madame fan june baek

Mixologist June Baek of Madame Fan. (Photo: Marriott International)

Mixing It Up

Mixing It Up: Mixologist June Baek; Madame Fan at JW Marriott Singapore South Beach

Korean women punch above their weight in Singapore’s competitive cocktail scene, including Sophia Kang at Manhattan Bar (ranked No. 11 by the World’s 50 Best Bars) and Anti:Dote’s Bannie Kang, named Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year in 2019.

Now, enter June Baek, Senior Bartender at Madame Fan at the JW Marriott Singapore South Beach. The Busan-native was the first woman to ever make the Global Top 3 at the Chivas Masters in 2018. June was also ranked in the Top 8 for the La Maison Cointreau Competition and in the Top 10 for the Campari Bartender Competition in Singapore.

A talented newcomer­ — she arrived in Singapore in early 2018 — June never thought she’d wind up behind the bar. “I studied international commerce. I thought, as all Korean university graduates do, that I would work for Samsung or Hyundai, and hopefully do some business trips,” she says. “But here I am, shaking cocktails in Singapore!”

madame fan june baek
(Photo: Marriott International)

In an interview with Marriott Bonvoy Traveler edited for brevity and clarity, June talks about competitive bartending, her fave hawker center–and the balance between creative mixology and bartending psychology.

What was your first bar experience like?

It was a very small speakeasy in Seoul, only 12 chairs. There was only one bartender taking care of all the guests. The bartender was funny, but also very professional.

This person was like a therapist. He was flexible with every type of guest, not just crazy drinking shots. I thought if a bartender’s job can be like this, then I want to work behind the bar.

How did you land in Singapore?

I got a job as a junior bartender [at the JW Marriott Singapore South Beach] because I was willing to learn from scratch. I was having doubts. I was 28, and for Asians, to start something at 28 is no easy decision.

I’d never been to Singapore. But I got an ID card here, and the occupation was written as bartender. It was the first moment where I thought bartender could be a profession.

madame fan june baek
(Photo: Marriott International)

Tell us about the cocktail scene in the Lion City.

Singapore is one of the most multi-cultural countries in Asia. Even though the prices are high and the taxes are high for alcohol, you get to try new products easily and you get to try ingredients from all over the region.

You get to go to Japanese-style bars, or American-style bars. You get the crazy big gin tower at Atlas and you get very authentic Asian places like Native. The JW Marriott Singapore South Beach has a live jazz bar. You get so many choices.

You’ve booked big wins in bartending competitions since starting at the JW Marriott Singapore South Beach in 2018. What’s driving you?

I don’t join the competitions to win, I join to study. I jumped in late [to bartending] and realized that there’s a lot to keep up with. I can’t study on my own, so competitions are perfect: there’s a deadline–and I don’t want to be ashamed in front of many people [laughs].

madame fan june baek
(Photo: Marriott International)

Care to share one of your competition cocktails with Marriott Bonvoy Traveler?

The Camellia Legacy. The camellia flower is from Korea. It blooms in the winter, which is a late time to grow, and in January, which is the New Year. It has hybrids everywhere.

I joined this community very late, but bartending really gave me a new start. So when you think it’s too late, maybe it’s the best time to start over.

I’m using some spices, because the camellia is a strong flower. There’s rum, I have a rose syrup, ginger, elderflower liquor and I have a Martini bitter–like a Campari, creating complexity and a very pretty pink color, and lemon juice for the sour balance.

It has an authentic character. I hope it can deliver some message to other people that it is never too late to start.

Any “spiritual” insights after your recent return from the Bangkok Gin Festival?

Well, Singapore is gin-and-tonic country. The Singapore Sling is made with gin. And coincidentally, the very first bar I got to work in at the hotel was Tonic Bar, a gin-specialized bar in our lobby. They have over 100 different types of gin. Even though I didn’t like it at first, I studied and then I really started liking it.

All gin needs to have is the flavor of the juniper berry. As long as you have juniper at the center, you can have any additional flavor. There’s a lot of different cultures in Singapore, and gin can respond to everyone.

Madame Fan quickly made waves in Singapore. What’s going on behind the bar?

The Madame Fan Bar is new. In a very short time, we’ve been listed as one of the top 10 hotel bars in Singapore–which is great, especially when you have a lot of amazing hotel bars in Singapore.

madame fan june baek
(Photo: Marriott International)

Since we’re a restaurant bar, all our cocktails are sourced from homemade ingredients. We do a lot of infusions. We cook the fruit to make the gelato for cocktails. We work closely with the pastry kitchen and our chef to get ingredient inspiration and cooking techniques. Our ingredients run from East to West, since our restaurant concept is Asian cuisine with a Western touch.

How would you define your style as a bartender?

I want to be professional, so when guests have a question, I can be informative. But when they start enjoying their drink, I want to be fun. If they leave my bar and feel slightly better, I’ve done my job. Bartending is not only entertaining. I want to give guests a good experience.

A few travel questions. Where in Singapore do you take your out-of-town guests?

Hawker centers, of course. There’s an authentic, old and traditional island atmosphere, even though right behind you is Marina Bay Sands.

One of my favorite hawker centers is Lau Pa Sat for char kway teow. It’s like a big rice noodle, deep fried with seafood and Chinese sausage and some vegetables. You get a very chewy texture that at the same time is a little crunchy. I like its charcoal sauce. Now I’m salivating!

What’s on your itinerary for a drinker’s tour of Seoul?

Go to a very traditional Korean pub. It’s part of Korean culture that you don’t drink without side dishes. All the traditional Korean pubs have amazing bar food.

These things don’t look like bar snacks. They’re mostly meal snacks. It’s not beer and fries. You get soju–with the delicious tofu and fried kimchee!