The driving force behind Singapore’s award-winning experimental bar Operation Dagger, Sasha Wijidessa is reframing bar culture one perfectly-mixed cocktail at a time. Read her inspiring story here.
Reaching 6th place on Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2017 and 23rd place last year, Operation Dagger, headed by female bartender Sasha Wijidessa, has made its mark in more ways than one. Situated on bustling Ann Siang street in Singapore’s Chinatown, the experimental bar has become famous for its innovative, eccentric and slightly unorthodox concoctions. Alongside it, Sasha has gained notoriety as one of the most talented young individuals in her field – one pushing the boundaries in every sense. “While we have come a long way from the generations before us, gender inequality still does exist to some extent,” she explains of her journey. Read on to discover how a chance meeting led her transformation from pharmaceutical science student to Sous-Bartender and Bar Manager at one of the best bars in Singapore, if not the world.
Sasha’s journey with Operation Dagger started back in 2014 when she was working at a British gastropub in Singapore called Oxwell & Co. Founded in 2012, it was Luke Whearty’s first venture, quickly establishing itself as a cornerstone of Singapore’s bar culture and him as a well-respected and experienced mixologist in Singapore’s cocktail scene. It was there that Sasha caught Luke’s attention thanks to her keen display and grasp of the fundamentals behind cocktail making. “From there, I was invited to join Operation Dagger’s founding team and I’ve been a happy camper at Dagger ever since!”
Segueing from a background studying pharmaceutical science to a career in bartending is quite the career shift. “Initially, there was quite a bit of resistance from my family. My folks are your traditional Asian parents. In their eyes, there were only a certain number of jobs considered appropriate for me to take on, and bartending definitely wasn’t one of them,” she explains. “It took them about two years for them to be wholeheartedly supportive of the path that I chose.” Ending up running one of Singapore’s leading cocktail bars, though, Sasha Wijidessa has certainly proved her worth to the entire industry if not her parents.
You might also like A Toast to Bespoke Cocktails
Her gender has marked her out throughout her career – a cause of great frustration along the way. “The aim for equality across the board can only happen when we start understanding that in bartending, as in any other job, the only factors that really matter are the ones that are directly related to your work,” she states. “It’s not about your gender, your race, your sexuality, but rather how hard you work towards your next step.” This is why she resists being marked out for anything other than her abilities. “I understand that it stems from good intentions. It has highlighted what we do at our venues, and I do appreciate the attention and effort. But with that being said, I also do believe that so long as we keep going ‘female’ this and that, there will always be a separation between the genders which, in turn, becomes detrimental to the cause. We need to start taking the focus off gender and that on its own will promote equality, eventually getting to a point where gender is no longer part of our conversation.”
Given the name that Operation Dagger has been making a name for itself with its unusual and experimental drinks, there have certainly been plenty of other things for her to focus on. “From day 1, Dagger has always taken a sustainable approach with the way we operate the bar on a day-to-day basis.” They’ve never had plastic straws, using innovative ideas like vanilla pods instead, and they also look at ways they can reuse products. Inspiration comes in many shapes and forms, but often the process sticks to its organic roots: “Dagger started out as an organic thought and the work we do should reflect that as well. Giving oxidised wines a second life was an idea borne from the attempt to be more sustainable and understanding that there is potential in waste,” Sasha explains.
In the future, she plans to take all this experience and open her own bar: “Having a place of my own is definitely the end game.” But, for now, Sasha still sees plenty more to learn, see, and change just where she is. Whether intentionally or not, her approach and visibility help not only open doors to other women seeking a career in a previously male-dominated domain, but also to reframe the whole conversation surrounding bar culture. “Booze has no gender, period. So, why are we still reinforcing baseless gender stereotypes of drinks? Whatever you choose to order is not a signifier of your masculinity or femininity,” she states. And, if she had to give one piece of advice to aspiring female bartenders who want to follow her through that door? “Don’t let yourself be defined by anything else other than how you work.”