A simple martini got this bartender hooked on mixology, and she never looked back

Arrive at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore’s Chihuly Lounge and one word comes to mind: class. Fine artistic expressions by sculptor Dale Chihuly (thus the lounge’s name) adorn the high walls, while generous space between seats lend guests the feeling of exclusivity as they sip on craft cocktails or enjoy their high tea.

Peek over behind the bar however, and that restrained refinement gives way to warmth and conviviality. You’ll find the most genuine of smiles – the kind that melts hearts – from wide-eyed and bubbly 23-year-old bartender Michelle Ki greeting you. You might order a drink just to strike up a conversation, and just as well, since she’s one that enjoys meeting the guests she serves.

She’s conversant too, having majored in English and Hospitality back in her university in South Korea. A person self-professed to travel for drinks, we find out just how much of a drinker she is, how’d she wind up in Singapore, and out of all the spirits out there, why she’s so obsessed with gin.

How did you first become a bartender and mixologist?

Three years ago, I first started bartending in Korea at The Secret Bar. When I was interviewing for a job there, I had a martini, my first drink ever. My boss served the drink to me to start the interview and I was very impressed. The interview was very simple and very engaging. I stayed there for two hours as I wanted to see what goes on at the bar. I found the engagement, the way bartenders explain about the drinks to guests, was really amazing and left an impression for me.

And how did you end up in Singapore?

When I was in university, I told my professor I wanted to be a bartender because I really like talking to people and make guests happy with my drinks. So my professor told me they have a lot of overseas programmes and if I wanted to join. When I searched about bartending, Singapore came up as being very strong in the bar industry. So I applied and got a job in Singapore around two years ago. While working I met a bartender at Ritz-Carlton; I noticed the way he showed hospitality and his drinks to customers. It was very impressive. He is what I want to be like in the future, so that’s how I got my current job.

How old were you when you had your first drink, the martini you mentioned?

I was 20 years old.

Wow you never had a drink before that?

Soju and beer I had, but never a mixed drink. Gins, bourbons, I never knew about all of that. After knowing about mixology, there’s just such a wide range of knowledge to grasp and I really like it.

, A simple martini got this bartender hooked on mixology, and she never looked back
Michelle Ki at Chihuly Lounge

Well now that you’ve done quite a fair bit of drinking, what is your favourite alcohol?

My favourite is gin and tonic. The first drink I had was a martini, and so I studied about gin more. It is totally different from other alcohol like the soju and beer I usually drink. And I wanted a drink I can make easily at home, so it was the gin and tonic. I studied about tonic water as well, and the love for gin and tonic just grew.

What do you enjoy most about this industry?

Talking to guests face to face; that’s most interesting for me. Because I don’t work in a big bar, I can acknowledge each guest and speak to them directly. It’s about the conversations and hospitality.

What do you like to do in your free time?

On my off day, I really enjoy doing bar tours. I wanted to know how the different bars work, their different styles. The first bar I went to was Manhattan followed by 28 HongKong Street; and I saw amazing things. Whenever I go to a bar I’ll try talking to the bartenders and learn from them.

So what is your favourite bar in Singapore now, besides Chihuly Lounge?

Chihuly Lounge is my favourite! But my second favourite is Manhattan. Their hospitality is amazing. I just sat at the counter and they talked a lot, from my Korean heritage to my fashion, everything. And they explained the menu items one by one, brought out the bottles to show me the spirits, really engaging.

Have you ever wanted to open your own bar?

Actually no.

If you were to open your own bar, what will it be like?

I talked about hospitality a lot. For me, that is the most important. After which, comes the drinks. My cocktail bar will focus on ingredients and have specialized sections. Hmmm, now that I think about it, it’s quite a dream to have my own bar.

Complete this sentence: If I can only have one drink for the rest of my life, it will be…

If I can only have one drink for the rest of my life, it will be gin and tonic, of course. They are amazing whether I’m in the mood for something strong, floral, or anything. There are so many flavour profiles depending on the gin and tonic used.

Current favourite gin?

Brass Lion! It is very balanced. Some gins have too much juniper and it’s not too sour nor too floral. The juniper balance here is just right.