Millie Tang had a fantastic 2019. From winning the Licor 43 global cocktail competition alongside Jessie Williamson to being crowned the ALIA bartender of the year 2019, she has shown that with true determination and focus you can achieve a lot.
You can find Millie at the popular Gresham Bar in Brisbane where not only does she mix up some tasty cocktails, but runs their social media with her impressive drinks photography.
We talked to Millie about her loss at Bacardi Legacy and how she dusted herself off to try again. She explains that handling a loss can be challenging but by showing strength and by using it as fuel to push further, you can gain the success you want. Whilst we class Millie as a true superstar bartender, she’s incredibly humble and down to earth, a quality shes tells us is an important factor working hospitality.
We also touch on how she keeps up with a 1000 + collection of spirits on the back bar and her strategy for giving her guests the best product knowledge.
“100% Speed Rack is so much fun, that was the first competition I ever did it was last year, Priscilla took it out, she’s such a badass. but I just, everything about it, the setup, it’s fun, it’s about speed but also cocktails. it felt like a competition that was always made for me.” (4:50)
“you know its detrimental to your health and your health is the most important thing to take care of. now if someone tells me I’m too busy, you know, I don’t get enough sleep or something like that, the immediate response I go to is ‘well you’ve got poor time management.” (12:00)
“100% looking back on how I used to be and looking back on how I operate now and the kinda mindset I have now if you had told me that I could do what I had done this year even to me like to the end of last year I would of kinda shut the door and gone back to bed! I wouldn’t believe a word of it!” (15:31)
“Yeah it really can be, in this job I feel when you are working behind the stick as bartender of bar manager it’s all about maintenance, it’s all about. keeping your head above water and then trying to advance if you got the perfect environment, so maintaining service, maintaining the venue and compliance, its all about maintenance.” (17:36)
“I think it’s imperative to be able to sell your products you know like you don’t want to be a slimy car salesman putting sawdust on the motor basically! it’s extremely important you want to come to work with pride, without that product knowledge you won’t be able to recommend what’s best for your guests.” (24:10)
Chris: Millie Tang thank you for joining us today on the back bar.
Millie Tang: I am fantastic thank you so much for having me.
Chris: You’re very welcome, and I hear you’re in Bali right now, how is it over there?
Millie Tang: It’s fantastic the weather is always perfect, but it’s turning it up right now. if it rains that’s totally fine its allowed one day ill forgive it but it beautiful
Chris: Perfect, so we will start by saying congratulations on your recent success, its been a crazy couple of months, right?
Millie Tang: Yeah, first of all, thank you so much, it been a pretty crazy year. I kinda kicked off the year in the middle of doing Bacardi legacy and the national finals during March. and then from there, I think to dive in the deep end first of, something I was talking to one of the girls in the top 8 from Brisbane in Bacardi legacy now, something that people don’t talk about it in terms of competitions is how to lose a competition. I think the loss that came from Bacardi legacy, it was definitely warranted after I was able to talk to the judges and understand the scoring a bit better, but at the same time, nothing can prepare you. especially with a competition of that magnitude, it takes up your entire life for months and months.
Millie Tang: All you do is you have tunnel vision, you’re just looking ahead, you’re pushing, you’re pushing, you’re pushing and you think you have given it your all and then it just falls short… I was so so stoked when Jenna won, it was amazing to see her take it out and represent Australia in globals but that’s one thing I was speaking to Bec about, the girl who was in top 8, it was about how to handle loss in a competitions and I think that lose really fueled the fire to learn from mistakes and gain a broader understanding of how judging criteria works. it was my first competition as well.
Chris: That’s a big one to be your first!
Millie Tang: Yeah, I know! to sum it all up, losing the national finals of legacy paved the way for everything I did last month because I took it on board all the judge’s advice which was super valuable.
Chris: I think you can go two ways some people face defeat and turn away from it but you picked yourself and well let’s go through it first the Licor 43 bartender barista championship?
Millie Tang: Yeah so that kicked off, there wasn’t too much time between the national final and the global finals, I think it was around a month?
Chris: Right ok.
