We chat to Bar Manager of the Year Jay Cozma, GM at The Baxter Inn, about running one of the country’s leading bars, and how they continue to stay at the top of their game

Photo: Christopher Pearce

The Baxter Inn
152/156 Clarence Street Sydney

The Baxter Inn opened back in 2010. It’s a fair chunk of time for a venue to be at the top of its game, and still talked about by many as one of the finest bars in Australia, if not the world. It’s the second string in the bow that is Swillhouse, and its an instrument that continues to produce bars and restaurants that hit the right note. They seem to know what people want before they do. And that’s a rare thing.

So, we took the opportunity to chat to Jay Cozma, a veteran of the hospitality industry and recently awarded Bar Manager of the Year, an all round legend and the man at the helm of The Baxter Inn right now. Here’s what he had to say, in his own (lightly edited) words.

I began work in the hospitality industry, the old fashioned way as a barback. I started at a pub in Wollongong as a glassie then a cellarhand. I made my way onto the bar after someone called in sick for a shift one weekend! Not long after that, I got the travel bug and worked my way throughout the U.S, U.K and Asia which was a great learning experience. I returned home and started backpacking all over Australia. Eventually I got a bit homesick and wanted to settle down, so I came back to Sydney and landed a role at Eau De Vie. After Eau De Vie, I joined the team at Swillhouse and got handed the reins at Shady Pines Saloon. This position paved the way for my current role at the Baxter Inn.

Swillhouse is an amazing company to work for. First of all Anton Forte and Allie Webb are just insanely creative people with vision beyond explanation. It is truly inspiring what they have created over the years. The attention to detail and unwavering devotion to hospitality that Swillhouse is known for speaks for itself. This has generally attracted like-minded talented people to fill the teams in each venue and these people have been instrumental in the development of the Swillhouse culture.

“The Whisky Room at Baxter is pretty epic. It is a collection of rare bottlings we continue to source. Curating this is a bit of a joint effort amongst the management team. It’s a constant search for bottlings from across the globe.”

The main thing I love about my job is definitely The Baxter Inn team dynamic. The culture here is second-to-none, and my team members are some of the most dedicated bartenders I have had the pleasure of working with.

The Whisky Room at Baxter is pretty epic. It is a collection of rare bottlings we continue to source. Curating this is a bit of a joint effort amongst the management team. It’s a constant search for bottlings from across the globe. We are constantly contacting major distributors, auction houses and even private collectors to fill that room. Sometimes, it’s a three month hunt for a particular bottle we are wanting to replace, other times it can be a completely random patron who is looking to move something from their grandmother’s liquor cabinet.

A week of work is pretty varied. Mondays are weekly admin and back-to-back meetings. I get to catch up with most of my management team that day and recap the previous week. This is also the day I do a lot of auction hunting for rare bottlings and quote “The Castle” about 50 times. Tuesday through Thursday is pretty much a mix of meetings, service shifts and in-house training sessions. I also spend half of these days trying to organise games of golf with the lads at Old Mate’s, then use every excuse under the sun for why I played terribly if we get a game in. Fridays are check-ins with the bar team to see how everyone’s feeling. Typically, we will try some of the new whisky arrivals for quality control, of course. Saturdays and Sundays I am usually off and getting some rest as I’m getting old these days haha.

The Baxter Inn is an absolute beast, you really get exposed to everything in this venue. Whisky training is a huge part of the program here obviously, however cocktails are about 50 percent of our trade. We have weekly training sessions hosted by both internal and external folks. We have a really awesome mentoring program where all bartenders are paired with a senior member of staff. That senior member of staff is accountable for helping their buddy develop all the knowledge and skills required. This works really well for us as it gives staff a channel of constant support through learning. It does have its tough parts though, with regular testing and attendance to training sessions required.

Testing is a big part of all the Swillhouse venues. We test regularly on just about every aspect of a position. Sequence of service, cocktails and whisky being the most regular for bar staff. Each staff member is allocated a senior staff member or manager to monitor their progression within the venue which makes passing the tests a bit more of a team effort. This both helps the development of bartenders and managers so it’s extremely useful for us.

The thing I love about the bar industry is the camaraderie, I love how people can find their greater support network within their team and strangers can become the people you rely on most.

In terms of advice for newcomers to the industry, always take your mental health seriously and speak up when you need support. If you don’t feel like your employer has your back on this, find one who does.

When I walk into a bar, I look for genuine hospitality. I think every great experience I have had in a venue started and finished with the people representing it.

I’m inspired by Russ McFadden. He is a long time friend and mentor. In my opinion, he is one of the best operators I have ever had the pleasure of working with. He always supported and valued every member of his staff which created a healthy and productive environment. He taught me to appreciate the value of the team you’re with and support every individual’s growth.

Right now I am drinking the Ok! Margarita Seltzer followed by another OK! Margarita Seltzer.