• Mixologist at Don Papa
  • Bar consultant at Papa Loa, Forbeswoods Heights, Rizal Dr, Taguig

Bartending used to be a man’s world. Today, there are more and more women behind the bar. Jennifer Le Nechet’s recent win as the World’s Best Bartender in World Class 2016 may be a sign that women at the forefront of mixology will finally get the recognition they deserve.

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For Kathryn “Kath” Eckstein Cornista, this wasn’t the case when she started bartending 15 years ago. “What I resented was when people would come up to the bar and order, and see that I’m a girl, they would put me aside and then say, ‘I want to order from him’,” Kath shares. “I really resented that. I had to think of the customer who did that and it kind of motivated me to learn more.”

Kath’s father worked as an executive chef. Her palate for mixology may have been influenced her dad, but growing up with a parent in the hospitality business is not what got her into the bartending industry. “Surprisingly, my dad wanted me to venture away from what he does because it’s very challenging,” she explains. “There was a time when my dad had a hard time finding work because there’s a lot of fresh graduates, we had a lot of new culinary schools sprouting all over. They would take cheap over experience and it was hard for my dad. My dad tried to discourage me from that, which was understandable.”

She started her college education under the course visual communication and thought that she would be in the creative world of advertising. “My dad, who’s German, said that he was financially cutting me off at 18. First it was 16, but of course there’s my Filipino mom who tried to discourage him,” she shares. “I had to think of what I was going to do. I had already started college but my dad wanted me to be independent.” So she started finding ways to make money and her friend who happen to be a dancer asked her to join some dancing gigs.

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Kath behind the bar during a Don Papa event

“We would dance hip-hop. For example, a BMW comes out in a BMW launch, we would kind of just dance around the car—not like skanky, okay?” she laughs. “It’s like real dance and stuff.” Her gigs led to bartending when a bar called Mustang Manila opened. The place was inspired by the famous New York City bar Coyote Ugly, where beautiful girls rule the bar. “There were times when we would get on the bar and dance, and hype up the crowd, and get them to drink more.” When customers would ask for a guy to make the drinks, it motivated Kath to learn more.

“I was going to school but I was actually learning more from bartending books than I was in actual class,” she shares. “I even enrolled myself in the Philippine Bartender Association (which is now disbanded) but their goal was to train bartenders so that they could work on cruise ships. But that was not my goal. I really just wanted to learn. Flaring was the focus and that was not mine. I wanted to learn more about the taste and the basics—what’s the proper pour, etc. Though, I did learn a lot, but ultimately I knew that I had to go out of Manila, out of the country, to really learn.”

She traveled and worked as a bartender in Guam and went to Japan afterwards, where she fell in love with the world of mixology. “The first time I ever ordered a dry martini in this tiny hole-in-the-wall place in Japan, that’s how I first fell in love with mixology,” Kath says. “The artistry, that was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life, how the bartender made the drink. His movements, as simple as zesting. It’s not like anywhere else in the world when you order a drink, you don’t really talk or socialize. When it comes to Japanese bartenders, they don’t want you to talk, they want to just make the perfect drink for you. So, when I saw that perfect martini and how he zested the glass and you know everything from the movement, I was just in awe and I thought, that’s what I want to do. Compared to Guam where it was like TGIFriday’s—flaring, the craziness—here, the whole zen-like movements in Japan were a contrast. I thought bartending should be respected in that way. Especially back then, being a woman, and because you’re around alcohol a lot, a lot of guests think that they have the right to pinch you or heckle you. Like, ‘Hey sexy!’ There’s no respect!”

She challenged herself more and moved on to other opportunities in bartending and ended up in Turkey, where she stayed for four years and actually ended up as the bar manager. “I was the only female bartender. It was a tourist town called Marmaris, and I wanted to bartend but they said you’re a woman, because it’s a man’s world, a Muslim society. So I really worked my way up, from being a waitress, to washing glasses, to cleaning toilets, to being the bar back,” Kath explains. “It humbled me a lot. I was blessed to have met this Dutch manager, the bar was called Rembrandt, and he gave me a chance. He gave me a shift behind the bar and so from there, there was already an uprising, the men was like ‘why does she get paid the same as us.’ And I’m like why not? I worked the same hours as them, I worked just as hard, and their reasoning was that “she” cannot lift a keg by herself. So, I was I told myself I will show them.” For the four years that she stayed there, she had returning guests who would always look for her and when she finally made bar manager, she then thought of coming home to Manila.

In 2008 she came home and gave bartending a rest and explored other options. “The Manila bartending scene wasn’t around so much, there was clubbing where it was just all about the rum and coke, and the vodka Sprite, I still remember paying 300 pesos for a rum and coke!” she shares. She then ended up working in the gambling industry as a floor manager and helped launched the first Texas HoldEm Poker room in the Philippines which is the Metro Card Club. She stayed there for three years, “I know all the rules of the game. If there’s a dispute or an issue between players they call me, I’m like the rule book, I come and resolve the issue. But, I didn’t find it challenging anymore. I wanted to do something creative and that has zero creativity.”

In 2010, she met the owners of Don Papa, “it was still a concept, it was still in the works. They didn’t even have a label yet, and they said, we heard from your cousin that you’re a bartender and you’re a daughter of a chef and they took a chance on me and I’m forever grateful to them,” Kath shares. Her first task was to change the misconception that Don Papa was just too high-quality of a rum to be mixed with anything. “I came on board to make it more approachable to the market,” she says. “The guiding concept would be something that you can buy from the grocery, so when you have a bottle of Don Papa, you’re like, okay, what am I going to make today? I helped launched Don Papa as a very fun and not so intimidating rum, something that should be celebrated amongst the Filipinos.”

