‘The list has been a labour of love for me.’ Jamie Passmore on the challenges of a big whiskey collection

jamie passmore
We love whiskey bars, gin bars, rum bars — the lot of them. We love how they dive deep into a particular spirit. But one of the biggest challenges you face when running one of these bars is, just how do you move through all that product on your back bar? Varnish on King bar manager, Jamie Passmore, talks about the challenges of moving a sizeable US whiskey selection, and why their mise en place is key to a cracking shift.

For those who haven’t had the chance to visit, tell us a bit about Varnish on King?
We’re a small bar in a basement in Perth’s CBD with a focus on having fun with American whiskey. Our back bar is all USA — bourbon, rye, Tennessee with a bit of Canadian stuff also. We do a heap of Sazeracs, Old Fashioneds, Whiskey Sours, house-made Picklebacks, Boilermakers and other whiskey pairings — chocolate, wine donuts, you name it. Our most famous is the Bacon Flight: four different styles of bacon, each paired to a different American whiskey. Nibble, sip, salivate, repeat. Then there’s the wine list, 80s-bangers playlists and ‘big-cuts’ food menu – how long have you got?

You’ve got a great whiskey selection at Varnish on King — what are some of the strategies you use to make sure you’re moving through all that product?
The list has been a labour of love for me for the last four years. It’s evolved quite a bit based on keeping a sizeable selection, but also not having things that are just there to sit on the gantry and look pretty or that don’t taste any good. We keep a list of whiskey flights that change from time to time, we get reps and BAs in to do trainings and tastings of their brands every few weeks. Plus we’re pretty generous with letting staff taste/try/play with anything they have an interest in. Recently I’ve started a ‘Bottle Share’ program where once a month I’ll get something old and rare in and regular punters can buy a nip at our cost price early in the week. I guess staying innovative and stocking products with integrity are key.

How important is staff training — are there any specific efforts you make to keep their knowledge on whiskey up? 
So important for a few reasons really. Getting the team together off-duty to sit down, talk and drink tasty booze is great for morale as much as it is for knowledge. Same with chef’s food. Tastings and training with suppliers works best — it’s nice to learn whiskey from a fresh human from time to time! Plus anyone that starts front of house at Varnish does an induction then sits at the bar and does the Kissing Cousins flight — bourbon, rye and Tennessee. Their love of the good juice grows naturally from there.

When you’re on shift, what are the priorities you have in your head for getting the shift to run smoothly?
Mise en place in our venue is pretty elaborate. Prep consists of all the usual things — setting up stations, cocktail garnish, juicing and straining, then we’ve got the bacon to portion out (we do over 100 a week), serrano jamon to portion to slice behind the bar, house made pickles, chocolate for pairings, block ice and spheres, monitoring cocktail barrels… My priorities are to make sure my crew have their head around all that before we get busy so that when it comes time to seat dinner bookings, greet punters, hand out water and pretzels, chat whiskey and rock out service in general — all our bases are covered. I remember being a bartender and thinking the manager had the cruisiest job. Ha!

What is it you like about the bar industry in general, and the Perth scene in particular?
There’s a lot to like — meeting and hanging out with genuinely good people, seeing a lot of diverse venues, awesome perks and incentives from cool brands, getting looked after with food and booze… To be honest I’m not the party animal I used to be and the thing I get the most satisfaction from is really making someones night — whether it’s blowing their mind with epic food, drink or service — it’s going over and above in the line of duty
and seeing someone having the best time that is the most rewarding. 

Perth is a fun little town. There’s still al lot of potential and I’m looking forward to keeping us at the forefront of global hospitality standards.

And whiskey. I still love whiskey.