‘I currently have four menus on the go.’ A day in the life of Swillhouse’s beverage director

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As far as bar businesses go, the Swillhouse group of venues can lay claim to being influential better than most. Each of their venues have picked up awards at the Bartender Magazine Australian Bar Awards, from The Baxter Inn (ranked at 12 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list), to the late night party joint Frankie’s Pizza, their first bar, Shady Pines Saloon (which has also mixed it up on the World’s 50 Best Bars list in the past), to their most recent opening, Restaurant Hubert.

And there’s one guy who oversees drinks developments across the group: beverage director and award-winning bartender, James Irvine.

Irvine’s day can vary from early morning starts — if so, he’ll schedule in some exercise (“I find that it clears my head and gets me ready for the day ahead,” he says). But his days can also see him working long into the early hours at Frankie’s Pizza.

Below and lightly edited for clarity, Irvine outlines a typical day and lets us in on how he juggles his time across four of the country’s top venues.

Wake up: For most things in life, consistency is key. For most bartenders, sleeping patterns are the most inconsistent routine. Service hours can really dictate your life outside of work. The perils of being the purveyors of party! Most importantly, this’ll alter most of my mornings and which time I rise. If I’ve had a cushy nine to five admin day, I’ll be up and at them bright-eyed bushy-tailed at 6am, although if I’ve closed the night demon Frankie’s, I’ll find myself getting home at my usual waking hour and I’ll indulge myself with a 10am sleep-in. However, most days see me up and awake at 6:30am.

6:30am: Upon opening my eyes, I’m usually met with a dose of mental disarray and then I’ll realise that I am, in fact, in my house, not wearing pants, and very much alive. Alas, I have woken.

How To… The Pegu Club recipe with James Irvine

Watch James Irvine from the House of Angostura walk us through the Pegu Club, a cocktail from 1920’s Burma, and read more online at australianbartender.com.au.

6:45am: I’ve recently started indulging myself with an early morning run around Centennial Park. I find that it clears my head and gets me ready for the day ahead. If not a run, then a gym session, as long as it’s some form of exercise.

8:00am: After a shower and coffee, I try to make myself look pretty for the day ahead — this is where the magic happens. All black? Tie? No tie? Tiki? These are the real issues.

8:30am: I’ll have something to eat. More coffee (there is a theme here).

8:45am: Train ride in/commute to a Swillhouse venue, and take time to let me be me. You know, ask yourself: How are ya? Moving right along.

9:00am: Arrive to work. Business time!

9:15am: Assess the daily tasks ahead. Make a to-do list and make sure it gets done!

10:00am: I’m quite fond of moving around all of our venues during the day, usually setting up base at Hubert — mainly because there is a lot of space and kitchen gadgets to play around with. I’ll frequent the other bars, a training session, photo shoot or a meeting throughout the day, with a pretty tight schedule.

10:30am: Coffee and emails. Get work admin done, sticking to my daily to-do list.

11:00am: Menu development. I like to think I’m on top of things, especially with a hectic work schedule and deadlines. However, I’ll always see where the bars are at with their menu development and timeline. I think it’s really important and the best part of my job! I currently have four menus on the go including a Dead Rabbit collab at The Baxter Inn.

11:30am-12:30pm: Morning meetings. I tend to allocate days in which I’m able to attend meetings to my full potential. I’d hate to say I have time for somebody when I don’t.

12:30pm: Early lunch. Something awesome. I’m a fiend for ramen.

1pm-3:30pm: Coffee. Afternoon meetings. Same spiel as above. If not, I’ll float through to the other venues, say g’day to the bar teams.

4pm: Staff meal. Hubert staff meal is always delicious. I stick around purely to check it out and 99% have a bite to eat.

4:15pm: It’s around this time I’ll get staff to try any drinks that I’ve worked on that day and get feedback.

5:00pm: Look at the to-do list set out at the start of the day and analyse my performance. What I could’ve done better, how good was staff meal. You know, stuff like that.

It’s around this point in time I’ll either head into a service or continue with admin. With service it’s always good to be behind a bar or out on the floor working with the thoroughbred legends that make up Swillhouse. Atmosphere plays an important part in all our venues, from music and lighting, to the general feel of the crowd. All is left in the care of the tender bosom of our amazing bar teams, who show Sydney what’s up every night.

6:00pm: Admin-wise, it’s around this time I’ll work on things that are in no way ready to get off the ground. Whether it’s drink development, training ideas, bar outings or even upcoming competitions…

7:00pm: If further research is required, it’s usually around this time I’ll see what’s going on around town outside of Swillhouse. I love to check out bars and restaurants and see what people are up to. I’ll usually wrap it up and head home for an early night, as they are too few and far between and I really appreciate them. Otherwise, I’ll get lit up!

Service nights around 12:00am: Depending on how the night goes, I might see myself signing off and heading home. I have a ritual of walking home. This first started from Shady Pines Saloon, which isn’t that much of a walk to my house. However, over time I’ve adopted the policy as a nightly ritual. (You know it’s been a really long day if I catch a cab).

I will always finish my night with a thorough brushing of my teeth and a life-changing shower, before bed.