‘Drink it any damn way you please.’ Evan Stroeve on what he learned in Kentucky, & NYC bartending


Ollie Margan (left), and Evan Stroeve, winners at The Perfect Blend cocktail competition.

Evan Stroeve, the 2017 winner of the Apprentice Category at The Perfect Blend cocktail competition and nominee for Rookie Of The Year, is making waves within the industry. Just returning (a little broken, we might add) from his travels to the Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark distilleries, and a short whirlwind tour of New York, Evan shares with us his experiences and his love for bourbon and Southern hospitality.

How did it feel to be announced as the winner of The Perfect Blend 2017?
Amazing, albeit unexpected! The standard of each presentation at both the state and grand finals was top calibre. To be chosen as the winner from that field of absolute legends was a shock. I was over the moon.

What was the experience like travelling to Kentucky, the home of Bourbon?
Eye opening! These are international brands and their reach is worldwide. It doesn’t feel like that when you visit their production houses though. Their size and output is contrasted by a small town sense of community and hospitality. It doesn’t feel you’re stepping into an anonymous still house, it feels like Bill Samuels or Fred Noe actively want you to experience the results of their life long work. People in Kentucky want to share their homes with you.

The distilleries, describe to us what you saw and learnt there?
Maker’s Mark was aesthetically stunning. Loretto is a little bit out of the way, it’s picturesque, leafy and green. Given the size of the brand, and the fact you can find a bottle of Maker’s in just about every bar across the globe, it was interesting to see just how small their operation was. We were given the opportunity to taste a number of limited releases, and understand the mechanics of their aging process. The quality control process was probably the most fascinating part. They have this crazy kind of laboratory room. Every distillation, every barrel and every release is carefully held up to scrutiny. This is not an automated process, this is done by people, and every bottle really is hand dipped in the wax. Either Bill Samuels or the people he entrusts to maintain quality.

Jim Beam was huge. As the biggest bourbon brand in the world, I expected it to be massive. But seriously, it was f***ing humungous. And that was just one of their distilleries. From their six story continuous still, to the seemingly endless labyrinth of barrels and rackhouses, every thing Jim Beam does is big. Big like Booker. Big like Fred. While much of the process was automated, as would be expected with such a large product output, the fundamental principles to which Booker, his forefathers, and now Fred, ascribe to, remain unchanged. From mashbills, to the treatment of grain, to the yeast strain, length of fermentation and distillation, to the precise location a specific whisky must be rested in the warehouse, everything remains true to the Jim Beam vision. What I found most relatable was the way in which Jim Beam openly embraces the marriage of creative bartending and drinks, with their products. There is no one way to drink this stuff, and Beam gets that. In the words of Fred Noe “drink it any damn way you please.”

After Kentucky, you jetted across to New York — what was your favourite part?
Taking a helicopter tour up and down the Hudson and East rivers was pretty mental. It put into perspective how uniquely huge NYC really is. There is honestly nowhere in the world like it, people aren’t kidding when they call it a concrete jungle. That helicopter tour also reinforced just how hard it was going to be do everything we wanted to do. It is a city that you cannot be bored in.

You were fortunate enough to visit some of the world best bars – which ones did you see?

  • Nomad Bar
  • Amor y Amargo (Twice)
  • Mace
  • Attaboy (Four Times)
  • Dante (Twice)
  • Death & Co
  • The Dead Rabbit
  • Employees Only
  • Maison Premiere
  • Dram
  • PDT
  • Mother of Pearl
  • Boilermaker
  • Bar Goto
  • Suffolk Arms
  • Blacktail
  • McSorleys Old Ale House
  • Ghost Donkey
  • D.b.a
  • Mother’s Ruin

That’s to name a few! In between these were a smattering of dive bars and foodie spots. Sorry, not sorry liver.

I had a few favourites. Attaboy was the whole package. Everything you’d want from a bar and more. I went back four times. Nomad was brilliant for watching the bartenders work, and the synergy behind the bar. Ollie and I had to pick our jaws up from the ground, the team there were that seamless. Amor y Amargo was fascinating. It could only hold around 30 people, used no shakers and no citrus but relied solely on a plethora of amari and bitters to access their desired flavour profiles. Where else in the world would a bar like that be packed, seven days a week? Crazy. The best drinks I had were at Mace. Outside of the box, pushing the boundaries and perfectly balanced.

What differences do you see between NY and Australian bartending cultures?
They’re not so different from one another. New York is obviously bigger, faster and significantly more chaotic. Bars live and die very quickly. The clientele over there seems to be more educated. Honestly, Sydney is just smaller and younger. The overall quality isn’t that much different. I think our proclivity to navigate towards fresh produce is a little more cutting edge. I also firmly believe that Australian hospitality is grounded in customer interaction. We have bars that make outstanding drinks, and bars that are aesthetically beautiful. But the best bars engage people in so many ways. There’s nothing like Australian hospitality.

What was the highlight of your trip?
New York City. There’s nowhere in the world like it. It’s chaotic, it’s mental but it just works. The bars are the best in the world for a reason and I have taken so much back from experiencing what has been a career-long desire to visit NYC.

Also, there is so much to be said for Southern hospitality. Whilst in Kentucky, the people there invite you in with open arms. I thought maybe a culture that relies so heavily on tips would necessitate a stronger sense of customer service. There’s nothing conceited about it. People there want you to leave happier than when you walked in. They want to share their home with you.

What advice would you give something pondering entering the Perfect Blend 2018?
Be yourself. Engage the brand. These things are not mutually incompatible. Create drinks that convey who you are as a person and a bartender, yet at the same time respect the integrity of the brand you are working with. It’s really the same advice I would give any bartender, making any drink, anywhere, in a competition or outside of it. Be true to your philosophy as a bartender, the whole while respecting the product that people like Fred and Booker Noe have spent their lives creating.