A Creator Behind the Bar

By Lwin Mar Htun 31 May 2019

“Making a cocktail is kind of an art. It’s a beautiful mixture of many ingredients,” said Ko Lal Muan Puia, offering his own definition of a cocktail. Ko Puia, the energetic and always-happy creator behind the bar at Gekko Yangon, is willing and able to give his customers his best service at any time.

Ko Puia, a talented local mixologist, is actually the bar manager at Gekko Yangon, but he still always refers to himself as a bartender. Patrons love his bartending so much, many come to Gekko just to drink his creations. His cocktails, featuring the best local and seasonal ingredients, are quite popular at Gekko, where he has created half of the cocktail menu. Most of his are gin and whisky based.

Ko Puia recently won the Wine and Spirit Ambassador of the Year award at the 2019 Myanmore Awards.

In 2010, Ko Puia went to Abu Dhabi with zero experience to work as a bar helper; now he has become one of the most popular local mixologists in Myanmar.

“Those days were the really hard times in my life because I was doing a job I didn’t know anything about, but I needed to struggle for my family,” Ko Puia said of his early days behind the bar.

Originally from Kale, a town in Sagaing Region, he graduated as a mathematics major and moved to Yangon in 2008 to make money.

“I was staying at my aunt’s house and I had a scissor sharpening service. My aunty has some connections with small, sewing business people. They called me when their scissors needed sharpening, once a week,” Ko Puia said of his first job in Yangon.

“The Income was not big, but I sent it all home to support my family. At the same time, I was attending English class and F&B (food and beverage) classes, because I planned to join the hotelier industry. But an [employment] agent told me the only vacancy available was at a bar, and I accepted, because I needed to make more money,” he said. “My father was sick at the hospital and I needed to support my mom and little sister as well.”

Ko Puia mixes one of his signature cocktails, called Thanatkhar, at the bar he manages. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

He worked as a bar helper, the lowest position at a bar, in the Emirate Palace Hotel’s bar for three years. His job mainly consisted of cleaning the bar and the dishware and helping whoever needed it.

“I was crying some nights because it’s so difficult to deal with a job when you don’t know anything [about the job],” he said.

But in those three years, the job offered training in how to make cocktails and provided other bar knowledge.

“After two and a half years, the hotel let me intern as a bartender, but I still needed to do the bar helper’s job. The internship always had cocktail examinations, so I studied so hard to reach the next level,” he said. “I even slept with the menu book. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d study the menu.”

Finally, he was promoted to a bartender position.

“Even though I started with zero experience, I came to love my job, because I make money from it and it has become my profession. Bartenders can go around the world,” he said. “And I love the feeling I get when customers love the cocktails I have made. It is a kind of happiness.”

When the bar held an in-house bartender competition, he placed first among five competitors.

“It was my very first achievement. I make a whisky-based cocktail, and for the presentation I pressed the bar logo on ice. Maybe that might be a reason I got the prize,” he said, laughing.

A selection of cocktails made by Ko Puia. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

A year later, he returned to Myanmar, where he worked as a bartender on a local cruise ship for a year and a half.

“My position was F&B supervisor but I worked at the bar mostly. Sometimes, I gave cocktail classes to the guests, like the history of cocktails and how to make basic cocktails. The experience was different from Abu Dhabi but I learned many things from that job as well,” he said.

In 2016 he joined Gekko Yangon.

“I met with a lot of talented people here and learned many things from my superiors and colleagues, and I’m still learning here,” he said.

When he was at the Emirate Palace Hotel bar, he had to practice their signature cocktails, and there were no self-creations.

“But here at Gekko, my superiors push me to create my own self-creations all the time, and my profession became more exciting and more challenging for me,” he said.

Way to Burma, a gin based-cocktail, is one of his customers’ favorites. Thanatkhar, another gin-based  cocktail of his, he even served at one of Singapore’s top bars.

“After joining at Gekko, I got a chance to go to one of the Singapore’s top bars, Nutmeg and Clove, for a guest bartending shift as a representative from Myanmar for one night. So I brought my cocktail ‘Thanatkhar’ to the event and many people were interested with it. I got a chance to learn many things from the professional bartenders there,” he said.

Last year, the whiskey producer Wild Turkey held a competition called “Behind the Barrel” in Myanmar, and Ko Puia won the top prize.

“Competitors needed to make cocktails with Wild Turkey products and then promote them on social media. It was just an online competition, but it’s another achievement of mine,” he said.

Later, he got a chance to visit the Wild Turkey facility in America, the first person from Myanmar to do so.

“When I started loving my job, the result of my hard work paid off with many different achievements, even though it took many years,” he said. “Love what you do and you will achieve much, for sure.”

He always takes care of the customers at the bar, and he said it is one of the most important factors when making a cocktail.

“Making a great tasting cocktail is important, but one still needs to learn the customers’ tastes, so the ratio of ingredients isn’t always the same. It always changes, and we need to listen to the feedback from customers,” Ko Puia said.

A happy and active bartender, Ko Puia mixes a cocktail at Gekko Yangon. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

Even though bartending is professional job that can make good money, some locals still look down on bartenders.

“Old people think we have a bad job, prone to alcohol addiction. We need to prove them wrong,” he said.

“The bar culture in Myanmar is still in the beginner stage, only ten years old. And bartending classes are rare and most are expensive. The local bartender industry needs to develop more.”

Now, Ko Puia is sharing his passion and his experience with the next generation of Myanmar bartenders at the Myanmar Bartender School and Myanmar Hospitality and Bartending Academy as a part-time teacher.

His dream is to own a small bar.

“Currently, I’m still learning and creating unique cocktails, but I dream of owning a small bar focused only on drinks. That’s my future plan and I’m still on my way,” he said.

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