The intricate art of mixing

Behind the bar of Bibber’s Tale, Saradise, Kuching

Knowing how to create, or having the right tools to invent a cocktail, is not something for everyone. Knowing what your guests actually like to drink is the first step in making any successful cocktail. Mixologist Alex Tan shares his experience being the man behind the bar and what he loves most about the job.

New things to learn everyday

Mixologist Alex Tan

ever wondered what it’s like being the man behind the bar? I recently sat down at Bibber’s Tale — an exclusive cocktail bar in Saradise, Kuching — and interviewed their resident mixologist, Alex Tan. The very friendly and hospitable lad surprised me well, awakening my taste buds by making the perfect mix of cocktail suited to my taste, just through some questions.

“What sort of taste do you prefer? Sweet or bitter?”, “How heavy of a drinker are you?”, “Do you like fruity flavours?”, “What about tea?”. Those were the questions he asked as I sat down for the evening interview. He presented two mixes — a cherry flavoured cocktail and a sour-lime concoction — which was refreshing to say the least.

Like many cocktail bars, the liquid are usually customised accordingly. Alex mentioned that while he’s on the job, questioning people became mandatory, “There is no one fixed recipe that fits all in cocktail. At 10 different places, the different mixologists will each have their own different twist.”

As people go through different paths in life, Alex’s understanding of his customers’ preferences and the ingredients of each alcohol and liquor go hand-in-hand when serving.

With a decade of experience up his sleeves, the 30-year-old now knew all the right questions to ask and how to conclude a drink based on that.

Watching him work his magic behind the bar was interesting and it is exciting to see the man pour different types of liquid into the cocktail shaker. His eyes remained focused as he swiftly and smoothly move around the bar. Alex shared that the movements were gained through experience.

Similar to chefs in the kitchen, knowing the suitable portion and proper ingredients to add are equally important when making a drink. Behind every cocktail bar are fresh produce ranging from lemongrass, lemons, Bunga Kantan, variety of herbs, and many more.

The reason for this, according to Alex, was that everything that has flavour can be used to make drinks. “Like any other food preparation, garnishing cocktails are important too,” he added, all while burning a lime leaf to garnish my second drink.

On the bar shelves stood an array of liquors, including tuak. Through years being in the industry, he conceded that he is still looking to improve himself. “I am still learning to master all the ingredients. There are new things to learn every day. I need to know the taste of each drink, down to their ingredients.” With so many things to memorised, the mixologist surprisingly noted that it is not as difficult as it sounds.

“Another important skill to have as a bartender is attention to detail. You have customers to look after but you’ve also got the products that you’re selling. You’ve got to make sure everyone is served in time and in a polite, friendly manner,” Alex said.

Cocktail drinks prepared by Alex.

Asked whether he regrets working in this industry, Alex conceded that at times, he does feel that way. “Working in this industry means that during the hours and days when other people relax and unwind themselves, we are at our busiest. Sometimes I do regret it, but ultimately, seeing how my customers enjoy their drinks, made me feel that I made the right choice.

As I enjoyed my drinks, I became curious about Alex’s experience entertaining his customers. He then revealed that he had heard tons of stories while working behind the bar. He also said that most did not even need liquid courage to begin their tales.

“I feel like when customers walked into the bar, they just wanted someone to listen to their problems without judging them. I have heard a fair bit of personal stories, and I feel that they do that because of the unwritten rule we have in bars. What happens in the bar, stays in the bar,” he said with a smile. Alex also shared that most would frequent the bar as it is an avenue for them to release their stress.

Cocktail drink prepared by Alex.

Alex then remembered an unusual scene where a couple met in the bar one night, “They drank together, and the next day, I found out they had gotten married! Not sure if they stayed together, but the decision was all so sudden and made without thinking. So, my advice, drink within your limits. And don’t let alcohol makes a decision for you.”

Nonetheless, as part of the sober minority in the bar, Alex enjoys watching his customers enjoying themselves, through the cocktails he mixed. From time to time, he would engage in casual talk with them, lending his attentive ears to listen to stories.

Alex values his time tending the bar, and said that he had no intention to quit anytime soon. “You meet new people all the time and most of them are really fantastic people. To me, there’s no more vibrant, diverse and interesting characters than bar customers.”