A scroll through @shallumjohn on Instagram will turn up numerous video clips of the head bartender at Fat Prince performing acrobatic moves that defy the imagination. “Flair bartending helps me express myself as a person,” says the Asia champion in the flair bartending category in the Asia Pacific Bartender of the Year Cocktail Competition 2018. “I love the creativity and challenge behind coming up with and learning new tricks, as well as the satisfaction from being able to master them.”
To you, what are the elements that go into a perfect cocktail?
A good story, great balance of flavours and amazing hospitality from the one who made it for you.
When you began your B.Sc in hotel and restaurant management, by then had you already set out to pursue bartending as a profession, or did that idea develop over the course of or after your degree program?
I actually wanted to be a chef when I started my BSHRM program. It just happened that I saw a group of students throwing bottles in the air around campus, which was the first spark that ignited my passion for flair bartending.
What did you notice that convinced you there was potential in bartending, and what were your goals for yourself when you first started?
To be honest, I had no goals. I was just a kid who started to explore the world of flair bartending because I found it fun. I just kept on throwing bottles and practising different tricks. It was only when I started to take part in flair bartending competitions with some friends at school that I realised I was doing well. This was an encouragement for me to pursue flair bartending further, and my goal after that point was to be an all rounded bartender. To do that, I decided to delve into mixology and learn the ins and outs of cocktails — including the complexities of spirits and flavour combinations.
How do you train and practice your skills?
I am thinking of new ideas all the time. Some places that help me think include the shower, in my bedroom, on public transport while commuting and of course behind the bar. My ideal training ground will always be in a grassy area. It's a different feeling when you train outdoors. You get more fresh air and you get strangers watching you, but I guess this helps with stage fright.
Why are you driven to take part in competitions for bartending?
I join competitions to push myself to the limit. To learn more. To experience more. And most importantly, to meet new people who are passionate in the same craft.
What are some challenges in choosing this path?
I believe there are challenges in every career. For the F&B industry, I guess the main challenge is in the physical and mental stress from juggling the expectations and demands from guests and business owners all while working long hours. There are people with their own opinions on the industry, and of course they have a right to their own opinions. To me, as long as you are happy with what you are doing, you will go a long way. That’s what I usually tell most people.
What's your take on the change in people's attitudes towards and appreciation of what a bartender does? Do you feel it's a general trend or more of a youth-driven movement?
I believe a lot of people are starting to have an understanding of what exactly bartending is about, and it is really great to see. I think multiple factors play a role in this — one of the key factors is that there is more talk around cocktails from media articles, videos, awards and public events. With information being readily available online, coupled with the bar industry’s openness in sharing what we do with our customers, people start catching on more easily.
Would you say there's been a shift in how the person working behind the bar is perceived? Perhaps a change from being seen as performing a task and pouring a draught, to being seen as engaging in a science and perfecting an art form and, in your case, a performance?
In general, yes, but it depends where you work and the person you are serving or making a drink for. For example, there will be a difference in experiences between a person working in a craft cocktail bar versus another person working in a pub.
Some people may find it annoying if you are constantly flipping bottles in front of them while they are engaged in a conversation with a friend. Others may find it very entertaining. From my experience, a lot of guests will take their phones out to take a video. They will also usually start following me on Instagram and post the clip on Instagram stories. #truestory
What are some misconceptions about being a youth and a bartender you've faced?
A lot of people think you don't know what you are doing. That's why I try to keep my beard — to look older so that more older people will trust me on their first impression.
Through this journey, how do you define or quantify success, and what does achieving success mean to you?
Success is when you are contented with what you have. As a human being, this is really hard to achieve. Achieving success for me is like Nirvana. It's a state of mind. It's not how much you earn at the end of the day. It's about how happy and stress-free you are in life.
How has being a product of this era shaped the way you approach your craft and the concept of what constitutes a career or profession?
As a millennial with seven older siblings, I had no pressure growing up. Even though my mom wanted me to become a lawyer, she never stopped me when I chose Hotel and Restaurant Management as a Bachelor’s Degree. I guess I had more freedom in life and that is why I am enjoying it so much.