NS Taught Singapore's Most Sustainable Bartender Some Valuable Life Lessons
When you think of a bartender, you might picture a slick hunk in a fitted vest and shirt (must have that one extra button undone), who oozes enough charisma and confidence to handle multiple conversations while spinning bottles, and doing tin pivots and flips - without messing one hair on his perfectly coiffed undercut.
Well, that's not Jez Carreon, a noticeably chill, self-confessed introvert who admits that washing the dishes by himself is sweet reprieve from talking to customers all night. His shyness is his strength - as they say, it's always the quiet ones. Where Jez's charisma lies is in his quiet charm and dry wit. Like his favourite cocktail, the Boilermaker (essentially a glass of beer mixed with a shot of whisky), he gets the job done with no frills.
The 30-year-old (whose Filipino parents moved to Singapore when he was 4, but have returned to the Philippines) has made his way through The Spiffy Dapper, 28 HongKong Street, and Barbary Coast to land up at Employees Only, where he took part in and won the Sustainable Cocktail Challenge hosted by Flor de Caña (a sustainably crafted ultra-premium rum) with his cocktail, New Life, a combo of Flor de Caña 12 Year Rum, Cascara Sweet Vermouth, red wine reduction, fair trade coffee-infused Bourbon and chocolate bitters.
Next up: representing Singapore in the Regional Final in Thailand in October.
Clearly, Jez has all the ingredients needed to bartend - and save the earth! We talk to Singapore's Most Sustainable Bartender (who started bartending straight out of national service with zero experience) about his sustainable winning drink, how NS changed his life, and what helps him keep calm and Carreon.
Congrats on winning the competition! Have you always been conscious about sustainability? And tell us about your winning cocktail, New Life.
I became more aware about sustainability because of my boss at Barbary Coast. She was strict about it - no plastic straws, no cling wrap, etc. - and she always thought of ways to reuse things. That opened up my perspectives about how to become a more sustainable bartender.
New Life is built around the three R’s of sustainability – reduce, reuse, recycle. A lot of ingredients in bars are thrown away after just one use. For example, you open a bottle of wine, but it gets thrown if it isn’t sold within three to four days. [So for New Life,] what I did was to add in some sugar to fortify the wine and to create a reduction that would allow it to last longer and be reused.
Also, the normal practice after infusing something is to throw away the ingredients. After I infused my vermouth and cascara tea, I ground the cascara and coffee beans, and turned them into part of a coaster handmade from recycled wood. It's simple things like repurposing stuff.
For my cocktail, I didn’t want to stir or shake it because I didn’t want to waste ice. So I served it chilled in a bottle, which is a reused tonic water bottle.
How and why did you get into bartending, and do you remember the first cocktail you ever made?
Yeah! The first drink I made was a whiskey sour at the first bar I worked at, The Spiffy Dapper. A whiskey sour is a classic cocktail, with sugar, lemon juice, whiskey, and egg white. Super simple, but it gets the job done.
Number one [reason I got into bartending] was for the free food and meals! And I’ve always wanted to have my own bar one day. Back in 2011, my friends and I were in Boracay at this beach bar, and I just fell in love with the atmosphere, and thought: “Woah, one day I wanna be able to open a beach bar of my own, something like this."
It was a tree-house bar – you literally had to climb up a flight of wooden stairs and the bar was in the tree itself. I kind of fell in love with the idea, and after NS, I decided to give it a shot to see how it would go. Fast forward six, seven years later and here we are!
This is not your first time competing in the Sustainable Cocktail Challenge. What was the winning difference this time round?
The first time round, I came in second, losing by just two points. I didn’t plan to join this year’s edition because people are in a drinking frenzy after restrictions have been lifted, so I wanted to focus fully on [my work at] Employees Only, since I just came on board. My boss persuaded me to give it another go. I said no multiple times. But the night before the deadline for submissions, I stayed back, worked on something, submitted it and thankfully got in. And we are where we are today.
Knowing the drill for the competition helped. But more importantly, during the competition I got inside my own head [so that I was not] distracted by anything else. I didn’t watch the presentations of the competitors before me, because it’s just my routine to focus on what I need to do, and repeated the presentation in my head over and over again. Nothing else mattered.
As cheesy as it sounds, I was competing with myself and not the rest.
You won a competition trophy made from sustainable materials, a super-premium bartender kit, a personalised bottle of Flor de Caña 25 Year Rum, a cash prize, and an all expenses paid trip to Thailand to represent Singapore in the Regional Final. Walk us through the hella sweet bartending kit, and how it's helped you.
The kit contained a mixing glass, a shaker, a strainer, a bar spoon and a jigger. I was very happy to receive the kit because it was long overdue. I really needed a kit for myself – I didn’t have the time nor the budget to get one. A kit like this usually costs around $200. It was really special for me because I finally had my own kit after six years of bartending!
I particularly love the bar spoon and jigger. More importantly, the jigger and the bar spoon were the exact ones I wanted to buy. The bar spoon is very light, so stirring with it is like stirring air. When you have to stir over a hundred drinks a night, it’s going to take a toll on your forearm and fingers if it’s a bad tool.
On my busiest nights before Covid, I was making drinks three hours straight. Now, I’ve gone five to seven hours straight, easily. The moment we open, people start streaming in and we can work non-stop through the night. It comes to a point where you don’t even have time to drink water and you realise, "oh wait, why am I so thirsty?" You take a glass and quickly gulp it down and carry on with work. You have to talk to people, take down their orders, and make the drinks at the same time.
You mentioned you "did the whole package - primary school, secondary school, poly, NS". How was national service for you? Did it inspire you in any way?
I obtained my citizenship after finishing NS. During NS, I was in the infantry, as a Platoon Commander (PC) at the Basic Military Training Centre. What NS taught me was to excel in everything I do. Back when I started NS, I thought that I would be happy becoming a driver after BMT. But after a few months in BMT, and seeing my commanders, I wanted to go into command school and become like them.
I made it to OCS and after becoming commissioned, I became a PC. I also really looked up to my OC. He was siao onz and wanted to do things to the very best. He showed me what it means to excel in what you do and to take pride in it. NS taught me to believe in myself and to do better.
I always remind myself to be consistent in giving my best – it’s still something I’m struggling with daily and trying to keep to. If you give 100% one day, and 20% another day, there's no point. If I drop to that standard, then I would've lost.
Any tips for budding bartenders?
Keep your head down. A few years back, I wanted to bartend because it seemed flashy and cool - it’s like DJ-ing because you’re in the spotlight. But I've since learnt that you have to keep your head down, learn the basics, get the product knowledge, and just be humble.
How's the dream of opening your own beach bar coming along?
Still very far. I have to collect all six Infinity Stones first! Once I'm done, I can snap my fingers and watch the sun rise from my beach bar. When I retire, I just wanna have that beach bar, not to make money but to serve people. I’ll be this shirtless old man with tattoos all over and tell people all my stories.