Since the first one in 2012, Diageo’s World Class Vietnam has been dominated by men. This year things changed. World Class Vietnam 2023 saw a remarkable display from the contest’s female bartenders, and three of them reached the Top 8. So we shook off the fatigue from the two-day competition and stirred up some emotions by asking the three female Vietnamese bartenders about their inspiring journeys and the intoxicating futures they are concocting for themselves.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
The final round of the Diageo World Class Vietnam 2023 took place on 22 and 23 May at Qui Lounge in Saigon. It was a tense two days. And there were some exacting challenges, involving a Tanqueray No.TEN Balanced Botanicals Challenge, a Johnnie Walker Signature Smoke Challenge, a Don Julio Pour Amor Challenge, and, for the top 8, a final Showdown Challenge.
The eventual winner was Nguyen Tuan Anh, formerly of The Haflington, and now the newly opened USE Bar, Hanoi. He’ll go on to represent Vietnam at the World Class Global in Sao Paulo, Brazil in September.
But, just as exciting, was seeing three female bartenders making the top 8 for the first time. Yen Dang was still a barback from Co Cocktail Bar when it came to the final round. Loan Nguyen is from ENIGMA Saigon, a bar in Saigon’s Refinery Courtyard with an ambitious, up-and-coming team, led by a former World Class Vietnam winner, Vu Ngoc, and another top 8 finalist this year in head bartender Thong Hoai. And the third female bartender in the top 8 doesn’t even come from Saigon or Hanoi – Vietnam’s two cocktail bar hubs. Xuan Thy works in Fox’s Den in Dalat.
What was the moment and which drink made you fall in love with bartending?
Yen Dang: It was actually not a specific moment or drink that brought me on the bartending journey. Gen Z depression probably led me here! And bartending felt so cool. With support from Tuyen, my co-worker, and Ty, the owner of Co Cocktail, I got my start as a waitress. Time passed. And my love for mixology grew. It gave me the freedom to unleash my creativity, and it opened doors for me to create meaningful connections with people. I just found it all so joyful and fulfilling.
Loan Nguyen: Actually, at first, I wasn’t too fond of bartending. Then I got to stand behind the counter. And I found that I liked the feeling of connecting with so many people. But lots of other small things helped me to fall in love with the industry. For example, I got to try a Maitai – the first cocktail in my life. It surprised me. I didn’t realize alcoholic drinks could be so delicious.
Xuan Thy: For me it was those moments when I shared stories with colleagues and customers, and when we shared secrets and talked about our experiences. Simple stuff. But it meant a lot to me.
What are the three most useful skills you’ve learned to be a better bartender? And where did you learn them and who taught you?
Loan Nguyen: Forget technical skills for now. I think the most important three things are being open to learning, being humble and being disciplined. Vu Ngoc always reminds me of these, and I think he has a point.
Xuan Thy: The three most useful skills I learned are listening, being persevere, and controlling yourself. These skills I learned from right inside the bar, from the people we come into contact with every day, from the brothers and sisters, colleagues, customers, and from myself as well.
Yen Dang: For me, first and foremost is the art of hospitality. Making people feel welcome is our superpower! Second is knowledge and skills. They’re more secret weapons. Finally and most important, passion. Being a bartender ist easy. And it’s not usually love at first sight. It requires patience, sacrifice and, sometimes, a willingness to fight.
Out of all the drinks you made at World Class Vietnam 2023, which are you proudest of?
Xuan Thy: It was Resonance in the Entry round with The Singleton Dufftown 12YO. I didn’t use complicated ingredients or methods. It was just a resonance of other individuals to create a complete individual. Resonance exists in all aspects of life, resonating the classical with the modern, as well as the resonance of food and drink. This was the reason I chose ‘Resonance’ for the first round.
Yen Dang: The third challenge featured Don Julio tequila. I decided to bring the tastes of our Vietnamese breakfasts to the competition. I called it my Vietnamese Sunrise. Thanks to the land, we are the world’s second largest coffee producer in the world, right after Brazil and our coffee with its strong & bold flavor is being enjoyed throughout the country.
