Just do it: Nutmeg & Clove’s Shelley Tai thinks female bartenders can do just as well

By Evan Mua March 8, 2024
Just do it: Nutmeg & Clove’s Shelley Tai thinks female bartenders can do just as well
Shelley Tai oversees the operations of six bars in Singapore, including the current #7 on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

If you’re familiar with the bar scene in Singapore, chances are that you’ll have heard of Shelley Tai.

The demure 34-year-old Hong Kong native may not look like it outside of a bar setting, but she’s one of the most recognisable star bartenders in Singapore — and perhaps in Asia.

You see, Shelley runs Nutmeg & Clove, one of Singapore’s most iconic bars and ranked no. 7 in 2023’s edition of Asia’s 50 Best Bars.

nutmeg & clove
Nutmeg & Clove is one of Singapore’s most iconic bars. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

Not only that: As group operations director of The Nutmeg Collective, she oversees all of its six concepts.

That includes other top bars including elegant classics bar Last Word and the popular Singapore branch of cocktails-on-tap specialist, Draft Land.

Even prior to her move to Singapore in 2020, Shelley was already a well-known name in the industry.

She had left a mark on the bar scene while shaking it up in Hong Kong, including clinching HK & Macau Bartender of the Year in the prestigious Diageo World Class competition in 2019.

For International Women’s day, we chatted with her about why she has made bartending her career and since climbed to the top in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

The quiet cat lover

Shelley Tai
The quiet introvert does not exactly fit the bartender stereotype. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

While bartending is probably the last job that Asian parents want for their children, it was her first job right out of school. 

She started out in 2010 when she was 20 years old and has been in the industry since then.

While many people envision bartenders to be a flamboyant and extroverted bunch, Shelley is a quiet and introverted person who prefers to spend days off at home, playing with her cats.

But her interest for the craft was what drew her in. She says: “One of the reasons I decided to pursue bartending was because there was a lot of knowledge in this field to learn. And it allows me to create.”

shelley tai cats
Shelley lounging on the balcony with her cat, Bibi. Photo: @kankantai/Instagram

She reckons introverts are more perceptive and conscientious, which helps in her creating quality drinks.

Eventually though, she also slowly built up her interpersonal skills and immersed herself in forming bonds with people.

In fact, she said it’s one of her favourite parts of being a bartender: “Meeting all the people and drinking with them… That’s one of the most satisfying things about this job and definitely worth it.”

Women do it just as well

shelley tai
Shelley is a skilled bartender who was crowned the best bartender in HK & Macau in 2019. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

When asked about the challenges of being a female bartender, Shelley says she thinks the craft is unbiased towards either gender.

The reason there aren’t more female bartenders could perhaps be attributed to personal preferences.

“Some just don’t want to commit to such late hours and, especially in Asia, our culture is more conservative and parents pressure their daughters to get ‘better’ jobs,” she said. 

The mums might not be wrong, though. Despite the common perception of bartending as a glamorous job, it’s actually a very demanding one — bartenders don’t just work in the evening hours when the customers pop in for drinks.

nutmeg & clove
The award-laden Nutmeg & Clove might be a good place to start, eh aspiring bartenders? Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

It requires lots of prep work — from cutting lemons to washing glasses — which would be basically the only work assigned to newcomers.

“Ten years ago, we had to wash glasses for a whole year before we could even touch a cocktail. Nowadays though, the industry allows newcomers to learn things faster, for those interested in joining,” she explained.

But she thinks as long as you’re willing to commit yourself to the craft, women can do it just as well: “I think the industry gives us a lot of opportunities and as long as we can do the same as everyone else, it’s ok.”

Strong, encouraging words coming out of one of Asia’s most established bartenders, especially one who worked her way up from the bottom.

For any young aspiring female bartenders who look up to her, she has three words for you: “Just do it.”

Singapore and Nutmeg & Clove

nutmeg & clove
New local-inspired glassware for the special tenth anniversary. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

So why did Shelley move to Singapore? It was fate: It was 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had just hit and most of Hong Kong’s nightlife scene had come to a standstill.

She had already considered plans to move out of Hong Kong and it was at that time that Colin Chia, owner of Nutmeg & Clove, reached out to her. The rest is history.

Says Shelley: “I met him once and really enjoyed talking to him about his ideas. So I was very interested in working with him, especially since the Nutmeg brand is such a big name in the region.”

shelley tai nutmeg & clove
Singapore’s barhoppers will be seeing Shelley around for a bit longer! Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

While originally planning for it to be a two-year stint, she enjoys staying in Singapore and has basically settled down here and plans to stay for a bit longer.

According to her, she thinks the people here are friendly and she also enjoys different kinds of Southeast Asian food. 

To mark her third year in Singapore, she has also just recently worked with Nutmeg & Clove to roll out an exciting new menu for its tenth anniversary.

The menu features a mix of new concoctions and classics from the bar’s past menus — look out for drinks like the creamy Yam Seng made with orh nee (yam paste) as its focus.

For more ideas on what to eat, read our stories on the coolest hidden bars singapore has to offer and 58 local dishes everyone ought to try when in Singapore.

Do explore the new GrabFood Dine-in service for awesome deals.

You can also book a ride to Nutmeg & Clove to try out the new menu from Shelley and team.

Evan Mua


Evan started off writing about food on Instagram, before joining outlets such as Buro and Confirm Good to pursue his passion. His best work usually comes after his first whisky shot in the morning.

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