From beans and brews to spirits and liqueurs, female bartender Amanda Wan tells us how she went from Starbucks barista to bartending internationally.
It’s not the most obvious route – from Starbucks Barista to becoming an internationally-renowned bartender – but it was the one that worked for Amanda Wan, the first female bartender to represent Malaysia on the international stage. Having quit her art degree, the young trailblazer went from working at her local Malaysian Starbucks to joining the team at a wine shop before finally making her mark in several bars across her hometown of Kuala Lumpur and then taking her craft to Hong Kong. The independent thriver tells Hive Life all about her journey.
“I’ve always enjoyed the different varieties of coffee. The fact that one bean can turn into so many different things is something that has always intrigued me and the natural progression was from coffee to wine, because, just like coffee, one grape can become so many different things,” explains Amanda of her circuitous route to a life making cocktails. Whilst pursuing a degree in Hotel Tourism & Management at KDU University College, her beginnings in the bar world started out much like anyone else’s – mostly washing up. “My first bar job was at WiP in Kuala Lumpur and my first bar captain was Frankie Anthony, a man of few words. He was terrifying and he thought I wasn’t serious about the job at all,” she laughs. Responsible for everything behind the scenes from carrying buckets of ice to cleaning the bar, it was an experience that taught her persistence. “Once Frankie realised I was serious about the job, he started giving me more responsibilities,” she says. After four years of intense training, she was finally ready to live the life of a bartender.
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It wasn’t a life her family were supportive of, however. “To my mum’s disappointment, I’ve always been very headstrong. I do what I want to,” she explains. “When I first started working, I invited my parents to the bar. I wanted them to check out the environment out for themselves. I wanted them to know it was a safe place.” In 2010, Amanda was chosen as the first female bartender to represent Malaysia at the DIAGEO Global World Class Bartender of the Year Competition in what she considers to be both a high and low point in her life. “I couldn’t believe that I was being sent around to different places to make drinks. I was being recognised,” she recalls. On the other hand, “The partying got out of hand. My mum gave up and told me to do whatever I wanted to.”
Forging a path for herself in a male-dominated industry has not been straightforward. She found that the more visible she became in her industry, the more she had to fight for her place in it. “Being a cute young female, you tend to get disregarded. I had to constantly improve myself for people to take me seriously. I wish I had learnt earlier that the way you carry yourself is the way people perceive you to be,” she says. “The funny thing is, there are establishments that hire more women than men because women can attract men to the bar. This happens all over the world. Everyone should take a step back and just try to be friends with each other. Today, the industry is so competitive and everyone is so serious. A bar used to be a place where politicians, royalties and communists all sat in the same room. I really wish to see that come back.”
A wanderer at heart, Amanda has travelled the globe with her job via Russia, India, Singapore and the UK to Hong Kong where she was named one of the city’s Top 25 Bartenders in 2014 and 2015. Her main piece of advice for aspiring female bartenders today is to always “be bold and stay sober.” It speaks to a job she takes seriously, and one for Amanda, that’s less about a life on the party circuit these days than one spent working hard at what you love. “A lot of people see success as wealth. For me, success is being able to put a roof over my head and my family’s. Success is being able to do any job and using what you earn to take care of yourself.”
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