I’m on a barstool in some location, sipping a drink I could never dream of putting together at home, watching in awe as a guy behind the bar juggles beverage-related tasks while mixing a multitude of orders. From a perfectly poured pint to a weird looking, multicolored cocktail with all the fancy accoutrements that go far beyond IBA standards.
The guy knows well enough to leave me alone as I read my book, but is witty enough to answer my inane, sarcastic questions, likely related to that outlandish drink he just served to a guest. That guest is getting rowdy, so the guy subtly puts out a glass of water while keeping up a conversation about the latest football game… Maybe it’s an attempt to keep the guest sober. Funnily, despite the guest’s escalating volume, I feel safe enough to finish my Old Fashioned (with rye, as the guy suggested) and the chapter I’m reading. I know the guy has everything handled.
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That “guy” is how I define my “ideal” bartender: a drink wizard, taskmaster, occasional shrink, and everybody’s best friend, despite having seen some of the darkest depravities of humanity. In fact, he uses these experiences as ammunition, equipping him with a library of stories, ready for use on anybody as he pours his guest another of the multitude of drinks from his arsenal.
Here is a list of six of my favorite bartenders that roughly fit this description:
1. Lennon Aguilar
Where: Gilarmi Lounge, Discovery Primea, 6749 Ayala Avenue, Makati City
Why: Some people would probably wonder why I included an Operations Supervisor in this list. It’s because, as anyone who knows Lennon can attest, he is a highly imaginative mixologist at heart. His creativity and ability to think far beyond the proverbial box has allowed him to bag many awards, including one for his collaboration with astrologist Rogel Mari See for an out-of-this-world cocktail that used actual meteorites. Besides that, he is well versed in music and pop culture, and is phenomenally articulate. He is definitely one of my go-to guys for something experimental, over good conversation and a fancy ambiance.
2. Francis Balbarin
Where: Tsurutontan, Manhattan, New York
Why: The song “New York, New York” says, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” As far as I understand it, this is true for New York’s bartenders, where the industry is one of the most competitive in the world.
Enter Fil-Am bartender Francis. He’s snarky, creative, eloquent, impeccably dressed, unpretentious, and possesses what I could only call New York swag. These are not the only reasons why I included him on this list: he can go on for hours talking about bartending in Manila and Manhattan… And he can make a mean cocktail. When he’s on duty, I’m guaranteed a great time and a yummy cocktail, like his creations Autumn in Osaka and Matcha on The Moon.
3. Kathryn Eckstein
Where: Dulo MNL, 4992 P. Guanzon Street, Poblacion, Makati City
Why: In one word, aspirational. Everybody in the local beverage industry knows Kath for her internationally awarded mixology skills. She’s one of the go-to people to get a proper beverage-related consultation. She’s an amazing mentor, and many up and coming bartenders line up to get her to teach them. And boy, do I always get some of the best cocktails whenever she’s behind the bar. Her Peach Soju Daiquiri is top of mind as one of my recent favorites.
What I most like about her, however, is her being instrumental in elevating people’s perception of women in the alcohol industry, making sure people look beyond gender and respect us for our talents.
4. Lorenzo “Lorenz” Luna
Where: Run Rabbit Run, 4991 P. Guanzon Street, Poblacion, Makati City
Why: Lorenz surprised me because of his unexpected talent and depth, despite looking to possess a shy, quiet, retreating personality. He completely blew me away by making several cocktails incorporating outlandish ingredients, such as custom rice paper printed with artwork, sweet pea gin that changed colors, and amaretto foam. He also wowed me with his ability to talk about the realities of the LGBTQIA+ scene in the local bar industry, managing to really tug at my heartstrings.
5. Ulysse Jouanneaud
Where: Buccaneers, 5666 Don Pedro Street, Poblacion, Makati City
Why: Dedicated showman. Talented mixologist. These are some of the reasons why I chose Ulysse to be part of this list. The former hotelier, who developed a reputation for being a whiz behind the bar and has put the use of homemade bitters and branded ice on the local mixology map, partnered with friends and put up a rum bar, Buccaneers. Rum, once a relatively obscure spirit, is enjoying a new wave in terms of fame—and Ulysse has been riding it, coming up with signature cocktails like La Batanga and La Sayona.
6. Aki Wang
Where: Indulge Experimental Bistro, Taipei, Taiwan
Why: I like Wang not just because of his superstar status in the international bartending scene, having the only Michelin star-awarded bar in Asia and being the champion of three international bartending competitions. I especially love Wang for his ability to play with several mediums such as alcohol, tea, seasonal Taiwanese ingredients, and things that have been inspired by modern Taiwanese music.
Run Rabbit Run and Buccaneers photos by Jar Concengco
Gilarmi Lounge photos by Paul del Rosario for Metro Society
Dulo MNL photos by Julia Arenas for Metro.Style
Francis Balbarin photos courtesy of 2shotsandapint.com
Gail Sotelo has a WSET Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits. She is a wine consultant, blogger, and lecturer. She owns the drink blog 2shotsandapint.com which aims to make wine and other drinks accessible to everybody, and holds classes at Enderun Colleges.