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Why I Want to Empower People Through Alcohol

It may sound weird to use alcohol for empowerment, but if played correctly, it can be brilliant.

I was making my Cocchi Cobbler—a cocktail made with Cocchi Rossa, vodka, simple syrup, passion fruit puree, lime juice, and Angostura bitters—at the bar at Cliff's Edge when the light shined on me.

Do I really deserve this?

I was getting a ton of press and more and more bartenders would come up to me and ask, "You're famous—how does it feel? How do I get there, too?" However, when I reflected on my accomplishments, I was not any of those things, really. Sure, I worked hard and pushed through it all to get to this point but I knew that this still was not the top—it couldn't be. Nonetheless, my worst fear was to fall from this high point. All of those accolades was a very heavy load on my shoulders.

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Darwin Manahan teaching his punch workshop

I'm the type of person to just put my head down and keep on working, no matter how many stories were published about me. If anything, I considered all of the articles that were published on me strictly as job security. Then I realized how incredibly selfish that was of me. I started to think critically. How can I share this success with other people who need it? With the elders? With the kids? With rest of my community? Fame is just a word, after all.

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My parents always taught me: If you've got it, give it. I wanted to keep on helping. I didn't want to stay dormant and get comfortable. Yet, I didn't want to steer into any of the conventional success routes that most bartenders take as they grow. I didn't want to be a brand ambassador and I didn't want to consult at a new restaurant. I love my homies who do this dearly, but that was not my path. I needed another way of contributing to the scene. That is when Public Matters came into my bar and completely changed my goals in life. I had a turning point and I remember talking to my fiancée and my family: I wanted to give back to the community. That was my new goal.

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I got involved with the Pilipino Workers Center shortly after and started doing bar-centered community service. This meant hosting free workshops in underserved communities, like Los Angeles' Historic Filipinotown neighborhood. My mission then became to empower people through alcohol. It may sound weird to use alcohol for empowerment, but if played correctly, it can be brilliant. In the same way that people who grew up in a family that shared wine during dinner treated it simply as a way to make certain foods taste better, I've taught people how to properly drink and treat alcohol as a craft. When you teach people how to appreciate alcohol in this way, they will most likely appreciate the subtleties in a bottle of liquor and not just down it to get drunk.

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I'm working with younger people, too. I'm trying to teach them that alcohol doesn't always mean getting wasted or getting lit. It can mean culture. I teach them that there is a story behind any bottle of alcohol, and that bottle of whatever is probably a summary of someone's life through every sip. It doesn't have to be a tool for evil. It can be a tool for good. I also teach them that a cocktail doesn't have to be Jack and Coke or Jungle Juice. I teach them about ratios, alcohol history, and the culinary aspect behind cocktails. I make them get their hands dirty and make punch.

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My goal is to put a different type of bartender out there—a bartender with no sense of entitlement and more humility. Remember, serving drinks is still a blue-collar job. I'm doing this because my soul is calling me to it, not to get free drinks or have my photo taken. I just want to add the extra pillars of love and community to the current pillars of being a good bartender, which includes being quick, creative, and having finesse.

Is that too much to ask?

As told to Javier Cabral

Darwin Manahan is an LA-based bartender. To keep up with all of his bartending-based community service, follow him through his Instagram account.