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The rum diary: Confessions of a bar owner

By BEA TRINIDAD, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 03, 2021 6:00 am

In the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, there is a bar scene between Lin, the protagonist, and a mysterious Swedish woman, Karla. She flirts with him: "Yes, you're a good listener. That's dangerous because it's so hard to resist. Being listened to, really listened to, is the second-best thing in the world."

He asks, "What's the first best thing?"

They then debate if it's power, sex, love, or money.

This scene depicts the allure of bars — a place where people feel heard, and deep conversations can happen. The lockdowns made me reminisce about owning a tequila bar in Melbourne with a chef and a former lover who was 10 years older than me. Like many, I miss the palpable energy of having people around.

Author Bea Trinidad with some of the Latin staff at the tequila bar dressed for Cinco de Mayo.

At that time, I was fresh out of college, in my 20s, bright-eyed and naive. I had no idea what I was getting into. Owning a bar is a feat and a revelation for anyone in their youth. You see people for who they are, who they can be, and who they wish to be.

Anything can happen during a night out. You can leave your credit card, make eye contact with a stranger, chat with a bouncer, or make friends in the bathroom. You always leave a bar with one or two good stories to tell of the night. 

I recently spoke to Kalel Demetrio, another bar owner (Agimat at Ugat Foraging Bar and Kitchen), about what we've all been missing about bars. The truth: it's not just the cocktails.

A bar is about endless possibilities

Anything can happen during a night out. You can leave your credit card, make eye contact with a stranger, chat with a bouncer, or make friends in the bathroom. You always leave a bar with one or two good stories to tell of the night.

Kalel shared that people enter bars looking for adventure, which you can tell by the manner in which they order a cocktail: "Surprise me. What's your best drink?"

Magdalena, a Chilean bartender, making Margaritas.

We also talked about blind dates and first dates. He said that some would have special requests for their dates: "Do you mind if I send flowers beforehand?" Or "Do you have champagne there?"

At any good bar, the bartenders under-promise and over-deliver. They are responsible for the experience.

A bartender can wear many hats for us

I've seen a 60-year-old man sitting alone enjoying a mojito, not wanting to go home to an empty house. I've chatted all night with a couple newly in love, leaving in an argument. Running a bar introduces you to people from all walks of life at their most vulnerable.

Kalel saw these moments, too. "When people drink, they become more human." They lose all pretense. When people enter a bar, they first think they need a drink. But after a while, they need someone to listen to them. "If you're a bartender, you should be a good sports analyst,” Kalel says. “You have to have a good political view. And, you can also be a relationship advisor. Lahat niyan, you have to be like that."

Talking to a bartender can feel like therapy at times. A wise bartender knows never to ask. But, a drink can be liquid courage. “If you crack them open, magsasabi na sila,” Kalel says. “And sometimes, you end up relating to their problems." What's his advice for them? "It's just time."

A good night is about the company we keep and the memories we make

Not all customers need therapy. Some are there for the good times and all-nighters. I've served drinks to excited 18-year-olds away from their parents' prying eyes. I've organized a bachelor party for 60 rowdy police officers. These occasions remind me of the biggest lie: "Just one last drink." It never is when we release our inhibitions.

Kalel said, "Good memories should always accompany drinking." He explained, "At the end of the night, If you play your cards right, it's all about a good connection and a lasting impression."

I asked another friend what she missed most about bars. "I miss walking into a place and knowing that I'll always have friends in there who will want to have a drink with me. And if not, I'll make some."

As a bar owner, I have to confess that the jampacked bar gave me such a buzz. I was obsessed with the honesty and unfiltered thoughts of people. At times, I thought it was possible to have it all — power, sex, love, and money. But when the bar was empty and I switched off the lights, all I wanted was someone to listen.

Classic Mojito

A classic margarita follows a 3:2:1 ingredient ratio— tequila, freshly-squeezed lime juice, and orange liqueur. You can also add agave syrup, salt on the rim, or lime wedges.

Ingredients:

1 lime, cut into wedges

50 ml white rum

12 mint leaves

2 teaspoons sugar

Crushed ice

Soda water

Your choice of fruit, if you’d like

Procedure:

Add lime wedges, then mint leaves.

Muddle the lime and mint.

Fill the glass with ice.

Add rum. Then, fill the glass with soda water.

Stir in fruits and sugar.

Don’t forget the love and passion! (Another bartender told me that!)