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Dispatches from Singapore’s Cocktail Boom with Hannah Waters

Female bartender holding out a glass
Hannah Waters, a grey coat in this year's Cocktail Apprentices program, maintains a residency at Singapore's 28 Hong Kong Street.

Sometimes, we stumble into the things we love. For those in the food and beverage industry, this is particularly true. Maybe you take a kitchen job just to pay rent, only to find you can build a sauce so good it makes your mama cry. Or maybe you spend your college career learning as much about wine as you do finance and decide to become a somm instead of a banker when you graduate. For Tales’ Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP) alum Hannah Waters, life as a bartender started with snowboarding.

“It’s the oldest story in the book,” she says. “I needed to bankroll a winter of snowboarding and my friend recommended me for a job behind a bar.”

Within a few years, the Auckland, New Zealand native had become a lifer, and it seems her choice was a good one. Waters’s career as a bartender has garnered her awards — she was part of the team ranked as the world’s 10th best cocktail bar in 2013 and has been on teams that won Best Cocktail Bar in the Singapore scene in 2012 and 2013 — and taken her around the world. These days, she works as a spirits journeywoman at Singapore’s prestigious Proof & Company and maintains a residency at 28 Hong Kong Street, one of the 277-square mile city-state’s most influential spots.

This summer, Waters took some time off to serve as a gray coat in her second year as a CAP at Tales of the Cocktail, meaning that, in addition to helping the team of 70 elite bartenders pick dozens of pounds of mint and squeeze over 10,000 limes, she also had to lead two red coats of her own.

“It’s different for every returner, but for me it was not too dissimilar to managing a bar team. First and foremost, you’re responsible for the health, wellbeing and safety of your reds, and then it’s all about growth, development and, ultimately, recreating the same, or better, experience you had in your red year,” she says.

No matter what their ranking in CAP’s hierarchical system, all cocktail apprentices all share one thing in common — they’re tasked with creating thousands upon thousands of cocktails in “as little [time] as possible to [no time] at all.” And that kind of pressure takes a toll.

“I think the greatest toll is actually the mental and emotional toll it can take,” Waters says. “Physically, we all know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into, but the long hours and incredibly demanding workload can really sneak up on you. [Pickling your fingertips in lime juice as you squeeze] is an easy fix, but sleep deprivation and a particularly heavy night out can be a lot harder to recover from.”

Somehow, within the insanity of it all, CAPs find time to learn and teach each other.

“Throughout our careers, we have the opportunity to work in a variety of programs, within which we’re exposed to different people with different strengths and weaknesses, skills sets etc. The CAP program is that on steroids,” Waters says. “On top of which, there’s the opportunity. You’re working in a program run by experts and industry figureheads. You’re setting up seminars for the most prominent individuals in our industry today. I was batching with Dave Arnold, Dave f—ing Arnold. Who does that outside of Booker & Dax? It’s epic.”

Waters isn’t exactly wanting for opportunities to work with some of the most gifted people in her industry back home either. At 28 Hong Kong Street, she’s worked with Michael Callahan, a man whose name has become synonymous with the Singapore cocktail scene. And her current home team, Proof & Company, was recognized for making the greatest contribution to Singapore’s cocktail scene this year.

How did a small island city-state off the coast of Malaysia become what CNN said “may be the world’s hottest cocktail city” last year? Hannah chalks it up to the mélange of “exceptionally talented and accomplished local bartenders,” a mixture that’s led drinkers open to unexpected twists.

“Singaporeans are a lot more adventurous and open-minded when introducing new and strange flavors and ideas. I think the variety in our drinks is testament to the diversity in our nation,” she says.

Waters, who imports flavors and ideas of her own, both from her native New Zealand and from experiences like her stints as a Tales CAP, is now partially responsible for keeping her adopted nation’s palate varied and adventurous. Not bad for a former snowboarding bum.

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