“As a woman bartender, I want to dispel this notion that the bar is no place for us.”
Bartenders, especially female bartender(s), are a rare breed because the craft is considered a male occupation. However, good female bartenders are few and far between, you’re never sure they exist and you’re quite surprised when you find one. Yvonne Wairimu is one such bartender and she’s been tending bars for over 19 years.
Yvonne has the persona of a person who is in the ‘happiness’ industry, so to speak, she’s high-spirited, entertaining and when she speaks, her voice has a raspiness that is captivating. But it’s not just her big personality that draws you to her, it’s her heart too. When she’s not behind the bar, she organizes Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives through her cocktail bar ‘We Mix Lounge’. Last year, Yvonne organized a trip to visit a homeless shelter in Mlango Kubwa and she has also partnered with NACADA to help those in the industry addicted to the tools of the trade.
Yvonne is our first connoisseur of the year.
How did you start out in the industry?I started working straight out of high school. I was waiting tables and did it for 3 months before I found myself behind the bar permanently. I was very mesmerized by it all (the bar). I would take the alcohol bottles and read the details on them. As a result, customers were always complaining about my station. One day, the manager got mad and told me to get behind the bar and I haven’t left the bar since. (Laughs)
Wow, 19 years ago, trying to do the math, when was that?
It was in 1999…
Was this in Nairobi?
Steak and Ale. It was opposite 20th Century at the time. I stayed at Steak and Ale for a short time and later left for Florida 2000 (F2) where I worked for five years. This is where I began working towards becoming a bartender. At F2, I perfected being a dispense bartender. Although we also served some shots and cocktails they were not so popular. I later ventured out to bars that did more of this (cocktails and shots).
F2! That’s such a household name when it comes to Nairobi’s Party Life?
I know. It (F2) taught me how to deal with rowdy people. There’s nothing you can tell me about the party scene that I haven’t already seen or gone through.
Are there other seasoned professionals from back then that you still work with today?
Some of my mentors include Joseph Mwawaka whom I met at Mercury but is currently at Brew Bistro. And, by the way, Mercury is one of the best when it comes to cocktail making in Kenya. Brian Owango of Aqueous who was also at Mercury and King Kline of the Campari group.
“I used to learn about cocktails from books I had bought with my KSh. 5000 salary. Back then, if someone came to the bar and asked for a cocktail you had never heard of there were no phones to quickly Google.”
Did you ever get any formal training?
No, there were no schools then. Luckily, today we have the Nairobi Bar School. I used to learn about cocktails from books I had bought with my KSh. 5000 salary. Back then, if someone came to the bar and asked for a cocktail you had never heard of there were no phones to quickly Google. ( Smiles). You would find out later, of course, but by then it was too late.
How much has changed since you started?
A lot! For one, you can Google about what you don’t know (Laughs) and there are more bars doing cocktails but I am more focused on learning about what other countries and markets are doing and incorporating that in Nairobi.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learnt?
Consistency! Especially as a woman, I want to dispel this notion that the bar is no place for us. It’s been difficult interacting with people with that kind of mentality. This a fast and furious life, full of money, booze and men but you always have to have your priorities in check.
Would you start your own bar?
I have a cocktail bar in Thika (We Mix Lounge) but people there are not that open minded about cocktails. We’ve been there for two years but the bar hasn’t caught on yet. I chose to start out in Thika because it was easier to manage financially. I also own a mobile bar with the same brand name – We Mix Lounge.
And when did you join Pernod Ricard (PR)?
I joined PR in 2014. I was offered the opportunity in 2012 after winning a cocktail competition while I was working at Mercury. PR have contracted me and my company to conduct training and events for them. January to June is our training period. We train bar staff about our portfolio brands which include Absolut Vodka, Beefeater Gin, Martell Cognac, Olmeca Tequila, Jameson, Chivas and other whiskies as well as other brands. The rest of the year is packed with several events and activations.
“This a fast and furious life, full of money, booze and men but you always have to have your priorities in check.”
What have been some of your favourite events?
Jameson Connect! But there are many others. As PR our motto is ‘Creators of Conviviality’ which translates to ‘liveliness and friendliness’; we are always having a lot of fun at our functions. We recently had an activation at Mad House (which was formally Florida Night Club) that was so turnt (exciting, fun)! We partnered with Tuborg beer to introduce a drink called the submarine which is prepared by dunking a shot of tequila in a glass of beer. Let’s just say it was an exciting night! ( Laughs)
Having been in the industry for as long as you have what is your definition of mixology?
