Drinks matter, but company matters more

Good ol’ conversations.

Engaging dialogue may feel like a lost art among bartenders hustling to prove their creative and technical chops in the cocktail capital that is the Singapore of today. But there was a time when a good time at the bar meant having a bartender who really listened to your woes when no one else did.

That’s what first got Jiyoon Baek (people call her June) of Court Martial Bar at JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach interested in working at a bar. The 29-year-old South Korean native with dreams of being a psychologist during her teenage years recalls fondly the conversational aspect of the job when working in bars in Seoul – and she’s been hooked since then.

Ahead of her move to the newly established Madame Fan Bar (also under JW), we strike a conversation of our own with her, and found out more about the woman behind the counter, how different bartending is in South Korea, and the recipe behind the drink that made her pass out in one shot.

What’s bartending like when you first started in Korea?

It is quite different for me here. In Singapore, I’m trying to study about the flavours, creating cocktails and joining competitions. But the place that I used to work at in Korea is nothing like this. I kind of understood the bartender as being a therapist, a psychologist, so that’s how I started, and how I became fascinated with the bartender job.

So why did you move to Singapore to do this?

I really loved the bar I worked at in Korea. But I feel like the best way to success will be to own my own bar. I didn’t wanna just finish as a bar woman. So I was looking for jobs in hotel bars, or a bar consultancy. I was looking for something that I can build a career on. Somebody recommended me to my my current job in Singapore, and since I can speak English, I got the offer.

What is your favourite kind of alcohol?

This is a really difficult question. It’s like choosing which parent do you like better. But usually I prefer simple drinks, like Highballs. If I go to certain bars to try their menu or signature cocktail, then I will go for that. But if I’m drinking at home, my go-to drink is always a Highball, Aperol Spritz; sweet, easy drinks.

Not soju or makgeolli?

I cannot drink soju. My family never drinks, so as a girl I never really drank and was never really fascinated with drinking culture. And so once I started bartending, I started drinking things like whisky, and then when you start tasting whisky and you go back to soju, it is way too sweet. Everytime I drink soju, it just gives me crazy hangovers the next day.

What about makgeolli?

Makgeolli is different. I love makgeolli. It’s a taste of Korean culture. On a rainy day, all the Koreans go for makgeolli with kimchi pancake or seafood pancake; that’s Korean culture. Makgeolli is always good. I love it.

What do you like most about this industry that makes you want to have a career in it?

In Korea, I didn’t really have a signature cocktail. It was more straightforward back there. In Singapore, I’ve learnt to be really creative. There are so many different bar styles and the culture is really different here. There are a lot of techniques, a lot of cooking techniques, like making drinks using the sous vide machine. So learning about new ingredients and putting it into my drinks, getting inspiration from this culture, that’s what I am trying to build up for my career at this stage.

What are you doing when you’re not making drinks?

I think I drink a lot when I’m not making drinks.

On your off days?

Yeah. Because last year was my first year here, so I felt like I had to try as many bars as possible. But this year I want to be more relaxed, I wanna spend more time with the friends I’ve made here and learn more about their lifestyle; to be part of it.


June at Court Martial Bar

As a female bartender, do you think people have certain expectation from you that are different from other bartenders?

I couldn’t really even think about what I expected from a female bartender. My job is not considered a job to my parents. They never drink and they don’t know about the bar industry. They cannot accept it. My parents think a bartender’s job is to pour drinks for guys. That’s how conservative they are. I tried to prove to them that I did more than that. I want to be a female bartender good enough to showcase being in this industry is normal, like being part of tea culture, or coffee culture, or cooking culture. I want to bring it up like that so that finally my parents will love my job and maybe we can have drinks together one day.

Are there any bars in Singapore that if you could, you’d wanna do a guest shift at?

There are so many places. I actually want to work at...you know Tantric?

Oh, yes.

The place that I used to work at in Korea is in Itaewon, and it’s very famous for LGBT culture. There’re a lot of gay bars there. It’s the most international place in Seoul. It’s created for nightlife. But even though I work there, I didn’t see that much happen like in Singapore. I always really admire their different sense and I want to see more of such an atmosphere at a bar. I think Tantric will be the most interesting place that I could guest shift at.

If you opened your own bar, what will it look like?

I started bartending from a psychologists’ perspective. I just loved listening to what people say, and I wanted to give good advice if I can. But I couldn’t really link it to the job. Then I went to this bar in Seoul, and the bartender was the listener, and guests came for drinks, but also to talk. So this bartender, who is my mentor and my ex-boss, he was literally a therapist as I see it, and I wanted to have that kind of bar. Just a small place where people can have fun, maybe party to loud music, but in the corner is a space for deep conversations.

That’s very interesting. It’s like a therapy bar.

Yes, sort of. But more fun and casual, really light, nothing serious. And sometimes for really deep talks.

If you were to give up drinking, what would your last drink be?

Easy! I’d either drink something I love, or something I hate. But as experience tells me, I’ll stop drinking longer when I have something terrible, so I’ll go for the ABC shot.

What is that?

If I’m not wrong, it’s created by a Singaporean bartender. In the concoction is Absinthe, Bacardi 151 and Chartreuse. These three are the most hated liquors and spirits, and they combine in equal portion into one shot. I first had it with some bartender friends as a warm welcome to Singapore, and after having it I passed out. It was so bad. The next day was horrible, the taste was horrible, and everything was crazy. It was the first time I stopped drinking for two weeks. So if I have to really give up drinking, I think the last drink would be the ABC shot so that I can actually stop.