Some 70-odd bartenders sat the exam. 16 bartenders made the cut and got through to the second round. And after the Top 8 round in front of 650 of the industry’s finest, only one was crowned the Bartender of the Year: Alex Gondzioulis, Sydney.
Here, Gondzioulis shares some advice and what it was like to win the Bartender Magazine 2019 Bartender of the Year sponsored by BACARDÍ & De Kuyper.
Bulletin Place, Sydney
This was your first year entering the competition, and you went all the way and took out the title — can you tell us how you prepared for the comp?
I couldn’t have done it without the help of Evan [Stroeve] and the Bulletin Place team. I started studying properly in early August. Evan shared everything he used to study for last year’s competition with me. Notes, recipes, study techniques, everything. The guy’s a bloody genius. On top of that, I dissected every issue of Bartender mag, taking notes on anything and everything that I could feasibly see being on the exam. I put all the notes together, read a section or two each night before I went to sleep or on the train to work, and just tried to memorise as much as I could.
About three weeks before the exam I started doing past papers and the online practice tests, which were super helpful in figuring out what kinds of questions I could expect. The team also seemed to take a sick pleasure in throwing questions at me in the middle of service too!
About two weeks before the exam I decided on my drinks for the Top 8 in broad strokes, then slowly refined them both over that time until they were ready the night before I had to jump on stage and present.
What does it mean to you to have taken out the title?
It’s hard to put into words man. I’ve looked up to a lot of the previous winners and finalists since I started bartending six years ago. I remember being amazed at just how great of a host Nathan Beasley was when he served me at the Pearl back in 2016, and I’ve looked up to Michael Chiem’s creativity and hustle for years now. To be in the same conversation as them is an immense honour and privilege. I just hope I can do the title proud.
What was the camaraderie like backstage?
Like most cocktail comps, it’s a lot of waiting around and being stressed. That said, all that down time definitely left some time for a whole lot of banter between all the Top 8 finalists (here’s looking at Jet and Rusty) which definitely helped settle the nerves a bit. Jet gave me a little pep talk before I got on stage that really helped focus and centre me, so by the time I jumped up on stage I was 100 percent ready to go. Everyone was really friendly and encouraging, eager to share their ideas and show everyone what they had going on cocktail wise which is always interesting.
What has it been like to work at Bulletin Place — what has the experience taught you as a bartender?
I think the main thing working at Bulletin Place has taught me is respect. Respect for the produce, and most importantly a massive respect for the people that grow it. Like, if the mangoes or berries or whatever we’ve got in taste awesome, then screwing with them too much for your menu is definitely a faux pas.
It’s also taught me to be more thoughtful working the bar. I remember being served by Rob and Tim the first time I visited the bar back in 2013. They have the experience and systems in place that are second to none, and teach you so much about how to work a station and a room effortlessly. Stuff like working clean, working efficiently, building a round of drinks properly, communicating effectively, listening, and hosting people. Bulletin Place is at its best when the guests feel like they’re in somebody’s living room, being looked after by a mate. That’s how I’ve felt every single time I visited that bar.
I’d like to think my chat has gotten a bit better too, but I think that might remain to be seen!
How did you get into bartending in the first place?
I kind of fell into it the same way most people do. I finished high school, got a job waiting tables at a certain Australian steak house chain restaurant, and slowly started working the bar there. I really loved it. I mean, I was mostly pouring beers and making Fruit Tingles but it was fun, and I wanted to learn more. From there I started uni and got a job at a pub. I started to get more into the cocktail side of things and in 2015 I was given the opportunity to work at Akiba in Canberra with Noriel Calub and Marcellus Heleta. Noz and Mars were awesome mentors. From there I bounced around all the venues belonging to Lorenzo and the Lala Hospitality guys, which was where I really cut my teeth.
How would you describe your approach to bartending?
That’s a tough question! I guess in terms of bartending itself, my approach is to try not to be a dick, chat to people and take care of them. Not let ego or any other bullshit get in the way. In terms of the creative side of bartending, I think I’ve really adopted the Bulletin Place style of ‘if it tastes good and fresh, don’t fuck with it too much!’
That said, I do love experimenting with weird and interesting techniques too. Whether or not that technique makes it to a daily menu really comes down to whether or not it serves the drink and the produce in it.
Can you describe what your idea of a great bar experience is? What do you want when you go to a bar?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a good drink when I go to a bar. However, I mostly just want to have a good time. I want to sit at the bar, chat to the people working behind it, laugh, have a bit of banter, drink something delicious, and forget about the rest of the world for a bit. I think that last feeling is pretty universal.
I think one of the bars that has embodied a great bar experience for me is Attaboy in New York. Aside from serving banging drinks, the team they have there is so welcoming a warm, and the space makes you feel like you’ve escaped the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. I went four times in five days, I couldn’t get enough of the place.