How ALIA Bartender of the Year Millie Tang is handling 2020

This time last year, life looked a lot different for The Gresham’s Millie Tang. We caught up with the 2019 ALIA Bartender of the Year to hear about what she’s been up to so far in 2020, and impacts of the pandemic. 

It’s been a strange and devastating year for Australia’s bar industry. To use a very relatable phrase from Tang: “This year was meant to be extremely different to how it’s panned out.”

But nevertheless, we all persist, and Tang said she’s felt very lucky to have been engaged during the Queensland lock down with both creative and drinks work. Photography, video and content creation kept her freelance creative business busy, and the same sorts of things also came into play with her industry connections too, as virtual bar experiences quickly gained popularity.

“A lot of brands were quick to formulate initiatives to support bartenders around Australia and drive forward digital content,” Tang said. 

“It’s been great to see the scramble to support individuals in our industry via these channels, I’m very grateful for the amount of work that came my way – not just for the support but also the experience and opportunity.”

Some of the things that Tang has been involved in include cocktail making videos for Spirits Platform, Hennessy, Belvedere, Starward and Melbourne Food and Wine. Activations like these showcased the creativity and skills of bartenders across the country, educating consumers about drinks through both live chats and pre recorded videos. Some, like the Belvedere Collective, were even worldwide. 

Now that restrictions have begun to ease in Queensland and the Gresham is back open, Tang is adjusting to life back behind the bar again, made harder by the constant wavering uncertainty shrouding the industry at different levels across states and even cities, as we’ve recently seen in Victoria. 

When asked what the ‘new normal’ was like for Tang, she said: “I can’t help but feel that ‘normal’ is still a long way off yet. Change is happening often, phases are pulled forward and pushed back and rules are tweaked constantly. Everyone is doing their best to remain on top of regulations and communicate them to staff and patrons.”

Because of this changing climate, things are being felt differently across the local industry in Brisbane, and Tang said she’s seen a mix of joy and frustration.

“Some venues are reaping the benefits, with full bookings and waiting lists a week in advance. Others are suffering the long wait to resume operation as it needs to be to sustain their business and survive,” Tang said.

“Dancing has recently been banned and there are huge queues to enter venues nightly. A few choice media outlets of the Murdoch-owned persuasion have taken great pains to wax critical scenes in Brisbane nightlife hotspots, particularly Fortitude Valley. Nightclubs and bars that push a party atmosphere are doing it tough, as expected. Patrons just want to have a good time – and social distancing and obeying 101 new rules is the last thing on their minds when the music’s pumping and drinks are in hands.”

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In terms of the Gresham itself, Tang said everyone is trying their best to adjust to the new conditions, which for the most part has gone well. But there are still challenges. 

“Getting back to the bar with the team has been gratifying. Physically, as soon as the clock tolls 10pm I want to turn into a pumpkin. All those nights of falling back into a saner sleep schedule means later nights are taking some getting used to…Small sacrifice to make to be back at work,” Tang described.

“At the Gresham, our patrons have taken the changes to service and entry in stride. Almost all are understanding and patient, even those that come to visit when we’re full with a line on a Saturday night. The trials and tribulations for staff, patrons and business owners are currently venue dependent. True a year ago and magnified now by the pandemic.”

As for what’s next for the enigmatic Tang, plans are limited, “except to work hard and create new opportunities.” She’s trying not to think of what things would have been like had COVID-19 never exploded into the pandemic it is today.  

“A pandemic in particular means lives lost and economies crippled, trips overseas more than pale in comparison. Expending too much time and energy pining for what was to be only serves to hobble your ability to deal with the present,” Tang said.

“All I can say is that I’m very grateful for how this year has panned out for myself in many ways, however I have many friends both in the industry and outside it that are struggling to the point of breaking, being mindful of others and their hardship is paramount.”

This mindfulness is certainly connected to a spirit of community that the industry shares. And as Tang said: “I don’t care how many times we all have to hear it – we’re all in this together.”

“I love this industry, the outpouring of support and ingenuity in the face of the pandemic and how it’s affected the industry has been inspired and incredible. It’s a shit show out there at the moment – as we all know particularly for our Melbourne and Victoria family. 

“To all of you who continue to support and patronise bars, clubs and restaurants in your cities – thank you, do it often and do it well and safely.”

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