Millie Tang: So when that went down that got locked in fairly fast and then kinda two weeks out from the start of October I got a call from Maison Ferrand inviting a group of us to the tour out in cognac as well as attend Berlin bar convent so, also on top of that there were Alli awards that were happening as well as, there was a personal trip I wanted to take to Melbourne, T25 drinks trade most influential so I had to shuffle things around! And then Speed Rack happened! haha
Chris: Which you won as well right?
Millie Tang: Yeah I did.
Chris: What is that like? because that is completely different from Licor 43 right?
Millie Tang: 100% Speed Rack is so much fun, that was the first competition I ever did it was last year, Priscilla took it out, she’s such a badass. but I just, everything about it, the setup, it’s fun, it’s about speed but also cocktails. it felt like a competition that was always made for me. if I could design my perfect competition. no speaking haha!
Chris: Yeah, that’s the one thing I always get caught on! just for our listeners could you explain a bit about speed rack and some of the challenges involved?
Millie Tang: Yeah so speed rack is an all-female bartending competition, that was created by Lynnette Marrero and ivy mix, two fantastic ladies in hospitality form the states so basically its to raise money and awareness in support of breast cancer research and also to give a stage for female bartenders, when you hear ivy speak about shes always said she was seeing a lot of under-representation of female talent over in the states and she would ask all these bars that were all-male staff and say where are your girls and they would say we can’t find them, none of them apply. so they kicked this off saying here you go, this is a stage for you to come out and show everybody what you can do. which is fantastic, it’s kinda like a double-pronged event. so it came to Australia for the first time last year, a huge success. people really got behind it which was amazing. this year they held it in Melbourne so I was lucky enough to be able to get a second shot at it I didn’t think I was going to do very well I didn’t feel very well on the day, because I just came off coming back from Europe. so I came back from a 30-hour transit I spent 24 hours at home and had to do a photoshoot that day.
Chris: It’s just none stop for you isn’t it!
Millie Tang: Yep, then went to Melbourne the next day so I was out of it. out of wack but I only just scraped through the prelims I came in the last place so I was like ‘ahh I’m toast, it’s fine’.
Chris: It’s interesting you mention about women in the industry, you are right for a long time it was just guys behind the bar, that was it really. do you feel its a bit better now, there are more women taking front stage and doing more for the industry?
Millie Tang: Yeah for sure I definitely think that the recent upsurge for support and spotlight showed on women in the industry is entirely beneficial because it also helps to, I spoke a little about this in an interview I just did, I think that the support is there now, its locked in its there and everyone is gunning for it, but id really, really love to see the industry activate in ways more so now that kind of reach out to people, especially women outside the industry who may be looking to join it, who have questions about it because its like that old story you can. times something by 0 it still equals 0. so if we want to grow the number of women in the industry then we need to be able to recruit and show there is a lot of support and information to enter it. and that its welcoming and its not just a boys club, I never saw it as a boys club when I was starting out, I never had anything shown to me apart from the utmost respect when I was starting out and I was working in male-dominated bars. but you know I think, yeah, like, that’s something I would like to see happen, reaching outside of the hospitality industry, recruitment days, job days. I know that schools here do a lot of after school exhibitions. seeing hospitality be a part of that, showing people outside of the industry that its a real career path that you can choose.
Chris: But it is now, isn’t it? that’s the thing it’s changed so much, in the last decade. and it really is a career you can become, I mean the whole rise of the superstar bartenders where your instafamous traveling the world, you know, it’s lucrative, it’s fun there’s a lot going on.
MillieTang: Yeah, the perks are huge! haha
Chris: Absolutely! so the other big thing to talk about was the liquor awards ‘bartender of the year’.
Millie Tang: yeahhhh.
Chris: Big congrats.
Millie Tang: Thank you! I was pretty flabbergasted, to be honest.
Chris: So it wasn’t expected?
Millie Tang: No not at all! when they announced the nominations for it, I was overseas and I was kind of, I had a lot on my plate so I was focussing on that but I was stoked. I thought ok this is cool, but there’s no way so I kinda put it out of my mind, like the line up of people that were up for that award was just ridiculous.
Chris: Right ok.
