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Interviews

Hard Work, Simple Pleasures: A Chat with Atlas Bar’s Head Bartender Yana Keller


A few months after the launch of Atlas Bar’s new “Simple Pleasures” cocktail menu, we had the opportunity to sit down with Head Bartender Lidiyanah' Yana' Keller. Apart from being the Head Bartender responsible for Atlas’ cocktail programme and operations, Yana also holds one of the coolest job titles ever in our opinion, that of Gin Researcher at Atlas Bar. Yana looks after the over 1,200+ bottle strong gin collection that resides in Atlas’ impressive three storey gin tower, making her a sought after source for gin recommendations and gin trivia.

During our chat, we got the rare opportunity to speak to Yana about her experiences working her way up in the bar industry – from her early days as a barback to her current responsibilities as Head Bartender. Yana also shared an insider look into the inspiration behind Atlas’ Simple Pleasures cocktail menu, the creative process behind it, and new mixology techniques that the team at Atlas are currently experimenting with! Plus, we even got her to share some pro-tips on crafting the perfect gin and tonic pairing.

For more, be sure to follow Yana and Atlas Bar


 

You are someone who is known for being very passionate and knowledgeable about gins today. Do you remember what was the very first gin you tried that got you hooked on this category?

I still remember it. During my first few times trying gin, all I could taste was the alcohol. But the one gin that really changed my mind about the category was the Bloom London Dry Gin. It was made from elderflower and honeysuckle, and it was in this really nice mint green bottle. It was the first time I tried a gin and I managed to pick out all the botanicals in it and I went “wow”! I was in love.


The very gin that kickstarted Yana's love for gin, sitting pretty on a shelf on the Atlas Gin Tower.


I suppose that’s how a lot of us spirit fans get hooked. It’s quite a rush to be able to detect certain notes during tastings! Any tips for getting better at tasting different gins?

I agree. Having been bartending for over six years, something I’ve tried to develop for myself is that every time I taste a flavour, I would mentally relate it to a colour that would remind me of something else. If for example, I taste a gin that is citrusy, I’ll see yellow or orange, If I taste a gin that is more floral, maybe with flavours of hibiscus, I might tie it to blue or purple. A herbal gin tends to remind me of green.


This might sound weird, but when I taste a cocktail and I can see a spectrum of colour, I’ll say it’s a well-balanced cocktail. But if I see one muted colour, that tells me that something needs to be adjusted in the cocktail. Drinks that I don’t like are black, grey, very brown colours.

- Yana on how she trained herself to use colour to taste cocktails

That’s how I do cocktail tastings as well. This might sound weird, but when I taste a cocktail and I can see a spectrum of colour, I’ll say it’s a well-balanced cocktail. But if I see one muted colour, that tells me that something needs to be adjusted in the cocktail. Drinks that I don’t like are black, grey, very brown colours.

We hear you initially began your career at Atlas as a barista, not a bartender. Could you share with us how your journey into bartending developed?

I was actually working at a café as a barista on Circular Road and every time after I finished my shift I would venture across the street to 28th HK Street. This was my first brush with curated cocktails and watching the bartenders at work, I was mesmerized and really felt like this was something I wanted to do.

I’m someone who likes to put on a show and showcase my creativity, and being behind the bar felt like something I would enjoy doing. Yet I didn’t have any bartending experience at that time. So when someone recommended that I work at Atlas, which was hiring for a barista at that time, I thought that this was my chance to get my foot in the door.

My shifts at Atlas (as a barista) started at 4pm and finished at midnight. And you can imagine not a lot of people were ordering coffee right? So while the coffee station was idle I volunteered to be the unofficial barback for the bartender on shift. Every day, I would come in with my own set of prepared questions: “What is gin? What is whisky? How is it different from bourbon?” That’s how I came to learn about spirits.


