How can we make Manila’s cocktails better?

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The “Mango Gin Sour” is a cocktail whipped up by Attaboy New York's bartender Otis Florence during his guest stint at Bank Bar. “People were saying how they love egg-white cocktails [here],” says Florence. “I find that amazing and super unique to Manila.” Photo courtesy of THE MOMENT GROUP

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There’s a lot to love about drinking in Manila. For one, there isn’t a lack of options. Hop into a taxi to Makati, and you can begin your bar hop in crowded Poblacion, with local favorites Alamat, Polilya, Dulo MNL, or Oto — the list goes on.

You also have the influx of lists spouting the best ‘hidden’ bars in the metro, a contradiction in terms because they are not so much ‘hidden’ as to mean ‘secret,’ but only hidden because the entrances are not in plain view, like Bank Bar (Taguig) or Run Rabbit Run (Makati), turning the bar hopping experience into an adventure of discovery.

And if we’re talking about quality, the Metro Manila bar scene isn’t found wanting. Makati’s The Curator has been recognized as one of Asia’s Best Bars for three years in a row since 2016. Also in Makati, ABV was similarly recognized in 2016 as one the best speakeasies in Asia.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about drinking in Manila is how the industry is beginning to grow as a community. Earlier in October, around 50 professionals in the bar scene — those who mix your drinks and make your coffee — gathered for “Insider Afternoon” to talk about ways to move Manila’s cocktail culture forward. It’s the third iteration of the event, organized by The Moment Group. This year, Attaboy New York bartender Otis Florence flew in to speak before Manila’s cocktail professionals, as well as to serve as guest bartender in Bank Bar for three days.

Florence is one of the most recognizable names in the cocktail industry, having worked as a bartender for 17 years. After serving at some of New York’s most popular bars like Pouring Ribbons and Milk & Honey, he now serves behind Attaboy — a mainstay in lists of best bars in the region, if not the world.

It’s Florence’s first time to visit the Philippines, and his warmth and charm is disarming — perhaps to be expected of a bartender of his skill and reputation, and a clear testament to his whole philosophy on bartending.

“When people come to bars, they're looking to relax,” he says. “I think at one point in time, bars were used as some form of escape, but I think that's changing. People are gravitating towards bars because they are safe spaces,” he adds, to mean that these are spaces where people can broaden their perspective outside of what they normally know.

Fittingly enough, Florence spoke in Insider Afternoon inside Bank Bar, hidden somewhere in one of Taguig’s high rises. A day before the event, CNN Philippines Life sat down with Florence to talk about what matters in moving Manila’s cocktail culture forward. Here are some of the things we learned.

Otis Florence.jpeg Attaboy New York's Otis Florence believes that bartending offers audiences a creative performance while allowing them to provide instant feedback. Photo courtesy of THE MOMENT GROUP

Bartending should look more like theater, or stand-up comedy.

Florence started bartending in college. “Back when I started bartending in San Francisco, it kind of had a different feel to it. It wasn't as fast an industry as it is now, and the global community wasn't the same. It wasn't as successful as it is today,” he says.

What he loved about bartending were the basics: taking care of people and providing service as well as its creativity. “It was really appealing to me, as it was an opportunity to really express myself,” he says. “It is such a fun medium to express yourself in, it's not like other art forms where you lock yourself away, and you present.”

Bartending is more of a performance, from beginning to end. “The whole process happens in front of audience. It's sort of theatrical, but it's not the type of theatrics that's one-directional,” adds Florence. “It's kind of in the same line as stand-up comedy, except the audience's opinion matters through the whole process. I think [...] one of bartending's or hospitality's greatest qualities, is there's direct feedback. And it's not a solo mission.”

Otis Florence 3.jpeg Besides experimentation, the best drinking experiences may come out of conversant collaborations, not only between drinkers and bartenders, but also between fellow bartenders. Photo courtesy of THE MOMENT GROUP

The best drinks come out of exchange and conversation.

Attaboy is known for not having a cocktail list. Bartenders ask you what your favorite spirits or tastes are, then whip up something based on your answers. True to form, Florence asks me during the interview what my preference is for cocktails.

After I tell him I naturally gravitate towards traditional sours, he tells me he’ll whip up a drink for me for his guest shift. Unfortunately, I never got to drop by, but was delighted to see a mango gin sour later on in the list — with gin, mango, and egg whites.

“People were saying how they love egg-white cocktails [here],” says Florence. “I find that amazing and super unique to Manila, because in a lot of other markets I've been to, people have been shy about having drinks with egg whites in them.”

What this means is besides experimentation, the best drinking experiences may come out of conversant collaborations, not only between drinkers and bartenders, but also between fellow bartenders.

“One of my favorite parts of coming here is the exchange that's about to happen. There's a lot for me to explore flavor-wise, and to learn Manila's palate the best I can, get an overview of it at least,” says Florence. “I thought, what are some essential cocktail concepts that will be fun to experiment with, knowing that there will be some overlap with what you're familiar with? I'm looking forward to that, the common ground to have a conversation.”

The Chet Baker.jpeg Florence believes that drinking a cocktail is tied to memory, curiosity, and ultimately, nostalgia. “The nostalgia may come in presentation. It may come in the way the cocktail's made,” he says. Pictured above: “The Chet Baker,” which consists of aged rum, sweet vermouth, and angostura bitters. Photo courtesy of THE MOMENT GROUP

Understand that drinking cocktails is a personal experience, linked to nostalgia, invention, and memory.

Drinking a cocktail is a personal experience, “one that is loosely tied up with memory, as well as curiosity,” says Florence. “It's a mix of what's new and what's familiar. I think trends that stick the most are those that involve a bit of nostalgia, and a bit of invention.”

“The nostalgia may come in presentation. It may come in the way the cocktail's made,” he adds. Take for example an ice cream flavor called Cereal, produced by Milk Bar in New York. “I think that's largely based on nostalgia.”

Nostalgia as a manifestation of personal experience can also come in other forms. “It can be single flavors, [...] it could be atmosphere,” says Florence. “Atmosphere really educates how a drink tastes, and sometimes that atmosphere may feel like home to somebody, therefore it can accentuate flavors depending on your memory.”

Otis Florence, Marek Vojcarcik _ the Bank Bar team.jpg Florence with Marek Vojcarcik, a global bartender now based in Kuala Lumpur, alongside the Bank Bar team. Photo courtesy of THE MOMENT GROUP

Building the local cocktail culture means developing community, not competition.

It’s easy to get caught up in competition in the food and beverage industry, especially with fast-evolving trends and technology and multiple “best of” lists ranking places based on varying standards. But for Florence, competition is not the point.

“The most important thing is developing a sense of community. That sense of community and camaraderie, that's how you build a great cocktail scene,” he says. “It's not just based on recipes. It's not a competition of who has the best drink, really. It’s about how bars get along with each other.”

It doesn’t matter if there are three bars or 30, says Florence. “If they approach service or hospitality as a group, then that's a successful moment. That's real power, a real stake, that's the way to move forward,” he says. “The way to grow is by supporting each other. Everyone's going to have their own voice in the chorus, but together they make that chorus.”