Millie Tang: I just didn’t expect it all and then when it got announced it was during the last challenge for Licor 43 which was a market dash so we were on the way to the place where we were doing the challenge and was trying to figure out with Jesse, the recipe and freaking out about that. then my friends started blowing up, going you’ve won this award! haha so I was like ok that’s cool but I gotta concentrate! umm but yeah I’m stoked. it’s a ridiculous and fantastic honor, yeah just yeah. I’m still pretty speechless, I haven’t had any time to…
Millie Tang: Yeah, process any one thing soo I’m still pretty speechless about it, it’s, it’s pretty crazy.
Chris: I mean its well deserved obviously, for people in the industry just starting out what sort of advice would you give them to get the be at this level? we talked about competitions, you know the first you said is if you get a fail just take it on the chin
Millie Tang: Yeah for sure, I find it really hard to give advice because of one thing I’m really;y adamant about. what’s sauce for a goose, isn’t necessarily source for another goose in the pen. what advice might work for you won’t necessarily work for somebody else?
Chris: Yeah totally.
Millie Tang: There’s a couple of things I really took on board and I really pushed in myself and that’s another thing as well while we are on the topic. what had to happen to me for October to go ahead was almost like, you know a mythical planetary alignment. I can’t really think of very many times that an opportunity like that will present itself. it was the fact I put everything on the back burner to make it happen. my health, sleep. I think I counted up how many days that I literally pulled all-nighters and stayed awake and it was 7 days.
Chris: Oh wow.
Millie Tang: I hate it, I thought it was always a cool thing to brag about how hard you work and how little sleep you get but its not. you know its detrimental to your health and your health is the most important thing to take care of. now if someone tells me I’m too busy, you know, I don’t get enough sleep or something like that, the immediate response I go to is ‘well you’ve got poor time management’. you know that is the thing when I look at myself, pulling an all-nighter means that I haven’t managed my time efficiently or proper enough, it’s sacrificing the most important thing you should be looking after. what went into getting, for the most part, it kinda kicked off after Bacardi legacy. I had a little bit of turbulence in my personal life, so I really, really threw myself into photography, bartending and networking 120,000%. it was almost like a distraction. I could just feel the momentum building and I wanted to ride it, I didn’t want it to go to waste. I kinda felt the pressure. I’ve been bartending for a while, around 8 years and I didn’t want to let the opportunities that were presenting themselves of the back of legacy go to waste if that makes sense. I was pretty calculated in the competitions I chose to be in. I only really want to compete in competitions that I find fun and enjoyable. if it’s not fun then its just unpaid work I kinda feel sometimes.
Chris: Yeah, I get that.
Millie Tang: being able to do Licor 43 competition with Jesse, you know it was just a perfect thing I thought this is amazing, this is built for us. same with speed rack. I had so much fun last year I decided to give it a shot this year. going back to the point, some advice that I take on board, stuff like ‘if you stay too busy you haven’t been able to manage your time properly’ ‘don’t be afraid of hard work’ also ‘ask advice but listen to it!’
Chris: Yah true.
Millie: don’t confuse movement with progress’ is a great quote. just like all these little things work on improving yourself, learn from your mistakes. don’t just let it fall on deaf ears, make notes. that’s a huge one as well.
Chris: Hmm ok taking notes?
Millie: Yeah, I live off a to-do list every day.
Chris: Could you touch on looking after your wellbeing as well? I think it’s so important, especially in the hospitality industry many times people just cant you know. its high pressure, long hours, social life is kinda.. yeah have you struggled with this over your years in the bar scene?
Millie: 100% looking back on how I used to be and looking back on how I operate now and the kinda mindset I have now, if you had told me that I could do what I had done this year even to me like to the end of last year I would of kinda shut the door and gone back to bed! I wouldn’t believe a word of it! but yeah its, its hard because.. I feel like there’s a very small percentage of people who enter the industry and have a very clear goal in terms of career advancements and where they want to get I feel like people take it on as a side job, or they are going to university and need a little extra money basically the people who decide to stay are the ones that never left, I took bartending on so I could balance it out with photography during the day. it was never my goal to be in hospitality and to pursue a career in hospitality but it ended up being that way. the biggest thing is to keep making sure you are assessing yourself and your relationship with the industry, in particular, the socialising and the drinking. like what your goals? what are you getting out of it? are you just having fun? perhaps but a time limit on that, give yourself 6 months. it’s fun but reassess. make sure you have checkpoints.
