Ahead of his tour this month, read Dale DeGroff’s 2006 story about the Sydney bar scene

When people talk about the revival of bartending as a profession and as a craft, there’s one name that inevitably comes up: Dale DeGroff.

DeGroff is often credited with being the godfather of the craft cocktail revival in the United States, is the author of both The Craft of the Cocktail and Essential Cocktails, has produced his own line of aromatic pimento bitters, is a founding partner of the award-winning Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), and has won accolade after accolade over a distinguished and important career.

And he’s coming back to Australia this month as part of the De Kuyper Works program, travelling to Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne (find out more about the trip and how you can meet him here).

It’s not his first trip to Australia either — back in 2006 DeGroff visited Sydney as a part of BarShow (the event that grew into Sydney Bar Week), and he wrote about his journey and his view of the Sydney bar scene for Australian Bartender.


Below is how DeGroff viewed the scene in 2006. 12 years on, a lot has changed!

Story by Dale DeGroff
This story was first published in 2006 in Australian Bartender magazine.

My recent trip Down Under had me feeling more like I was on top of the world. In four short days I got a bird’s eye view of a bar industry that is teeming with creative bartenders and great venues overlooking the most beautiful and pristine harbor in the world. I ran into several mates from London who have relocated and are spreading the gospel of the cocktail to the Aussie brethren. (That’s Aussie pronounced with a z so you can avoid my touristy pronunciation awsee!) 

The enthusiasm, energy, and camaraderie I saw behind the bar were apparent everywhere we visited. I tasted some good cocktails as well but I can’t say they have achieved the level of quality exhibited by the best of London and New York, but they soon will. I visited Sydney’s top restaurant Est with Julio Bermejo of Tommys and Tres Agave, located literally under the Harbor bridge. The food was good but more expensive than London. Sydney is no longer a best kept secret. Everyone wants to live there. The cruise ship, the World with its privately-owned suites, was moored right next to Est.  I am convinced the draw to buy an apartment on the World is directly related to the length of time it spends in Sydney Harbor each year. 

We also dined at Flying Fish another celebrated harbor side restaurant that serves great seafood with a Pacific Rim accent. The restaurant boasts tanks of exotic live shellfish from local waters.  Winner of he 2006 Bartender of the Year award, Oliver Stuart treated us to perfect Bellinis followed by plates of mud crabs. We were joined by Naren Young former editor of Bartender Magazine who tends bar these days in New York City at Pravda, Keith McNally’s shrine to vodka on Lafayette Street.

The Victoria Room, where a group of friends surprised me with a bottle of Champagne for my birthday, is a beautiful huge room converted from a garage that brings to mind Rick’s Place in Casablanca. I ordered a Havana Club with lime and their fresh pressed sugar cane syrup (September is sugar cane harvest in Queensland and the cane is amazing when fresh). What more could you possibly want from a drink? I also sampled a Mojito and a few other classics from the swift and talented bar staff at The Loft where aboriginal inspired patterns frame the room and from the bar you can enjoy another stunning view of the harbor. 

When I first arrived in Sydney we had cocktails and pizza at Hugo’s, a lively lounge that serves some seriously good cocktails and pizza. Later that same evening Hugo’s bartenders cleaned up at the Glenfiddich Untouchables Ultimate Player Competition winning the top two honors. The awards were held in mystery venue; the Criminal and Police Museum, a landmark building that once held Sydney’s most notorious criminals. I was informed that this is where the rough-and-rumble underworld of 19th century crime was dealt swift and often harsh justice. Despite my protests of innocence my host David Spanton, Managing Director of Spanton Media Group and founder of Bartender Magazine dragged me into the 19th century courtroom in front of the contestants and observers alike.

The following day the Bar Show, which is organized and founded by David Spanton, kicked off. The 7th Annual Bartender Magazine Bartender Competition was the centerpiece of the bar show with lots of similarities to London competitions; a written exam testing spirit and cocktail knowledge and a practical drink making session. 

The panel of judges was comprised of an international group of spirits experts: spirits writer Naren Young, Jonathan Downey from London’s Match Group, Angus Winchester cocktail writer and educator, David Spanton of Spanton Media Group, Manuel Terron and Ben Hansberry of Blue Sky Beverages and myself. Alexx Swainston emceed the event, wisely providing just the right amount of commentary and encouragement to ease the tension. Among the finalists were transplanted bartenders from the London West End bar scene- Barry Chalmers and Perry Scott, both formerly of Match Bar Group.

The show featured numerous exhibitions but what impressed me was the number of cocktail authorities sharing their knowledge with young bartenders throughout the show.  Industry experts Wayne Collins and Jason Crawley gave drink demonstrations from Maxxium’s bartender training program, and Tequila Ambassador Julio Bermejo presented A Tequila Journey with Blue Sky Beverages. Talk about a saucy Sangrita shot, his contained mango and Cholula hot sauce…dynamite, hold onto your hat when you down this one. I presented three times a day for both days to get through my ambitious program called The Cocktail Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

Jacob Briars of the South Gin Club gave an informative and refreshingly informal gin presentation. I sampled several cocktails that employed different brands of gin. Jacob has a light touch and uses just a couple of simple ingredients that enhance the character of the various gins.

Jonathan Downey made some waves with the industry types when he announced in his keynote speech that design was close to the bottom of his list of priorities when opening a new property. Right at the top of the list is the man behind the bar and his skills and the people who walk through the door every day and patronize the joint.  

Australia is one more stop for the cocktail as it marches around the world conquering territory one bar one city and one country at a time…I return to Sydney in January and I expect to find the bar scene richer and more vibrant.…G’DAY MATE!