Erwin, the Bartender

Erwin (third from left) with the author (fourth from left) and friends in Coron, Palawan (Photo by Roy Macaraig)

CORON, Palawan—The bartender’s name was Erwin. The first drink he made me was a kangaroo: vodka, dry vermouth, olives. This was by “special request”; kangaroos were not on the laminated bar menu, which, I later learned, Erwin himself had created, featuring mostly shooters and fancy cocktails. Originally I had asked for a mojito, but he explained that they’d run out of mint leaves. I wondered if it was just the kitchen that ran out—the kitchen at Sunz En Coron, a quiet, Korean-owned resort on Mabintangen Road, ten clunky minutes by tricycle from the port, with nipa huts and a small poolside bar at which I was now sitting—or if it was difficult in general to obtain fresh mint in this town.

Only twenty-two, Erwin learned the art of mixology in Metro Manila; he used to rent an apartment in Pasay. Like many others who were born and raised in provincial towns, he had left Coron to find a job in the city. He did not attend bartending school, but developed his palate by observation and instinct while working at Café Ilang-Ilang in the Manila Hotel.

It was through an agency that he’d gotten the job, for which he was paid a fixed salary of 400-plus pesos. Being very ignorant, I thought he meant 400-plus pesos per hour, which wouldn’t actually be that bad a rate in the Philippines, but of course Erwin meant 400-plus pesos per day. When I asked why he never transferred to the Manila Hotel’s Tap Room Bar, where he could more properly flourish, he said, like I’ve heard many others say in response to questions of a similar nature, that it was not about what you did, it was about whom you knew.

For reasons he did not reveal to me, Erwin returned three years ago to his hometown, of which he seemed very proud. He said you could accidentally leave your wallet or iPhone anywhere in Coron, Palawan, and no one would touch it; the locals were honest and they did not play games with tourists.

This was probably true. Or at least it seemed less silly than if Erwin were to say the same about Manila. Earlier in the day, during a tour of the islands, the boatmen miraculously stretched our group’s marketing budget (seven people in total) to present a king-size lunch (with lobsters) at the white-sand beach in Malcapuya Island.

An hour by boat from Coron's port, Malcapuya Island has one of the best white sand beaches and snorkeling spots in Palawan. (Photo by Migs Bassig)

Later on in Coron town a tricycle driver ducked to avoid getting in the way of a potential Facebook profile photo, while a souvenir vendor smilingly offered discounts before I even attempted to haggle. The one beggar that I saw sang for change. On the way back to the resort my friend Roy—he lives in Singapore—said he got the sense that here people behaved differently; it was like they had been reset to default, unclouded by the usual doubts and despairs fostered by city living.

I guess we city dwellers were trying to reset ourselves to default, too. Later in the evening when the rest of my friends joined me at the bar, we each ordered Erwin’s signature shooter, the Sunz Special: a dainty, deceptive drink layered with Kahlúa, Baileys, Blue Curaçao and Bacardi 151, set ablaze in a cocktail glass and served with a straw. It’s a less theatrical take on the Flaming Lamborghini—minus the complicated tower of glasses, snifters, and other props. Meant to be drunk in one go, the Sunz Special tasted like a hot summer evening.

Then after that “one go” it drew a line through your throat and held your sobriety in an hourglass. Its effect on our group came on slowly but steadily, making us rowdy but goodnatured. We expressed admiration for good ol’ Erwin’s wonderful talents. We asked to have our photos taken with him. We vowed to learn a few recipes ourselves.

Yes, the idea of a twenty-two-year-old bartender suddenly became less absurd, although it must be said that Erwin actually played multiple roles at the resort. In the early hours of his shift, when guests weren’t expected to be ordering drinks, he served breakfast, assisted in the kitchen, answered phone calls, coordinated with service drivers and took the owner’s five little Chihuahuas out for a walk. 

Erwin stood behind the bar counter, listening happily to these stories of elsewhere, his hands behind his back. Perhaps he didn’t need a cruise ship, after all.