It contained Don Julio tequila, Vietnamese robusta coffee, almond condensed milk, salt and whipping cream. It’s a moment I’m incredibly proud of because it allowed me to showcase the flavors and culture that make Vietnam so special.
Loan Nguyen: I will choose my No Planet B, the cocktail I made for the Johnnie Walker Black Label Challenge. The message I was sharing was about sustainability – I wanted to spread the idea of protecting our Earth as if there would be nowhere else to escape to.
No Planet B is a twist of the classic Pina Colada with flavors that include tropical notes, from the aromatic, silky coconut milk, and some banana peel, cashews and Vermouth. To that I added the twist of the smokey and complex Johnny Walker Black Label Blended Scotch Whisky.
It’s mostly still men behind the bar, especially in Vietnam. How hard was it for you to join the industry?
Yen Dang: For me, it was smooth. I guess I’m fortunate. You’re right that it is still mostly men behind the bar. But I feel like being a female in this industry can even be advantageous. I get lots of support from my coworkers. They react understandingly when I make a mistake. And they help carry heavy things!
Xuan Thy: Actually I did not have any difficulty when entering the industry, on the contrary, I received a lot of help from my colleagues and other seniors like Yen has done.
Loan Nguyen: It’s definitely true. There are more men in the industry. That’s maybe because of the nature of it – you have to work at night, and you’re in an environment with lots of drinking. But I’ve never found it a problem, personally. There have been lots of successful women behind the bar.
What better skills or traits do you think women have over men as bartenders?
Loan Nguyen: I don’t think there are any skills that can be differentiated by gender. Women might be a bit more meticulous at the counter and have a better ability to connect with customers. But that’s all.
Yen Dang: While it’s often said that women are more flexible and collaborative than men, it’s crucial to remember that as bartenders, knowledge and skills are the foundation of what we do regardless of gender. That means, whether we are women or men, practicing and learning every day is essential for growth.
Xuan Thy: I don’t find the profession synonymous with either men or women. I think everyone’s an individual, with their own working style and rules. And that’s what matters.
What do you think the industry in Vietnam will be like in five years time (especially regarding fair representation of men and women behind bars)?
Xuan Thy: Currently, i feel, the number of female bartenders is increasing. And we’re quite well supported. The guys I work with, and I think the others will agree, are really helpful. And I think that’s what’s helping build the community here.
Loan Nguyen: The bartending industry is gradually expanding. It’s likely that even more female bartenders will join the fray, bringing their unique perspectives to the industry. But it won’t be whether men or women succeed, it will be that those with the most passion will succeed.
Yen Dang: I’m optimistic. I believe our industry is gonna bloom more and more in the next 5 years. Gender representation behind bars is headed towards the respectable equilibrium that it deserves. The talent and passion of bartenders across Vietnam will continue to drive its growth, regardless of gender, background, or age.
Finally, you can invite three bartending legends from anywhere in the world to sit at your bar, and make them drinks. Who would you choose to invite?
Loan Nguyen: I’m inviting three people I have had the opportunity to meet. They’ve all given me very timely advice during my bartending journey. There’s Michito Kaneko, owner of Lamp Bar, in Nara, Japan, and World Class Global Champion 2015. And then there’s Bannie Kang, World Class Global Champion 2019, and one of the judges at World Class Vietnam 2023. Finally, my mentor, Vu Ngoc, the World Class Vietnam Champion 2021.
Yen Dang: I’m still new. So, I haven’t had the chance to meet many bartending legends yet. My first invite goes to Tuan Anh, this year’s champion of World Class Vietnam. Next, Conor Nguyen, the author of the book Bartender’s Guide, my very first book about bartending. And finally, Leandro DiMonriva, the host of the Educated Barfly.
All images courtesy of Diaego World Class.