Working her way up. Yana in 2018 when she earned her "White Jacket", given out to Atlas bartenders that demonstrate skill and growth behind the bar. Yana first joined the bartending team a year earlier in 2017. (Image source: Atlas Bar)


Six months later, and with some persuasion, they finally let me into the bar team. And I started from scratch. As barback, my role was to give assistance to the bartenders: make sure they had enough juice, make sure the ice well was full… It was pretty intense, but I wanted to make sure I could be the best barback I could be. Eventually, one day, I was told I could start to bartend. I was thrown into one of the busiest stations – it was so intense but I was excited.

It’s pretty crazy to think that six years later, I’m the head bartender now and I get to tell this story.

Could you explain to us more what exactly the role entailed when you were still a barback? How does a barback’s job tie into the broader operations of a bar, and what makes a good barback? 

I think many people don’t realise that you need to be a good barback first before you can be a fantastic bartender.

As a barback, you need to be very intuitive and learn to anticipate what your bartender needs before they might even know that is something they need – whether its glassware, the ice, the syrups, the infusions. That means being very observant on shift and being able to control the flow of the orders. For example, when you receive dockets, you need to see if a bartender at one station is able to make certain drinks together, or if you’d need to split the dockets and communicate to a bartender at another station to see if they can make a drink instead. And timing is crucial, one bartender cannot be faster than the other to complete the whole docket. 

I think many people don’t realise that you need to be a good barback first before you can be a fantastic bartender.

- Yana on her early days as a barback

There’s a lot of skills expected from a barback. But if you can master that, once you become a bartender, you can become a very independent bartender without needing the help of barback. Because you know how to anticipate your own pace when you’re working.

A lot of people just want to be behind the bar to make drinks because that’s where the spotlight is, that’s the fun and grandeur of this job right? But you cannot join a place and expect that in six months, you’d be a superstar. With bartending you need to take your time to go through the steps and trust the process.

And now as the Head Bartender, how has your role evolved?

Nowadays, my role is very different. It’s not just about bartending, but making sure that I have a solid beverage program and a solid team. It’s not about me anymore, it’s about the business. And I always want to make sure I’m representing the brand well, with the menu that I create, making sure that it has a sense of place.


Yana and the team during the final tasting session before the new "Simple Pleasures" menu was launched on 28th Feb 2023. (Image source: Atlas Bar)


We’ve love to dive into your first cocktail menu as Atlas’ Head Bartender, “Simple Pleasures”, which was inspired by the four classic cocktails: the Martini, the Sour, the Old Fashioned, and the Champagne cocktail. The menu features a total of twenty curated cocktails, five for  each of category. We’ve tried it ourselves and we love how each cocktail has a uniquely modern interpretation to it. What was the creative process behind it like?

I had thought about the concept for a while now even before I became Head Bartender, and so I pitched the idea to the management as soon as I had the chance to create my own menu.

The process itself actually took about ten months. The R&D process is always a very long one, because for this menu I tried to involve a lot of my team members. Many of them were new and haven’t created a drink before on their own, and so this involved a lot of weekly in and out meetings with my team. Sometimes we would work to correct the balance of a drink, or one might even have to start from scratch. We were very conscious throughout that whatever drink we created would be on the menu for one year – that it would potentially become someone’s favourite drink. So it’s a process we took very seriously. The tasting process took about seven weeks, with each tasting session lasting between two to three hours.


We were very conscious throughout that whatever drink we created would be on the menu for one year – that it would potentially become someone’s favourite drink. So it’s a process we took very seriously.

- Yana on the creative process behind the "Simple Pleasures" cocktail menu

During the ten month period, I was also meeting with illustrators to try to communicate the vision and turn that into the artwork on the physical menu. I would have to meet with brands to work out pricing and supply. For this menu, we took a different approach in involving the brands a bit more through subtle easter eggs in the menu illustrations, so that meant some work communicating between the illustrator and the brands.

Eventually everything fell into place. And boom, we launched the week after!