But mixing was clearly what he did best. Mixing was what NoName—a downtown pub, also frequented by tourists—had tried to recruit him for. (Erwin had passed up the chance because he felt happier working at Sunz En Coron.) Also: the bar menu was the result of his own constant experimentation, which is probably a good thing for bar menus, because it would mean that the bartender was testing and tasting, testing and tasting until he got it right; it would mean he had initiative and, I assumed, enough freedom to take it.

But was Erwin even aware of the surge in international demand for people with his skills? The classifieds always advertised openings. He could work in a hotel, he could work in a ship, he could work wherever adults outside the Philippines were thirsty. Just check the papers. Did he not want to go overseas?

Of course he did—wherever “overseas” might be. It would be a welcome opportunity. I urged him to experiment with new recipes and proudly recited to him a list of cocktails I’d tried during my brief time in South America—pisco sours, terremotos, chichas, caipirinhas, caipiroskas, fernet colas—along with the disclaimer that, really, I knew nothing about how these were made, only that I enjoyed drinking them.

I told him about an uncle who had spent most of his adult life in cruise ship galleys, about how he’d seen so much of the world between serving gourmet meals and surveying provisions. Here was the thing, though: Erwin hadn’t had formal training. He still needed to finish the courses, he needed to get certified. It was possible he could skip all that but, as he said, he didn’t really know anyone.

According to Erwin, our bartender at Sunz En Coron resort, the locals in Coron are honest, hard-working, and don't play games with tourists. (Photo by Migs Bassig)

And it wasn’t like he didn’t already have his hands full here. He was working the bar and the restaurant, which closed at ten. Sometime after dinner a young couple from Switzerland came and sat at the bar. Erwin made them some vodka cocktail while also demonstrating his ability to hold a conversation in English with foreigners. Julian, it turned out, was an IT teacher and programmer in Lucerne; his girlfriend Claire worked as a waitress. They were in Coron for the diving. In particular, they were looking forward to seeing the famous Japanese war wrecks.

Wasn’t this place just incredible? Julian and Claire were gushing, they had tans, they might have already been slightly drunk—either on adventure or alcohol. It was their first time in the Philippines; usually the south of France was where they went diving—in the Bay of St. Tropez, or in Hyères. Julian hastened to add that they couldn’t really go for dives as often as they’d like: taxes were outrageous in Switzerland, and rent was not cheap, either.

While the two continued to describe what Europe was like (and how expensive it was), Erwin stood behind the bar counter, listening happily to these stories of elsewhere, his hands behind his back. Perhaps he didn’t need a cruise ship, after all. Perhaps he didn’t feel the urgency of going abroad as keenly as I imagined; perhaps he’d only be glad to have the option. 

In “Sweet Life,” singer Frank Ocean muses, “Why see the world when you’ve got the beach?” In Coron—its precious island beaches, limestone cliffs, freshwater lakes even more beautiful than I hoped for—the world, in a way, comes to see you. And Erwin, I believe, has a unique advantage because a bartender is an unexpected custodian of strangers’ secrets and revelations; to him others articulate assorted visions of a world, as seen through glassware; to be transported, all he needs to do is pour.

And pour he did. Eventually I settled on G&Ts, a couple of friends opened a bottle of Merlot, and Julian and Claire after a few rounds of their mixed vodka wisely avoided the Sunz Special, which, according to Erwin, not a lot of people—not even foreigners—could handle. Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Australia, France, the UK—it didn’t matter where you were from or how bulletproof you were, one Sunz Special did you in. Apparently, having two was being plain greedy, and set one up for early retirement to bed (as a consequence). We were quickly assured, however, that the effects of the shooter did not carry over to the next day. No headaches, no hangovers, Erwin promised, before calling it a night, closing the bar and heading home. 

Migs Bassig

Migs Bassig

Migs Bassig is a writer living in Manila, Philippines. You can follow his blog at