Mixology for me is simply an art that is fun. It’s mostly about being behind the bar and making clients happy and being happy while doing it. Mixology gives me an opportunity to be creative and diverse while using ingredients that are around me and interacting with people.
Is this why you started the Smooth Bartenders Club?
Yes! You have to be happy and take care of yourself first before you can do this for others. A recent campaign by ‘We Mix Lounge’ sought to tackle the issue of addiction in the hospitality industry. This industry eats up a lot of your day and life. You are also predisposed to alcohol and drug abuse. And yet none of us talk about it despite having lost colleagues and knowing some colleagues who are struggling with addiction. The club, which PR is also involved in, is a space that addresses all these as well as other social, physical and mental health issues. We also work with NACADA counsellors.
“We have a code name for alcohol – Boom! Boom! – and they know that they are only allowed to touch it if they are over 18, done with university, working and not living with mummy.”
How do you handle bartending and being a mum?
I am raising three boys between the ages of 10 and 4 and it has not been easy. The older they get the more they understand what I do and why I am not always with them. Being away from them is not easy but my mum and sister help me out a lot. The bar industry is not kind to mothers, I was fired right after taking my maternity and annual leave after giving birth to my son. Being pregnant and going on maternity leave was such a challenge back then.
How have you explained your job to the kids?
We have a code name for alcohol – Boom! Boom! – and they know that they are only allowed to touch it if they are over 18, done with university, working and not living with mummy (Laughs). They are very artsy and always want to help. My eldest can even set up the bar for me. He can even mix a few mocktails (non-alcoholic drinks). The youngest can do a shake; he’s always trying to imitate me.
You come highly recommended, how do you manage to keep such a stellar reputation? Is it just about being a good bartender?
I think when I joined PR I was already a good bartender but they taught me how to be a businesswoman and grow my brand. I started my company ‘We Mix Lounge’ after I joined them. They taught me how to be professional, consistent and about other skills I needed to run a successful business. I do big things for them and nothing has ever gone wrong. It’s all about the little things like not letting people drink as they work, the customer is always right and keeping a respectable distance between my staff and the client. Trust is also very important. Your boss has to trust you with all that booze. I have always tried to instil all these sentiments in the people I train or work with.
Tell us about the ‘Tales of the cocktail‘ festival this last July? How did you get to participate?
It is a very difficult thing to get in to and I do not take it for granted that my job grants me access to such events. I am always keeping up with what’s happening worldwide and I had been following the festival since 2016 and I decided to apply in 2017. I was picked, after a thorough vetting. It was such an honour because I was one of the two women representing Africa.
What was it like?
It was a reminder that as much as I am very good at what I do, we have a long way to go to get to the level of countries such as the USA. However, we are getting there and they acknowledge that Africa is the future. Most of the developed countries have exhausted their markets and many of them are shifting their focus to Africa. We have to be careful not to be displaced in our own home.
“It (Tales of the Cocktail) was such an honour because I was one of the two women representing Africa.”
Are you training other young women to join you?
I train a lot of bartenders but not many women. We have been trying to mentor more women but it is a tough job. It needs a lot of time and dedication. There are a few women who are on the right track and I have invited some to come work with me at some events. At ‘We Mix Lounge’ you have to learn the craft from the ground up. You will start as a Glass Hand as you work your way to the bar to become a Bar Runner, who helps with the side preparations, and finally, you can start making drinks. Not everyone survives this! I love seeing bartenders I have trained (both men and women) empower themselves.
What do you want people in the profession to know?
Being a bartender is not all about who puts in the most hours. Bartenders need to learn how to work smart and improve their work-life balance. A bartender works long hours, then go out drinking after work, they rarely save money because they know they’ll get more (tips) tomorrow and unfortunately they get stuck in this cycle. Get enough rest. Lastly, I’d like all of us to learn about the ‘Power of Showing Up’ which I learnt at the festival. Show up and show off what you can do instead of making excuses.
Parting shot …
The message I can pass on collectively to anyone who wants to be a bartender and bartenders, owners and even customers is that we need to nurture, guard and celebrate our drinks industry. Package the unique local ingredients we have and share them with the rest of the world. It sucks to see that even our best tea is repackaged abroad and sold to us at higher prices. For example, one of the local ingredients that I am crazy about right now is jaggery (sukari nguru) which I have been experimenting with in my drinks!
Don’t be scared of this job! It may be hard but nothing comes easy…