Raising the Bar: How a Small-Town Korean Girl Became a World Renowned Bartender

Bannie serves up a drink while doing a guest shift at a bar in Bangkok.
Categories: Community

Spoiler alert: It took spirit.

Bannie serves up a drink while doing a guest shift at a bar in Bangkok.

Bannie Kang was born in South Korea and spent a considerable part of her childhood in the small city of Namhae in South Korea, where fishing and farming were the main pillars of the economy. She grew up in a family of five and spent her free time playing with her cousins or running through the rows of her grandparents’ farm; plucking fresh yuzu and strawberries that her grandmother would use to make teas, jams, and other delicious homemade goods.

As Bannie grew older, she took up an education in hospitality and tourism, as she loved being around people and helping them. However, being from a small town, Bannie thought she didn’t really stand much of a chance in making it big.

Bannie with her colleague and husband, Tryson Quek, when they used to work at Anti:dote.

Not to mention, she barely knew a word of English, which made it difficult for her to make it out of Korea. So how did this small-town girl become a world renouned bartender?

Well, it took spirit.

Knowing that English was her way to break into the global hospitality industry, Bannie set her heart to learn it. But unlike most people, who might decide to take classes or self-study, she jumped right into the deep end.

From (Dish)rags to Riches

“I found a job overseas so I could learn English,” said Bannie with a spark in her eyes. “After a lot of trying, I managed to get a job as a waitress in Singapore, at Swissôtel The Stamford.

“But since my English was still very poor back then, I couldn’t communicate with the guests. So they asked me to polish the cutlery in the back,” she shared.

Though Bannie started out ‘backstage’, her hard work over many years brought her to the front; to take part in notable collaborations and events with bars all over the world.

Then one day, her manager asked her to transfer to the City Space Bar, to work as a cocktail waitress. The head bartender there, Richard Gillam, had just won the Diageo World Class cocktail competition that year, and Bannie was starstruck seeing him at work.

“Richard was making people happy and the atmosphere was very nice. I liked the friendliness, and how everyone was chit chatting so easily. That was when I knew I wanted to be a bartender too,” said Bannie.

Since it would be challenging to learn mixology in English, she returned to Korea, where she worked as a waitress in a local cafe in the daytime, and took mixology classes at night.

Bannie, whose name is pronounced as ‘bunny’ poses with a carrot; with her friend and colleague.

Three years later, in 2013, she returned to Singapore, this time as a bartender, and not a waitress. She took up Diageo’s free two-month training programme for mixology, which refined her knowledge on making excellent cocktails. Then, she entered the World Class competition.

She walked out of that competition as one of the top four contestants. Happy, and determined to do better the next time, she tried again the next year.

Once again, she made it to the top four, but no higher. That was when she changed her strategy. She started joining a lot of smaller competitions, and competed in at least one per year. Now, she met many new bartenders, became part of the community, and learned much faster.

Paddy Field. A cocktail made by Bannie, using Tanqueray 10, amazake, roast rice and lemon.

At the end of it all, her winning strategy paid off as she won several competitions and came in the top five for many of the rest. The icing on the cake was, of course, her 2019 win in the Diageo World Class cocktail competition, bringing her journey full circle.

Bringing Out Her Unique Flavour

It was not all about winning, of course. Bannie loves developing herself and her creativity. She experimented with ingredients her grandmother grew on her farm, such as rice – one of her creations included a roast rice cocktail which used alcohol made from fermented rice. Her hwachae cocktail, inspired by a Korean fruit punch her grandmother used to make for her, also won a global cocktail competition in 2016. 

Rice Me Up. Made with Coconut washed Bacardi carta blanca, suze, makgeoli, fermented lychee and shiso.

When we asked her about what her family thinks about her being a bartender, and if she had ever made a drink for her family, she suppresses a giggle.

“My father is very mischievous, and I think he might make some funny comments if I made a drink for them,” she said with a smile. 

“You see, Korea is huge with many cites, some big, and some small. The drinking culture there is definitely evolving and people are appreciating cocktails a lot more. In the smaller cities though, there is more of a soju culture, than a cocktail culture,” she explained. “So there sometimes can be an impression that if you drink, it is usually to get drunk and have a good time, but not to appreciate the drink and the taste.

“But I think I will try making a drink for my family the next time I have a chance to go back home,” she grinned.

Bannie with the World Class 2019 trophy.

When she first became a bartender, her family did not fully understand her, as the bar was associated only with men and darkness. As Bannie persevered — making beautiful, delicious cocktails, and winning competitions, her family grew prouder and prouder. Her tenacity and successes helped clear the stigma associated with her job.

Raising the Bar

Now, not only has Bannie achieved a coveted title any bartender could hope for, she has also become a judge for future competitions, and is an expert who teaches mixology masterclasses. 

Hence, we asked her how she intends to raise the bar for herself in the future.

Bannie said: “There are many amazing people in the community who have helped me, and I want to empower others with that same success so everyone can grow together.”

Bannie collaborates with other bartenders on a project at an award-winning bar, Dead Rabbit NYC.

There have been many occurrences in her career where people have helped her out of goodwill. Once, she was so worried about a competition she forgot to bring a bottle of alcohol she needed. It was a fellow competitor who gave her one, preventing her from being disqualified. 

And when Bannie was still working as a waitress, it was her supervisor and mentor, who saw her potential and gave her more opportunities to improve her English.

Bannie smiles as she mixes a drink.

Bannie also hopes to reach out to the less fortunate, by organising bartending-related fundraisers and challenges; and educate aspiring bartenders, especially those in countries where the scene is not as developed.

“If we don’t help one another, we will collapse, as a community,” she said with conviction.

At the beginning of her journey, all Bannie knew she wanted to do was to take up a job in which she could help people and bring smiles to their faces. 

She has achieved that and much, much more, but this woman is not showing signs of stopping yet — continually raising the bar for herself and women all over the world.

When asked what she would say to women trying to accomplish their dreams, Bannie said: “Don’t ever stop trying. If you think positive, follow your passion, and work hard, you will be able to attain your goal one day.”

This article was published in partnership with Diageo Southeast Asia to celebrate International Women’s Day.

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