Chris: Yeah, I agree.
Millie: I feel like it an all too familiar story, you enter the industry and you really don’t know what you’re doing. that happened to me when I entered the industry 8 years ago I was just having so much fun that I kinda forgot to stop and take stock of my life and figure out what it was I really wanted to do you know? that’s why I’m kind trying to make up for the lost time.
Chris: You know I think everyone goes through that, and you’re very much right its one of those things you fall into and then 5 years later you are doing the same thing every night, the drinking is a big part of it too. it can be hard for some people.
Millie: Yeah it really can be, in this job I feel when you are working behind the stick as bartender of bar manager it’s all about maintenance, it’s all about. keeping your head above water and then trying to advance if you got the perfect environment, so maintaining service, maintaining the venue and compliance, its all about maintenance. it can be very unless you are the owner or operator it can be very hard to be instilled with a sense of ownership where you work and to carry the pride and energy and reflection that you need it to be. I do see bartenders not really appreciate or respect their managers or owners or venues as much as they should. but unless you have been in that position, owner or operator, you cant understand what it’s like to be at the top looking down I guess. yea it’s hard.
Chris: So you’re are currently at the Gresham bar in Melbourne right?
Millie: Yes um but its Brisbane!
Chris: Fantastic, oh it’s Brisbane? ok sorry!
Millie: Ohh that’s ok haha
Chris: Aha so what’s it like there? that’s actually an award-winning bar too? it’s quite well known.
Millie: Yeah it has had a huge history in the last 6 years it’s been open, its been pretty fantastic, I do love it there. as I said before it takes a very special alignment, like a situation to be allowed to go out for a month and take on a bunch of competitions all at once and not come back to a job! I’m taking a month off at short notice! I really do owe everything that I’ve done this year to that team, all the brainstorming the flexibility and the support they give me. it’s pretty outstanding, I can’t think of anywhere else that I’ve worked that would have allowed me to do that.
Chris: It’s good you need that support network.
Millie: Yeah, they let me have everything I wanted for a month and a half so you know.. but in saying that aswell the fact that I respect that. and I’m grateful and show the gratitude for it is the reason why it’s there because they know I’m not going to like runoff a month afterward and ill stick around and put back what I’ve taken out of the venue so you know, its yeah even all the way up to the owners. the owners a fantastic, our operators are fantastic. everyone’s really respected and looked after.
Chris: Great! so its a focus on whisky and cocktails right?
Millie: Yes, yes, yes it is. so we have a huge selection, massive selection. there are about 1000 bottles on the back bar.
Chris: My god, that’s a huge back bar.
Millie: Yeah it’s massive, and we are always constantly finding weird and quirky things to order in as 1 offs. so there’s always something new for patrons to come in kinda find. looking a the Brisbane climate of venues and the hospitality. it’s still going strong and it’s just become such an icon. there’s a lot of Brisbane venues getting closed down, especially with the recent lockout laws coming in. it hasn’t been a very good few years, ever since they came in but the Gresham is going from strength to strength. as long as it’s got a strong team behind and the owners are always fantastic and give everyone the support they need, I think it will continue to be one of the best venues that are in Australia for sure.
Chris: Brilliant, I mean with a back bar like that you must be constantly studying for your product knowledge I mean every time a bottle comes in it must be just…
Millie: Oh god haha well, so I’ve had a little bit of help with that, I manage the social media for it and there’s a dedicated line that runs down our Instagram page, every third post is something from the back bar so its like if I want to show it off then I have to do a little research so it’s going those couple of key points down that you can talk to customers about. to be honest my brains not that big I lose information pretty easily so I’m kinda always hitting up Cal our manager because he’s like a steel trap he literally has a crazy memory, so I’m always like ‘Cal, Cal!’
Chris: A walking encyclopedia?
Millie: Yeah literally. it’s like there are 10 new bottles on the back please quick tell me about them! it’s pretty daunting when you look up and it’s like oh god, there so much new stuff I haven’t seen.
Chris: I remember my first day in a hotel bar, I mean it was nothing like you but we had maybe 200 – 300 bottles and it was very daunting. it started my love for spirits and for alcohol and the craft of it because when you start diving into the process and kinda getting behind the marketing and see what goes in its very interesting.
