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OTO’s David Abalayan never used to drink, but now he’s one of the country’s best bartenders

For someone who didn’t enjoy alcohol as a teenager, OTO’s head bartender learned to love his drinks and hone his skills, becoming Diageo World Class Philippines Bartender of the Year in 2019. By NANA OZAETA
ANCX | Jul 25 2020

Still in his twenties, David Abalayan is emblematic of today’s young breed of bartenders who are the driving force behind Metro Manila’s flourishing (pre-COVID) bar scene. At the age of 19, he was well on his way to taking up a music business management course in college, before finding himself working at the now-defunct The Girl and The Bull in BF Homes, Parañaque and later on in Makati, as well as at sibling restaurant 12/10. Abalayan learned the ropes, discovered his love for cocktails, and without much fuss or fanfare, found himself becoming the head bartender at OTO, which happens to be one of only three Manila-based bars on the 2019 Asia’s 50 Best Bars list (placing number 47).

ANCX caught up with Abalayan via online video call while he was on his shift at OTO in Poblacion, Makati. While the bar is still closed due to GCQ, he and his team have been busy concocting bottled cocktails and coffee, making their popular triple chocolate chip cookies and other goodies for delivery, and waiting for the day they can receive guests again.

 

Q. How did you start out in the industry?

A. I found myself stuck and not knowing what to do with my life. A friend of mine was working in a small establishment in BF Homes called The Girl and The Bull. I applied there for a part-time job first just to see, you know, where it would lead me. That short-term plan with The Girl and The Bull ended up becoming three years with them.

 

Q. Did you know anything about food or drinks then?

A, Even little things like Bourbons and cocktails, or even food terms like confit, I didn’t know these things. I had absolutely zero knowledge. And so I had to learn everything along the way, but it was something definitely that I did enjoy because it was something new and something that I was very curious about. Eventually, like yeah, I really just fell in love with it.

 

Q. So what made you get into drinks?

A. It was pretty funny because the application form for The Girl and The Bull was pretty laid back and really fun. It asks you what your favorite drink is or what do you like to drink on your downtime. And I specifically wrote, ‘I don’t drink alcohol.’ Because I really wasn’t into drinking beer or anything like that.

I remember one of the first drinks I learned how to make then was our version of a Mojito. So it had rum, mint, ginger syrup, and then lemon-lime soda, and from there, I was like okay this is pretty cool. It tastes good and it’s pretty cool to make. So soon [after] I made it that day, I went home and just looked on the computer and checked YouTube and checked all the recipes and what I could make with rum or whatever.

Q. If you didn’t used to drink, how’s your alcohol tolerance these days?

A. I've gotten a lot better after six years (laughs). I mean I do drink now, obviously.

 

Q. So what is your favorite drink?

A. [If] I gave my favorite drink to myself then, I think I just really wouldn’t like it. But one of my favorite drinks is a Boulevardier, so it’s like a cousin of a Negroni. It’s Bourbon, Campari, and then sweet vermouth. That’s really my nightcap or my go-to last drink. But if I’m going to other bars or visiting my other friends who work in bars, it's just a go-to Highball usually because it’s something very easy to drink.

 

Q. Did you have a mentor who taught you the ropes or was a lot of it just self-taught?

A. In the beginning of me learning mixology or bartending, it was really just reading a lot of books and a lot of research online. But if there’s somebody who I would consider to be a mentor to me, it would definitely have to be David Ong when I started here in OTO, because he really taught me a lot more than just learning how to mix drinks. Because bartending really is a lot more than just mixing cocktails or drinks. There still is hospitality and how you treat your guests, and how guests perceive you. Then now, it’s a lot of management as well, being head bartender.

 

Q. What’s one valuable lesson that has stuck with you?

A. The first year when I competed [in Diageo World Class Philippines] was 2018, the year that Lester [Ligon] won. One of the things [David] really pushed for me was for my personality to come out because I was still very shy when it came to presenting or talking to guests… He knew my personality and it was very different from what I was presenting. He was always like, you have to come out more, more, you have to be more comfortable with guests.

Q. By the way, I heard that they call you “little David”?

A. Sadly, yes. (laughs) Well because David Ong is a lot taller than me, so that’s why they call me little David. It’s the only way for them to differentiate us. So yeah!

 

Q. But you’re okay with that?

A. Yeah.

 

Q. What made you decide to join OTO soon after it opened in 2017?

A. I think I wanted to learn something different, something new, because the pace of The Girl and The Bull was quite slow, and they were also very wine focused, unlike OTO which is really very cocktail focused, and it’s in Poblacion. At that time, Poblacion wasn’t even the Poblacion that we know now… It was cool, it was a different environment than what I was used to, and then eventually, we just saw Poblacion grow [through] the years. It also changed the way OTO was, from it being a very slow and sit-down bar where you can listen to good music, it became really packed and I would say crazy on weekends.

