In the first of the pre-announced special awards ahead of the virtual ceremony for Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, sponsored by Perrier, on 6th May, Singapore’s MO Bar is announced as the recipient of Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award. The Mandarin Oriental hotel-based bar is just two years old but is making a name for itself with a unique strategy to make guests feel special. 50 Best meets Adrian Besa, bar manager, and Etienne Francois, director of food and beverage, to learn the processes that took them to the top
Let’s start from the beginning: how did you get into bartending?
Adrian Besa: I started my career in Pampanga, a province in the Philippines, northwest of Manila. It was flair bartending that got me into it, but I quickly realised it was something I wanted to make a career of. Fourteen years later, I love what I do more every day. A few years back I was offered the chance to come and train in a five-star hotel in Singapore, which introduced me to the finer edge of bartending. I started learning about wine programmes and sommelier skills, which got me interested in the wider craft.
Tell us about the Filipino bar scene
AB: It’s really catching up. Bars such as Spirits Library in Manila for example are really setting the pace by bulking up their selection of quality spirits. Access to premium products has always been a bit of an issue in the Philippines, but that’s changing. One thing the country does have is access to great grown ingredients, so bartenders are really starting to make use of that. Some are also opening their own distillation spaces to make spirits and people are really embracing it.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
AB: It has to be winning the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award. Just making it into the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list was already a massive thing for us, but after only two years in operation this special award has blown our minds. We had no idea that the things we were doing for guests would be appreciated as much as they have.
MO Bar's sweeping marble counter
What is it that makes the MO Bar style of service so special?
Etienne Francois: It’s more personal. There is more engagement with guests than in other bars. If the team overhear that it’s a birthday or a special event, they will come up with something bespoke to treat the guests. A lot of the time it’s almost expected, as a group will announce an event when they’re booking, but we try to create something special for guests who are more discreet with their bookings – the reactions in this instance are really nice to see, because it’s a genuine surprise for them. Word of mouth has spread that we are the place that people should come to in order to celebrate a special occasion and that means a lot to us.
Go behind the scenes at MO Bar:
How did you design the service structures around MO Bar?
EF: Everything we do here and more widely in Mandarin Oriental Singapore is centred on creating a unique guest experience. We started with a blank sheet of paper when designing the bar and looked to come up with ideas that were fresh. We tried to bring everything together from the beginning, rather than adding things on as an afterthought, which is often the case. Things such as our new interactive app, which allows guests to choose their drinks and learn about where they came from, has been a real success. The treats programme has been another thing that is great to see come to life – we gave the tools to the team, but it’s the team that makes them work.
This programme of ‘treats’ sounds wonderful…
EF: There’s no real set plan to it and it depends on what we know about the guest. Some people might get a nice bottle of wine, someone else might get something funny added to the design of the table, others might get a cake or a personalised card sent from the whole team with a couple of bits to take away – it’s up to the team to decide what’s appropriate for the guest. It’s not a cookie-cutter kind of thing…
AB: Although speaking of cookie cutters, we have cookies too and they’re very popular. We have a whiteboard back of house where we note down the guest’s details and every team member has an input with what might make the guest’s time with us a little bit more special, so no two experiences are exactly the same. We encourage spontaneity as much as we can!
The bar's Sarimanok peacock-hued cocktail
Instead of a hidden ‘lab’ to keep the advanced cocktail-making machinery, you have yours on show in the bar – why is that?
EF: When we were designing the space, we were stuck with a few difficult corners. Some of these were load-bearing columns so couldn’t be taken out, so we thought we’d make the most of these spots. Like with an open kitchen in a restaurant, we are bringing the cocktail experience into the room, so to speak… We thought that as we were buying all this equipment, why not make it part of the show? So we have our sonic infuser out for everyone to see, the Rotovap [rotary evaporator] is always in action and the dehydrator is constantly in use by the staff.
AB: It’s really helpful when we bring the guests behind the bar to demonstrate what we do. Lots of guests would be confused if I explained what these machines did, but when you see them, it’s a lot easier to understand how they work.
You have a lot of interesting glassware and ceramics, what’s the story there?
AB: Our team are always encouraged to bring back vessels from their travels for us to use in the bar. This way, everything has a story that we can explain to the guests. We also sent the guys on various courses to learn pottery to make some – so they can tell you directly what their inspiration was when they threw the cups themselves.
The MO Bar team celebrating their debut year on Asia's 50 Best Bars list in 2020
Are structures like these tough to implement in a hotel bar?
EF: There are plusses and minuses here. Yes, hotel bars are known to be very restrictive and to walk within guidelines can be a little tricky, but we really do everything we can to give the team as much freedom as possible to operate as a standalone space. We want to become known as a destination bar within a hotel and to create that requires freedom. The team take ownership from beginning to end – we have had to find a couple of ways to get around the hotel bar thing, but for the moment it’s working. If we want to give things out, like a cake or birthday treat, we have to go through a few basic procedures for the accountant, but it’s a fine line that we will continue to tweak as much as we can.
AB: It’s the freedom to be able to think of new things that appeals to me. I know that if I can make a guest happy from their time here, they will go away and tell their friends to come and see us, which is the best compliment a bartender can receive.
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