Meet Manhattan’s new head bartender, who was once a wait staff there

She sits down casually, seemingly a little nervous, but maintains her composure as she attempts her first media interview—though her keeping a chair’s distance away wasn’t helping break the ice.

“You can sit closer so it’s easier for the recorder to pick up your voice,” I beckoned her, as she closes the gap gingerly.

Sophia Kang, 28 this year, is the newly minted Head Bartender of Manhattan, the best bar in Asia and third in the world, according to the World’s 50 Best Bars 2018. The 2019 awards ceremony is about to take place in Singapore again, on May 9, perhaps explaining why she looks just a tad under pressure.

Still, her curious and bubbly side shines through, tempered by what seems to be years of guest experience. She was actually part of Manhattan’s opening team back in 2014, but served as a floor staff before moving behind the bar.

Taking some of her bartending time away for a chat, what follows is a conversation with the amicable lady, where she reveals her thoughts and feelings on taking over a legacy closely watched by the bar scene worldwide.

The interview below has been edited for clarity.

, Meet Manhattan’s new head bartender, who was once a wait staff there

How do you feel stepping up into the Head Bartender position at Manhattan, taking over from Cedric Mendoza?

Of course there is the pressure of taking over from him, because he is good. But I think the pressure isn’t that great as the team is still here and Cedric is still my mentor even though he is in Australia now.

Tell me how you moved from floor staff to being behind the bar?

I always asked Cedric questions and was very curious. My English wasn’t very good back then too, so instead of reading I always had to ask him. I think he got annoyed, so he asked me why don’t I try bartending so that I would understand better. It helps to experience it right? It was scary at first as it was only guys behind the bar last time. But I didn’t want to have any regrets, so I went ahead and try.

How different is it being a Senior Bartender to now being the Head Bartender?

More responsibility. I have to communicate more. Because I was from the floor, I can easily understand their side of things as well as the bar and make them work together better.

Another person who left was Bar Manager Philip Bischoff. How about the gap he left behind?

We are still a team and we still have Gabriel Carlos as the Assistant Bar Manager. He is doing well and with me taking over Cedric’s job, we have the two of us, but also a very strong team that continues moving forward together. I’m just stepping up and doing more.

There’s also the pressure of holding the title of Asia’s 50 Best Bar on your shoulders.

It still feels the same, still doing what I used to do. People will congratulate me [for my promotion] but it’s really about the strong family and strong team we have here. We will argue with each other, but at the end of the day we’re still family and we’ll talk through things. For example when Frankie (referring to Manhattan bartender Frank Hu) joined a competition, the whole team went down to cheer him on. That’s how we are. It’s really about teamwork too. Many places face problems at the floor, with the bar team or in the kitchen, because they don’t feel they’re together. But for us, we always try our best to communicate.

What do you personally feel is the best thing about being a bartender?

Meeting new people. Every day is different as the bar is very unpredictable, unlike working in an office. I’m meeting different people and have different conversations all the time. That’s what keeps me excited.

When you first joined Manhattan back when it started in 2014, did you imagine it to be what it is today?

No, never. When I first joined I only knew one spirit, Jack Daniel’s, because that’s what my grandfather used to drink, and he always drinks it with coke. So when I first stepped in it was a big challenge. The bottles we carry are not really commercial brands, and I had no idea what they were. So for me, it was like I had to study doubly hard. It was stressful but also exciting.

Now as Head Bartender, how different or how similar are things going to be?

I’m not trying to change things, but trying to improve what we already have. We are doing well, but we can do better. We have to train and study more, which is more important than changing things.

What is the secret to Manhattan’s success you think?

People. It’s really the people. Most staff here have stayed very long so that means they are happy to work here as a team. I think that’s the secret. Every time I see passionate people working, I’m very happy. There are two ladies from the floor now who are very curious about the bar, so I push them harder.

Do you think they’ll follow in your footsteps?

I’m sure. One of them already did the training. They always want to learn and are always asking me questions, so I said fine, just try once and you’ll know what it’s like. I think me being in my position also inspired them.

What are some of your favourite bars in Singapore?

I like Operation Dagger for something experimental, and then 28 HongKong also. I don’t really go out, but am trying more nowadays. I’m a home person. But for bartenders, it’s important to try more and different drinks, then we get inspired also.

What is your favourite cocktail?

Whisky Sour. Actually, I really like a New York Sour. If anyone asks, that’ll be my favourite. That’s why I created Noir (a drink on Manhattan’s menu), something similar, made using squid ink and rye. I like sour drinks.

Manhattan is located at 2/F Regent Singapore, 1 Cuscaden Rd.