Can you spot the easter eggs of Bombay Sapphire and Bacardi on Atlas Bar's menu illustrations? (Image source: Atlas Bar)


Given how time-intensive the creative process can be, would we be right to assume that you guys have already started on the new menu for next year?

Yes. It’s starting again, but I actually love the process!

Is there a particular cocktail on the menu that takes a surprising amount of time and effort to make?

There are a few cocktails on the menu that uses clarified milk which take quite a lot of time and effort behind the scenes. The one thing I like about clarified milk drinks is that you can make it in volumes. In fact, in a week you could actually make about ten to twenty litres of it, which is great prep-wise. However, it’s a lengthy process because the clarification takes about 24 hours, while the straining takes another whole day. That said, I would say all our drinks have their own individual prep required. For example, special syrups and special infusions to make.  

Chatter Club is a milk punch variation of the classic Old Fashioned, a mix of french cognac, apricot, cherry, almond, vanilla and clarified milk.

Is there a technique that you’ve been experimenting with lately that you’re really excited about? Should we expect it on the 2024 menu?

I’ve been experimenting with making my own essences or oils that I use in making syrups. Especially when working with citrus, you can use the peels to extract flavour through a technique called oleo-saccharum, where the sugar will extract the oils from the peels while retaining the flavour.

Recently, I’ve started experimenting with hydrosols as well. It basically involves extract the essence of a particular flavour and turning it into a clear liquid. This allows you to achieve a very concentrated flavour. When you’re working with different spirits in a cocktail, there’s often a lot of layers involved, but using this concentrate you can really elevate one particular flavour in your drink.

"In the past I used to like making my drinks look over the top, with crazy colours. But recently, I’m getting more minimalist, clear, crystal look. It may look boring, but it surprises people with the depth of flavour."

- Yana on her latest experimentations with hydrosols 

In the past I used to like making my drinks look over the top, with crazy colours. But recently, I’m getting more minimalist, clear, crystal look. It may look boring, but it surprises people with the depth of flavour. It’s something I’ve been obsessed with this whole year, and I’m trying to translate it into next year’s menu. Of course, the reality is that people often drink with their eyes, so the key is to strike a balance between my new obsession while also creating something the visually appeals with my guests.

Apart from the curated cocktail menu, Atlas also has a very comprehensive list of gin and tonic pairings that guests can order, as well as an extensive range of garnishes. Do you have some tips on how our readers can decide what types of garnishes or tonics work best with different gins?

I always encourage people to pair their gins with a tonic that is on the opposite spectrum of flavour. So for example, if you have a citrusy gin, I wouldn’t recommend pairing it with a tonics like Yuzu Tonics or Indian Tonics that has a lot of citrus characters. Rather, something more savoury might work. Another example is if you’re drinking a fruity gin, rather than adding more fruit to it, you can think about adding a bit of spice to enhance the other botanicals in the gin. I might add a ginger ale instead of tonic water to a fruity gin.


"The general rule I advise my team on is that you want to build on the layers in the gin and tonic, and you do this by adding in complementary flavours."

- Yana's pro-tip for better gin and tonics

The general rule I advise my team on is that you want to build on the layers in the gin and tonic, and you do this by adding in complementary flavours. It’s a bit like cooking, you want to use your garnishes and your mixers are a way to add nuance. I follow that rule because I don’t want to serve a boring gin and tonic, I really want to push the boundaries for gin and tonic.

If tonight is your last night on earth, what are you drinking?

I know you might expect me to say gin, but it’ll actually be Fanta Ice Cream Soda. It’s been my all-time favourite drink since childhood and it’s so nostalgic. Who knows, I might even find a way to incorporate it into a future cocktail.

 


 

88 Bamboo would like to extend a huge thank you to Yana for taking the time to speak with us! If you'd like to know more about Yana's work as a Gin Researcher and her recommendations for gins, click here.

For more, be sure to follow Yana and Atlas Bar

 

@lotusroot518