OTO on Enriquez Street, Poblacion, Makati.

Q. Would you say that you have a certain style to the drinks that you do at OTO?

A. What I really love about [OTO] is that everyone has different backgrounds and different ways of making cocktails. I would say my style is very Western. One of my go-to books or my cocktail bible would be a book called Death & Co by this bar in New York… And then you have people like Shinichi Ito, where he was trained by the guys from Horse’s Mouth in Singapore, but then their style is Japanese bartending… So it’s all different personalities. It also translates to the cocktails that each one of us makes.

 

Q. Is there one cocktail, in particular, that you’ve done that stands out?

A. The last drink [I did at] the last challenge of the 2018 Diageo World Class. Basically, it was no-holds barred for us, we could make anything we wanted. I made a cocktail called Secret Santa because of milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. So I made a cereal milk liqueur, and then with Singleton 12, Johnnie Walker Gold, Lilley Blanc, and then some macadamia syrup. It was pretty good, like I didn’t expect it to turn out the way it did. It does really taste like a milk and cookie cocktail, but also very labor intensive.

Q. Are there any bars that you really love, here or abroad?

A. One of the bars that I do really miss the most locally is ABV. That was my go-to place every day-off that I had. I’d just hang out and chat with the guys there and they were really cool, and they always made me feel at home there. It’s pretty sad that it’s closed now actually. For other bars outside the Philippines, I really enjoyed Jigger & Pony in Singapore. Such a beautiful place and the cocktails are just as amazing, and their menu for me is super amazing and really smart and well thought of. It’s really my favorite menu out there… And some of the bars in Taiwan were pretty amazing too… None of them are really the same, they all have different concepts, which I think is really nice. It shows that each bar brings something different to the table.

 

Q. I guess you hang out with a lot of fellow bartenders. These guys are your friends, like your “tribe” in a way?

A lot of the bartenders here are very outgoing and it’s easy to really be friends with them because they’re very warm, because they do work in the hospitality industry. They know how to communicate with people very well, and so when I was new in OTO, I probably had zero bartender friends really, and that just grew over time… But yeah, they really just make you feel at home, especially with communities like Drinks Be With You or DBWY with Rian Asiddao. And then, at a lot of the competitions, you make friends there. It’s a really cool community, it’s very tight. There’s sort of this unspoken agreement, you just take care of each other. When they’re at your bar, you take care of them. And then when you’re at their bar, they take care of you. It’s a good form of camaraderie within the community, at least it’s not toxic.

 

Q. It seems like being a good bartender requires more than memorizing drinks and knowing how to mix. What do you think it takes?

A. Anybody can really become a bartender, because anybody can learn the skill. But for me, what makes a really good bartender is the ability to be able to connect with your guests and customers. This is admittedly something that I’m still working on.

Q. Since OTO is still closed due to the GCQ, how have the cocktail deliveries been doing?

For the cocktails it’s actually been, I would say, quite slow. Not a lot of people have been ordering the cocktails, but a lot of people have been ordering the cookies and the coffee. Right now, we’re trying to shift from having to be more cocktail focused to be more drink focused. We’re trying to be more all-around really, because our motto has always been ‘bites, brews, booze, and beats.’ It’s our music, cocktails, coffee, and food, so that’s really what we’re trying to become right now.

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Q. With bars still shut down, what do you miss most about them?

A. Definitely the interaction with guests. I mean, the first thing that I missed is definitely interaction with anybody, really. I’ve been stuck in the condo with my roommate, and it was just the two of us for the past three months. I haven’t even seen my girlfriend… So when we started working [at OTO], it was like okay, at least I got to see my friends who I work with and now it’s sort of that craving of working, being able to serve people and the hospitality that comes with bartending.

 

Q. If you can project many years ahead, do you dream of one day having your own bar?

A. Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a good dream for most bartenders. Now that I’m experiencing the management side of it, and the logistic side of it as well, I do realize how hard it could be to put up my own bar. I’m not even there yet with the numbers that I have to deal with. So that’s another layer of stress, but you know, I think I’ll get there and that’s definitely the goal for me. with the five-year plan that I have to set up my own bar.

 

Q. What would your bar look like?

A. One of the concepts or ideas that I have would be to put up a Filipino-inspired tiki-style bar. I think that’s something that hasn’t been done here. I imagine the place or the architecture to be very Filipiniana, but very modern… and very playful with the ingredients that we use. But you know, we’ll see.