Anne Njeri has carve out a niche for herself as a mixologist in Kenya in the sector dominated by men and she is well-known for her creatively exceptional mixes using the Kenyan Originals (KO) gin.
Kenyan Originals (KO) is a Kenyan based gin manufacturer that uses naturally available ingredients from across the country to come up with a variety of authentic African craft beverage products.
Swala Nyeti sat down with the Chief Mixologist to establish what led her to the mixology career path and how she has navigated the sector to become the KO Brand Ambassador.
What does it take to be a chief mixologist and what does your job entail?
It takes the courage to go out and consistently and constantly work smart, grab opportunities and impress yourself as you impress others. Having a great work ethic, team work and creativity comes in handy.
I like to say: “Kujituma ni constant.” My job involves doing brand trainings, building a bartender community conversant with my brand, creating innovative cocktails that will become Kenyan owned and as a Brand Ambassador for Kenyan Originals (KO).
What did you want to be growing up and how did you end up becoming a mixologist?
Initially, I wanted to be a chef and/or a DJ. However, I couldn't get into college for a culinary course because I was underage then and I didn't meet the threshold by 2 points. I ended up taking the next available course which was Food and Beverage which meant I had to learn about drinks.
I became a Banqueting Waitress then moved to being a Waitress at the Bar. From here, my curiosity kept on growing, I would sneak in and make cocktails at the bar since I had learnt from watching them do it on a daily basis.
I eventually met some now-friends who were working at an event in my then place of work. I hanged around with them as a bar back and eventually went solo. I've been doing private events freelancing until KO came around.
How long have you done this and what have you learnt about the craft?
I have been in the industry for around 8 years or so. I've learnt that the industry is constantly changing so is the craft. You have to keep up with the changing times and adapt to different types of patrons and palates. Mixologists and the bartending community at large are being accepted and treated as a viable career choice just like any other.
What misconceptions do Kenyans have about your career and what are some of the things some of them tell you when they come across you?
As a female in this industry, it is deemed very unfeminine and un lady-like. I get questions on how I keep my household aka a husband while working long hours and amongst men or they question my morals being that I work late at night.
It's sad to have to answer such questions that a man wouldn’t have to deal with. Above all I try to answer them with grace, a straight face and courage since I'm proud of my career choices.
What are some of your best cocktail mixes that your customers love?
This is so broad, but recently, I’d say, it's the 5.8 Spiced Orange mix with a bit of chili in it.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to use when creating new drinks/cocktails?
My palate is very diverse but I’m more of a sweet and spicy palate. So, I'm more inclined to spicy things and finding the balance between sweet, sour and spicy yet refreshing.
How would you describe your bartending style?
I'd describe is as Freestyling. I don't like being bound to classic styles or classic recipes. So, in freestyling I can be creative without being bound to the rules.
What is your experience with using food-grade chemicals and ingredients?
In Kenyan Originals, we don't use food grade chemicals and ingredients. We use organic grown ingredients to cater to our clientele. This trickles down to the production of our drinks and cocktails.
What is your technique in preparing a drink/cocktail?
I like to build drinks, with different layers or colours. I'm also not opposed to the shaking technique as some drinks call for that. I'm also happy to include new techniques to develop new flavours as necessary.
Do you have an example of a time when you had to deal with an upset customer? How did you resolve the situation?
I've encountered rude customers working in this industry and pushy ones who will look down on me. I've learnt to be unwavering and command respect respectfully. I listen to their complaints, explain the situation and try to resolve it. If it's something that is set as it is, I explain the same and take feedback.
How do you deal with a customer who asks you to recommend a drink based on their own preferences?
I usually first inquire about their preferred palate (sweet, sour etc) and base like Vodka, Gin, Whisky etc. The more I inquire the more I form an opinion on the kind of drink they would savour. Then from that I can make a drink based on the information and I like to have them figure out what combinations I used. I look at it like opening a safe guessing the combinations.
How has your experience been like working with KO (Kenyan Originals)?
Awesome. It has been such a great opportunity to work with and for a Kenyan company that helps to grow the agricultural and creative industries. I love that I can be myself and experiment and challenge my creativity. Taking this job is a chance to prove to myself that I can do what I set my mind to and to open a new path for the next generation of Women in the industry.
What are some of your favourite cocktail-food pairing examples?
I'd go for Ugali x tripe x chili with a Gin cocktail or a KO Mango and Chili Cider. Alternatively, spicy chicken wings, a KO Classic perfect serve and a sorbet. What are some of the latest mixology trends in Kenya and how have you managed to remain relevant to your different clientele?
One of latest mixology trends is the use of tinctures, smoking and bitters. They're a game changer in the making of cocktails. They complement or elevate the drink and of course for showmanship. I've managed to remain relevant by treating each client differently according to their needs and expectations.
Being friendly and approachable is sort of a need in the industry, this way you can have conversations with your clients which gives you an insight into their preferences as you recommended a drink to them.
How often do you update your knowledge and skills as a mixologist and to what extent have you adopted natural ingredients?
I'm constantly running ideas through my friends in the industry and my mentor. It also helps that I have a job which creates an opportunity for me to experiment and get creative and I take inspiration from the international scene.
In Kenyan Originals, we use natural ingredients in making our drinks. That means there're no shortcuts. As I make my syrups for my cocktails, I ensure to use natural ingredients since they have unmatched flavours and no nasties.