Don Papa helped her with her bar consultation work and career. While she was pregnant she worked as the bar manager of Long Bar (Fairmont and the Raffles group), “I was running around with my little belly!” she laughs. But after that she took a year and a half off just to be a full-time mom, trading her tin shakers for bottles of milk and dedicating her time to her daughter. “Once I was ready, I went back to Don Papa. I’ve had a lot of work, I was very very proud to say that I worked in Antonio’s, with Chef Tony Boy for a year and a half at Balay Dako.” She’s now busy with Papa Loa and other bar consultancy is in the works.

“I think a lot of mixologists would say this, they miss being bartenders, they miss being behind the bar and just talking to people. I miss that. There’s nothing like good old hard labor, you know. By the end of the day, you feel satisfied when your back hurts, you feel like you really had a productive night,” she says.

In Manila, it is still rare to see women working behind the bar, there would be a few popping up here and there but we could use a whole lot more. It would be nice to see more women enter competitions that usher Filipino talents in the global arena.

Get to know more about Kathryn:

What do you love about your job? The people. My most memorable bartending experience especially in Turkey, was meeting different kinds of people from all walks of life. It’s really true what they say that bartenders are like psychologists or priests. I’ve gotten so many confessions! People just open up.

Who is your most memorable customer? It was in Mango Club in Turkey. There were this group of friends from South Africa. They would come every night to see me, and then one night, one of them just came alone and he ordered his usual, I asked him why he was alone and then he said, “I know we had a lot of fun these past few days, but you know, I have to ask you, how do I come out to my friends?” I still remember that, I felt like he had trusted me with very sensitive information. He felt more comfortable coming out to his bartender than to his friends! But I said, you know, they love you and it’s not really how you come out, just do it. There’s no perfect moment. We’re still actually really good Facebook friends, and it’s nice to see him living his life in the open. That was very memorable.

What’s your dream bar to work in? I’d really like to work in New York. I’ve already had the taste of the bar, but I always like to work in a Tiki Bar, one of those fun bars. But I think, I really like to work in a bar that is almost treated with the likes of chefs like Gordon Ramsay: “Go make it again!” I want to be challenged, “ok chef!” I just want it to be a little bit intense.

Are there any mixologists you look up to? I do, I was actually very fortunate to have met him thanks to Long Bar—his name is Luca Cinalli from Nightjar in London, he’s super passionate about his mixology, he even has a signature shake. He’s someone I really look up to, he is very artistic. From the flavor, to his look, to his execution, and how he conceptualizes things. The fact that you can make drinks in such an artistic way and still manages to have speed which is very rare. When you watch World Class, every country can manage; the speed portion is where the Japanese struggle. They’re always the last ones, because it’s all about the artistry. Just to have that combination, I think it’s fantastic.

Also one of my favorites is Jeffrey Morgenthaler, just because he is so outspoken, he always thinks that his cocktails are the shit. “I always make the best daiquiris,” “I always make the best Old Fashioned,” and I like that. Sometimes a lot of mixologists are so dainty these days, he’s just like a man’s man.

What are your signature drinks? When it comes to the classics, I make killer whisky sours, it’s my favorite to make and drink myself.

A lot of times doing what I do, I don’t like to drink cocktails just because I get disappointed. I think part of the whole routine after a long night in making all these cocktails, the bartenders and I, we just grab a few beers from the fridge and then we drink it on the sidewalk. We just sit there all tired, and finally sitting on the curb and drinking a cold beer, there’s nothing like a cold beer. That’s my go-to—beer makes me happy.

What is your favorite drink to make? My favorite drink to make for people because they get very surprised is, especially the ones that hates ginger is my signature cocktail for Don Papa which is “Kapag Serious Ka“. You can interpret it the way you want to that’s why I make my names so cheeky, also a play on words on Caipiroska. It’s made with Don Papa rum, instead of limes we use calamansi, there’s freshly chopped ginger, there’s calamansi, organic honey, muddle, you shake, and do a dirty pour, no fuss, and add a splash of soda water. That’s my favorite, because it made Don Papa approachable. It’s also very beachy.

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Kapag Serious Ka cocktail and Coco Breeze made by Kath for Don Papa

For non-alcoholic? Virgin Piña Colada.

Who is your dream customer? The kind that tips!

What’s your favorite bar? In Canada, West [Restaurant] in Vancouver. I met David Wolowidnyk, he was so fantastic, he made me this cocktail I can’t forget, this Almond nog during the winter time. Then, The Keefer Bar in Vancouver, I was fortunate to meet the general manager Danielle Tatarin, she specializes in apothecary Chinese herbs and tinctures. Her bar is in Chinatown. Also, my very very favorite is Shameful Tiki Room also in Vancouver, fantastic with the chanting. And just recently Pouring Ribbons in New York.  


Watch Kathryn Eckstein Cornista make Around the Asian Seas cocktail.

A publishing industry veteran who is the former creative director of PeopleAsia magazine and former lifestyle editor of The Standard newspaper. She was introduced to the wonderful world of spirits during her stint as executive creative director of digital agency DigitalFCB, where she led a team that created campaigns for some of the biggest liquor brands in the country. A lover of scotch and a curious spirit who is obsessed with the colorful world of mixology, she directs DrinkManila’s overall editorial content.

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