovation, strong team featuring notable female bartenders and thoughtful hospitality setting the bar high in Guangzhou. The Hope Group was also a thought leader when Covid-19 struck, being one of the first bars in the world to pivot into cocktail deliveries and sharing a wealth of pandemic best-practice with the bar community.

Suwicha “Chacha” Singsuwan, Bangkok, Thailand
Group Bar Manager, Rabbit Hole Group

Favourite cocktail: El Presidente
Post-shift wind down: Late-night supper with the team
Guilty pleasure: Giving out shots!
Singsuwan is the cool-as-a-cucumber brains behind Bangkok bars Rabbit Hole, Liberation and Crimson Room. Under her leadership, Rabbit Hole has ranked on Asia’s 50 Best Bars since 2019 and Singsuwan reveals to 50 Best that there’s another big project up her sleeve for next year – so watch this space…

The pandemic has resulted in a challenging year for everyone, but Singsuwan says it’s been particularly rough in Bangkok, having faced almost six months of on and off bar closures and a ban on alcohol. Alcohol is not a crime! Cocktails are not a crime!” she exclaims. “I have been to protest after protest in the hope that one day the powers that be will recognise how bars drive tourism and therefore income to the country.”

However, when she’s in service, Singsuwan describes her hospitality style as casual, with plenty of laughs. “I love to live in the moment and I love Asia’s cocktail scene. It started rough but slowly adjusted and I believe after the vaccine we will be back to business and better than ever.”

Bannie Kang, Taipei, Taiwan
Co-founder, Mu

Favourite cocktail: Paloma
Post-shift wind down: Going for yakitori and beer followed by a slow walk home
Kang was Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year 2019 and for good reason. The humble Korean made her way to Singapore to begin her hospitality career, starting off as a waitress. Conscious that language barriers held her back, she took time out to focus on her English and came back with a bang, cutting her teeth at Anti:dote.

Not long after her big win, Kang collaborated with Taiwanese bartending veteran Nick Wu and her chef husband Tryson Quek to open Mu in Taipei. Though the bar opened at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s gone from strength to strength thanks to Kang’s warm hospitality and creativity. “We’re currently working on a new menu, and I have given my team room to create. I’m hoping the youngsters bring a different feel to the cocktails while I assist with some guidance,” she shares.

Kang says the Taipei bartending scene is very into classic Japanese bartending but has seen a lot change in her year there as bartenders are now becoming more hospitality focussed. “Hospitality is so important,” she says. “I try to always remember a guest’s face, name and what style of cocktails and base spirits they like, and I always explain the flavours and stories behind my drinks.”

Yukiko Watanabe, Tokyo, Japan
Supervisor/Bartender, The Lounge at Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi

Favorite cocktail: White Lady
Post-shift wind down: Reading a book while relaxing in the bath
Guilty pleasure: Having good drinks and conversation without worrying about time
Watanabe’s forte is Japanese tea, having learned about it under The Lounge’s tea sommelier tutelage. Using her tea and spirit knowledge, she is the queen of adaptation, making cocktails to pair with the bar’s western and traditional Japanese sweets for afternoon tea. “I’m also creating an original blend of Japanese tea-based mocktails that can be paired with our famous afternoon tea to elevate the experience,” she shares.

When it comes to her style of service, Watanabe strives for meaningful interactions with her guests.I try to have conversations that will leave a lasting impression, such as sharing the stories behind drinks or my personal memories of the cocktails ordered. I always hope the drinks and their elevated mood reminds them of their experience with me.”

Watanabe hopes she can travel soon to get a better grasp of the cocktail scene in Asia. “Though I haven't traveled for a long time, my bartender friends from each country have contacted me. All of them cheered me up so much. Everyone is struggling just like us, but they are always positive,” she concludes.

Catch up on Asia's 50 Best Bars 2020 here:

'50/50 is the new 50’ is a content series created by 50 Best and supported by S.Pellegrino with the shared aim of promoting equality, inclusivity and balance in the hospitality sector and beyond.

The virtual ceremony for Asia's 50 Best Bars 2021 will take place on 6th May, streamed on The World's 50 Best Bars Facebook and 50 Best Bars TV YouTube channel