You may know him as the man behind Melbourne’s Agave Cartel. Alternatively you may recognise him by his collection of flower shirts (and his detailed knowledge of the origins of the different patterns on said shirts). Then again, you might recognise him from one of the dozens of bars he has graced over the years in his quest for knowledge and a great time. He also plays a mean honkytonk piano.
What’s the attraction of the bar business for you?
It all started many years ago, I wanted to be the lead singer in a rock n roll band but alas I can’t sing to save my life. The closest I could get to it was pulling pints in The Piano Bar @ The Carrington Hotel. I kind of feel a slow-mo montage coming on…
How did you come about the role at theloft?
My friend Jason Williams is the Group Bar Manager. We were having a catch up and talking about a few things. It came up that theloft was in need of a bar manager and someone who was ready for a challenge. I love a good challenge so I came down here and am doing a lot of training and putting the passion back into making cocktails.
Tell me a little about the venues you’ve worked…
There are a lot and all over the place. I started in an Irish style saloon bar and made my way into nightclubs, it was the early 2000’s when I went down the path of cocktails, we still blended our daiquiris and the only bitters you could get was Angostura. Oh yeah we’d just started infusing flavours into vodka! Hell yeah! Every flavor of Finlandia you can think of and more! So from the shores of Australia I went to Europe and discovered all the cocktail training I’d had here was defunct pretty much since the ‘80s. I worked in a cocktail bar in Dublin called Spy Bar — Bono drank here, ohhhlala. Then it was off to Scotland for some very formal training at the illustrious Opal Lounge. It was London where I really hit my stride at Green & Red (RIP) a tequila bar in East London. I love tequila and I love this bar. It was a small crew, Miles Davis, Blondie, Spaniard, Champagne, Pasquale and me on the bar, 350 100% agave tequilas and awesome Mexican food! I’ve had more crazy nights in this bar than mojitos I’ve made. Once the London sojourn was done it was a short stint in a nightclub called re-had on the greek island of Ios before heading home. Zeta for as bit before off to Melbourne to work with ‘The Sebastian Reaburn’ at 1806. This bar is the second great love of my bar life, I delved into the world of classics, revitalizing the flavours and techniques, even get a tattoo of Jerry Thomas making a blazer on my forearm. I was here for most of the years I was in Melbourne and am very proud to say I’m partially responsible for at least half of those grey hairs Seb has now. After Melbourne I moved to Byron shire and set up a little cocktail bar of the front verandah of Harvest, a paddock to plate style restaurant in Newrybar. This restaurant has it all going on, a 100 year old woodfired bakery and a deli that is full of local produce, cold cut meats and cheese as well as a very gourmet selection of vinegars and tinned produce. Every space on the property is taken up by the vegetable gardens that service the kitchen and 15 minutes drive down the highway they have an exotic tropical fruit farm! Frickin’ WOW! So from there to a summer of making cocktails with Ben Blair down at The Corner House to theloft… lets see what trouble I can get up to here.
How have you evolved as a manager?
I have grown so much from my first management position. I was a terrible manager, always stressed and not knowing how to resolve problems. When I finished that job I didn’t think I’d ever want to be in charge again. Now I just do my thing.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I’m always trying to make my cocktails fun and a bit cheeky, I like to push people out of their comfort zone and get them to try something they normally wouldn’t. For the actual ideas for cocktails I ride on public transport, it was the trams down in Melbourne and up here in Sydney I do a mixture of buses, trains and ferries. I just sort of let the rocking send me off into a half sleep and have come up with some pretty cracker ideas. The Punch De Chevalier, my winning Suntory Cup and Better Living Through Chemicals, (a martini that through powdered sherbet transforms into other cocktails) are both cocktails that I came up with on a tram ride from North Melbourne into 1806.
What excites you about the Sydney bar industry?
The small bar revolution, it’s super exciting to see how much Sydney has changed in its bar culture from when I lived here last back in 2003. The ideas that people are coming up with and implementing are awesome, I can’t wait to see where it evolves to.
What does it need more of?
Sydney needs more rooftop bars! Look at the winter we’ve just had, imagine a plethora of beer gardens on the roof in the sun!
It needs less Hawaiian Shirts! I want to walk out of the house knowing I’m the only idiot in a Hawaiian shirt. Bloody Hipsters! Give me my fashion back! I’m sick of being in-vogue!!! Oh you probably mean in the bar industry… Less tragic drinks of the 80’s and their bastardised cousins! Why are all the customers up here still ordering Fruit Tingles, saying Long Islands are their favourite? Don’t get me wrong I love a Japanese Slipper but NO! to the Midori Splice… and for my final rant the wet pussy WTF! No! it’s called tequila – have a proper shot!
Are there any local or international bar operators that you admire? Why?
So many. If I call you my friend at some point you have inspired me, taught me something, locally it’s amazing how as a group of bartenders everyone has shown passion to better the craft of bartending and put Australia on the map as one of the top cocktail cultures in the world. I do have to mention my cocktail muse, not everyone gets to have a 6’4” vodka ambassador as a cocktail muse, as well as having him tattooed on my forearm! But Sebastian Reaburn has done more in getting me to control the crazy gypsy and use it for good rather than evil.
How important are staff in operating a successful business?
Exceedingly, the staff are the face of the business. The customers don’t come back for the cheeseboard, it’s for that amazing service they got while ordering that cheeseboard.
What advice would you give young bartenders looking to make a career out of bartending?
Do it as long as you love it! This isn’t an industry to be in while you’re waiting for life to knock on your door. It’s a serious business these days. The customers are educating themselves so you need to stay ahead of the game. I’ve mentioned passion a few times but you must have it! Without the passion this is a terrible job.
What are you drinking right now?
Tea, white with one, but it is 11 am. A staple in my drinking is the Paloma and its variants. I’d like to say thank-you to Luke Redington and the lads down at Hello Sailor for putting creaming soda and Fanta on their post mix gun! Tequila and creaming soda is Amazing!
Au revoir et merci pour de poission.
MERLIN’S TOP FIVE TIPS TO STAY ALIVE (AND RUN A SUCCESSFUL BAR)
- You can never have enough tequila
- Do something different, you need a point of difference to make people want to come back
- Be humble and passionate
- Always have a flair bartender up your sleeve, there’s nothing like a flair show to amuse the customers when you’re in the weeds! Right General?