Small Bar of the Year owner, Sebastian Costello, on why Bad Frankie only stocks Australian spirits

Sebastian Costello has been a proud promoter of local craft spirits for the last three years. His successful Fitzroy bar, Bad Frankie, allows him to follow his passion in sharing the stories of local Australian producers.

Story by Sebastian Costello

For the last three years I have had people come into Bad Frankie and ask the same question, “Why Australian spirits?” It’s an interesting question with an answer that starts with a trip to States and ends in me running a business that I love. In the last three years the industry has gone from one that you would define as fledgling to one that is internationally renowned and incredibly varied. I have loved being a part of this industry and being able to share all of the stories from each of the distillers. If you haven’t already, think seriously about the value that local products can add to your venue’s story and let me answer a few of the most common questions that people have asked me along the journey. 

Why Australian Spirits?

In 2011, I was travelling through Mexico and the US. I loved the various tequila and bourbon-focused bars and as a proud Aussie, it got me thinking. Why weren’t any bars focusing on Australian booze? Most people thought I was mad when I was opening Bad Frankie in 2014. At the time, the Australian spirits industry was in its infancy. Back then I stocked only 80 products, fast forward three years and the back bar groans with an inventory of 380. 

Australian spirits are special. It’s not just the liquid but the incredible characters behind each and every brand. Each has their own story of how they came to be a distiller and what inspires them. Distillers don’t get an enormous amount of support from the government in terms of tax rebates (don’t get me started) but are becoming increasingly invaluable to the (often rural) local communities by offering employment and growing the local economy by attracting visitors to the area who want to see their distilleries. 

The Australian spirit industry is growing apace in all categories, gathering awards from some of the most prestigious competitions in the world. Despite of being a small player globally, we’ve seen a massive increase in the number of Aussie spirits winning medals at international competitions. Poltergeist from Tasmania recently became the first Tassie gin to pick up a Double Gold (meaning all the judges awarded a Gold) at the San Francisco Spirits Awards, while Starward recently won best Australian Whisky at World Whisky Awards. 78 degrees won best international gin at the US Spirits Awards. However, if we want that to continue we need to get some more Aussie booze on back bars around Australia, and not just in specialist bars like Bad Frankie.


Why are Australian spirits so expensive?

Let’s be clear. When we are talking small batch we are talking small batch.  On the global scale many distillers only producing tiny amounts. For example, Black Gate in Mendooran, NSW is only producing 19 barrels of whisky a year, Bakery Hill from Bayswater in Victoria makes around 50 barrels a year. Comparing that internationally the likes of Jim Beam make around 6500 barrels a week (that’s 338,000 barrels a year). Small craft distilleries do everything by hand; mashing in, cutting the heads and tails, bottling, labelling and boxing make it incredibly labour intensive. Low volumes mean they cannot compete on price. We have to change our mindset about these smaller producers. They are often guided by their passion for the products and flavours they are creating, very rarely are they thinking of how to cut corners or save their own time. Think of it as the difference between buying a hand-crafted table from a local carpenter instead of buying a table from a large chain furniture store. 

One of the pitfalls is that they will be more expensive than your regular stock and will possibly move slower (this should change once your staff know how to sell them!). Selling Australian spirits to a customer who isn’t that familiar with them is easy once you know how. I always start with asking the punter where they are from, which hopefully leads into a chat about which Aussies spirits are made in that area. Then, like I said earlier, it’s all about the story; let the customer know about the producer and their background. People love hearing about local characters and are genuinely thrilled when they hear that something is made in the place where they grew up. 

When I travel I drink products from the area as much as possible because I want to experience what the locals enjoy. Would you travel to France and drink VB or would you go to Scotland for a tequila? No, you wouldn’t. There is something really special about having a drink that was made down the road, especially in a space where the distillers themselves may drop in for a drink.  

Which products should I start with?

There are so many new spirits in each category being launched every week that it can be an overwhelming task to choose which ones to stock. 

Firstly, I recommend stocking the products made in your local area. This provides opportunities to visit the distillery, build a relationship with the distiller and potentially partner for events to build up knowledge about local craft produce in the community. It can be a hugely beneficial win win for both parties. 

Secondly ensure that you have products that appeal to a range of different tastes. Although you can’t go wrong with any of them, here are a few best sellers to get you started. Four Pillars have some great gins, Starward are a great value whisky and Archie Rose from the heart of Sydney have a range of products available, Tambourine Mountain liqueurs have a large range of australian inspired flavours and for some real outback flavours try Hoochery Distillery. It’s personal though and you should stock those with the stories and flavours that you love the best.

A last piece of advice

My last piece of advice is to get out and visit as many local distilleries as possible. Getting to know the people behind each spirit is seriously the best part of what I do.