We don't live in the prohibition era, thankfully. But, with the right combination of inspired ingredients, one can turn a nondescript commercial space into a cool speakeasy, West Village jazz joint, or Japanese whiskey bar. Just dim the lights all the way down, put on an old, crackling jazz record and have the bartender serve you a classic drink. The illusion lasts about as long as the bar staff keeps your buzz going, or you finally stumble back out into the early morning sun. Under the harsh natural light even the best-executed bar concept turns into a dingy joint smelling of spilled booze and stale bar chow.
On a scorching hot and sunny Wednesday morning in Makati, Shangri-La’s Sage Bar isn’t afforded the forgiving luxury of strategically placed lights and mood music to hide any potential flaws and, in any case, doesn’t need it. It’s the embodiment of a sleek hotel bar with a grand piano seemingly waiting to be taken over by a nightly rotation of charming Rat Pack-style crooners.
Today, the bar is taken over by Tasha Lu, the 29-year-old Australian bartender-turned-brand-ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin who’s here on a mission to spread the good word about super premium gin, and to take Manila’s bar culture to the next level by teaching local bartenders a thing or two about a new cocktail or two. Tasha, of course, takes her ambassadorial responsibilities very seriously, and when I am first introduced to her, she sits dutifully in a make-up chair, letting the team of stylists do their jobs. Naturally, she’s done some modeling in the past, but it doesn’t seem to have had any lasting impact on her life. “Wow, pockets!” she goofily exclaims in a laid-back Aussie accent (is there any other kind?) while leaning against the bar counter, looking for a position in which to place her hands that isn’t awkward. She appears reluctant, but understands that this needs to be done, that it’s all part of being a beautiful woman who represents a brand of gin.
How do you distill a person’s essence down to a few characteristics, like the unique combination and administration of ingredients that result in a distinctive cocktail? Tasha is still amused that someone asked her that question in an interview. Does what you drink define you, similarly to the old saying “you are what you eat?” Tasha loves Negronis but she endearingly laughs off any meaningful connection to her character: “I’m not dry! I’m not bitter!”
Esquire, she says, might be a smoky Negroni, a popular and well-liked cocktail. It’s an answer that shows she knows how to please this customer—a skill she developed working at the upscale Eau de Vie in Melbourne, where her boss encouraged her to go beyond concocting delicious cocktails to honing her conversational and service skills. This is what being a bartender is about, and what led her from Australia to Singapore to become the face of Hendrick’s in Southeast Asia. Talking to Tasha is like talking to a therapist, or a friend who knows how to listen. She’s open and self-aware, yet doesn’t come off as overly self-conscious, almost as if she doesn’t feel the need to hide anything. Perhaps another skill of a good bartender.
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Her beauty philosophy, if you can call it that, isn't inspired by fashion and beauty mags, but by Polynesian warrior tribes who believe that "the more tattoos you have, the more beautiful or manly you are."
As our photographer snaps away, Tasha gazes intently into the distance. I ask her what she thought about in that moment, to which she chuckles, “Modeling isn’t really my thing. Who stares out a window like this?” If Tasha has a thing, it’s tattoos. Her beauty philosophy, if you can call it that, isn’t inspired by fashion and beauty mags, but by Polynesian warrior tribes who believe that “the more tattoos you have, the more beautiful or manly you are.” (She’s done her homework on Filipino tribal tattoo artists, and would love to seek out Whang-od Oggay, the sole remaining traditional tattoo artist from Kalinga province.) It seems as if she’s most comfortable showing skin that’s covered in ink, explaining the fact that she usually wears pants to cover her not-yet-fully-tattooed legs.
Drinks are her thing, too, of course; but drinking—not so much. Nowadays, she spends her days in hotel bars in Singapore, Manila, Bangkok, and Jakarta working on presentations, and her evenings in other bars doing guest shifts and training bartenders to work more creatively by using sandcastle tools to mix cocktails. When she does find the time to drink, it’s usually gin-based cocktails (of course), such as a classic, clean French 75 or a traditional English Summer Cup. And when she does go all out on a mad bender, Tasha confides, she can still trust her autopilot to kick in and ensure she gets home safely—well-hydrated, headache pill dropped, make-up removed, showered—before blacking out, no matter where she is.
Tasha’s spent enough time behind bars to have a few stories to tell. Not all pleasant, one can imagine, so she chooses to hold on to the good ones. Like the time a cute elderly couple walked into her trendy bar one early afternoon and didn’t leave until way past their bedtime, Tasha releasing them back into the night tipsy and happy to have slow-danced the evening away. When you spend as much time pouring people alcohol as she does, you’re bound to rack up anecdotes like this—sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, sometimes dry, but always good to share. Seasoned bartenders are stockpiles of stories, and there is hardly anything more seductive than a woman with stories to tell. I forget to ask her again what cocktail she thinks she is, although I certainly intended to. So I just conclude on my own that she’s a drink that may not be for everyone, but is, without a doubt, a classic.