Millie: Yeah it is, out of interest what was the first bar you worked at?
Chris: Oh so this was in the UK, Brighton, it was a placed called Shuffle bar, a flair bar.
Millie: Oh that sounds amazing!
Chris: It was amazing, it was great. lots of flipping bottles and broken hands.
Millie: I always wish I could learn how to flair!
Chris: I was terrible to trust me.
Chris: But after that, I went to hotel bars and that’s kinda where it went a bit better, but yeah good fun.
Millie: That’s amazing, id always wish id learned its so cool
Chris: Yeah, it was good, yeah. I mean touching product knowledge, how important is for the bartenders to know about the product and be able to pass over to the guests. I mean we mentioned going to cognac, Maison Ferrand which is brilliant I’ve been to cognac many times I love it.
Millie: Yes it’s beautiful.
Chris: I think it’s so important that sort of thing, we are the middle man between the brands and consumers so it’s up to us to give off the best information you know?
Millie: Yeah I 100% agree especially with something like bartending in Australia there’s no course that you can do there’s nowhere that can teach that. you have to learn as you do it if you are not studying and not keeping up on terminology and techniques and product knowledge then you feel like you can be failing your craft a little bit. some people get away with it, you know I’m not sure if I’m allowed to swear?
Chris: Go for it.
Millie: People can talk some fantastic shit and get away with it! you know I’ve seen it before you don’t know anything about the product but you can sell it amazingly because you just use some buzz words.
Chris: Gift of the gab right?
Millie: Yeah but if you want to keep honesty then I think it is super important because of techniques, process all that kinda stuff is advancing at such a rapid rate and just being able to keep up with what brands are doing and all that sorta stuff. when you want to get involved with the brands and activations and that sorta stuff then having the knowledge can help you. So it can help you in not just pushing products across the bar but also with your relationship with the brands as well if you put in the effort to understand it. I think it’s imperative to be able to sell your products you know like you don’t want to be a slimy car salesman putting sawdust on the motor basically! it’s extremely important you want to come to work with pride, without that product knowledge you won’t be able to recommend what’s best for your guests.
Chris: Definitely. alongside working at the Gresham you also run their social media and also have your own photography going on? I see quite a lot on Instagram. where did that start from?
Millie: So I’ve been doing photography ever since I was a teenager. just kinda messing around, I had a couple of friends that were models. after I left high school I was a bit of bum, and my mum begged me to do a course saying ‘pick any course and ill pay for it, but please do something’ so I picked photography. I picked it at our college but didn’t finish it, being a bum I didn’t go so I did about three quarters of the year and just kinda let it be as a creative outlet for quite a few years. I started doing portrait and fashion and stuff for fun and the got into hospitality to kinda balance it out. so I could work during the night and do photography during the day and then it kinda fell by the wayside quite a bit as I started to take bartending more seriously. within the last year, I started shooting a little bit of beverage photography I had a little bit of fun with something called cinemagraphs, which is where there is one element moving in it.
Chris: I’ve seen it with the droplets coming down right in the glass? it’s really cool
Millie: exactly so I love doing things like that and I had a boss at somewhere I used to work, cloudland, I had some connections with Pernod Ricard brands and started reposting some of the stuff I was doing so I got to shoot with them. within the last year, I just started enjoying it a lot more. I never thought I would do anything but portrait photography but I almost prefer to do beverage photography now, its so much fun. since the end of the financial year, I’ve picked it up doing events and all that kinda stuff. I’m lucky that the community here is really small and really strong that I’ve been given a lot of opportunities from all brands that are activating across Australia to shoot for them so pretty awesome.
Chris: Fantastic, and to find your work we can go on to Instagram for sure and you have a website for your portfolio?
Millie: Yes! yes, I do. its just millietangcreative.com
Chris: Well, Millie, thank you so much for coming on the show today I really appreciate it.[
Millie: No worries thank you so much for having me!
Chris: No, it’s been great, ill leave you to Bali enjoy your trip it’s well deserved from the sounds of it!
Millie: Hopefully I don’t get too sunburnt!
Chris: Ok, Millie thanks great to talk to you.
Millie: thank you so much, Chris.
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