Ketel One & the Gang

A all-to-familiar invitation was extended to me a couple of weeks ago. It was the invitation to a spirit brand event. An event no doubt spawned to get myself and other bartenders on side with their product. It’s these sort of events I’m trying to stay away from now I have a moved into fifth gear with my own venture. This coupled with a long-term girlfriend and my impending 28th birthday means I’m getting to a stage in my life when I’m saying no to a free piss-up (sometimes). To paraphrase a Rapture song;

“A party’s no good cos’ the drinks are free. The free spirits aint settin’ no-ones spirits free'”.

But this one seemed different. This one -besides being for a brand I already like- was promised to be virtually alcohol-free. I say virtually because there were many, many bottles of product there, but it wasn’t the focus. It was also limited in numbers. Limited to 30 Sydney souls who work in Sydney’s finest bars. This was to be the start of the Sydney fraternity of Ketel One. Who was I to say no to something that sounded as elitist as that!?

The Ketel One Fraternity has been running now for a few years in Melbourne. It was established, with similar bartender numbers, as a way of showing its members behind-the-scenes looks of other artisan crafts. All whilst subtly tieing it into Ketel One’s own brand of  family run,small batch, handmade, pot-distilled, neutral grain spirit.

It’s an approach I quite like. Instead of focussing events around getting bartenders sauced and ramming their brand down our throats, its more about looking after it’s fraternity members through support on-trade, and by giving them the opportunity to learn from the artisan trade of glass blowing, as an example.

The first meeting of its members was held last week at The Roosevelt. Because of Sydney’s putrid weather that day, the original idea of a bicycle-driven treasure hunt was called off. Instead we were treated to a fantastic three-course meal at Sydney’s newest eatery and drinkery.

As someone who wasn’t drinking that day, I must say I had an all together pleasant time. The food was fantastic, and it was matched by the company. I’m now in the fraternity. Part of the gang. I’m promised many great things are planned for the rest of the year. I’m really looking forward to it.

Thanks Ketel One for starting up a great initiative.


I’m skeptical…

Sometime last year I walked into a bar and asked for a Gin & Tonic. Simple I thought. All I needed to do was call for my Gin. That’s if I was being picky. I wasn’t, so I didn’t. Then the bartender asked me a peculiar question. He asked me, not what Gin I would like, but whether I wanted to pay 50c extra for their in-house made Tonic? I politely refused and took my Gordon’s & Tonic and sat down. Then it occurred to me why would anyone want to pay extra for an amateur tonic water. I mean Schweppes have been making Tonic since 1771. That’s longer than Australia has been Australia. If someone asked you whether you would like a homemade Cola in your Jack & Coke you’d tell them to “piss off”. Now I’d hate to quash any bartender’s creativity. Even if It comes to their mixers. So I’d suggest working on what Dick Bradsell always said was the yardstick of a competent bartender; a homemade Lemonade. Or you could try a spicier Ginger Beer. Much like the Dark & Stormy’s original mixer, Barritts. Or simply putting a good pinch of salt in your soda syphon to make a New York style seltzer water. Can we please just leave Tonic water, and cola for that matter alone?

Now I’m not saying all other tonic waters, bar Scweppes need to be dismissed. Kirks is entirely sufficient, and if one was feeling decadent, Fever Tree would also suffice. But how many more do we need? Is there room in the market for “Premium” mixers? In my opinion, no.

So do I even need to try this? Or should I just follow my natural instinct and dismiss it as an overpriced, polished marketing gimmick?

Tell me again why I should pay $10 for a bottle of Tonic water? Lets read there spiel:

“Natural quinine is believed to improve circulation and accelerate digestion. For centuries natural Peruvian quinine has been used by naturalists and herbalists to improve health, increase energy, and stimulate blood flow.”

I call “Bullshit”.




A Scotch drinker in Mexico Pt.2

If you’re lucky, as you drive into Tequila the smell of cooked pinas hits you in the face. It’s a scent that’s definitely on par with the peated barley that’s dried in the Speyside of Scotland. Mondo Cuervo has prime real estate once you enter the small town that their glorious spirit is named after. They are the biggest distillery Mexico. On closer inspection, one of the most beautiful too. But before we get to what’s inside it’s interesting to note how one can get to his beautiful cobblestone laced town. We had a driver. Mark, the Guy I mentioned earlier, is an American born Mexican who has worked for Joe Crow for five years now. He met us at our hostel with a driver, and guided us to our destination. This is one way to get to Cuervo. The other is the Cuervo Express. A train the brand has invested $35m to take tequila-loving tourists from Guadalajara to the distillery. Let’s go over that again. $35,000,000 has been spent on a single train that serves Cuervo, is all about Cuervo that runs from A to B directly, express-ly. Incredible.

An in-depth tour of the world’s biggest tequila distillery gives me insight, and stunts somewhat my disdain for this spirit behemoth. Maybe it’s just good old-fashioned Australian ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that makes me want to hate Cuervo. I mean they’re popular; their biggest brand is a mixto tequila. Known to those in the know as an inferior product. Their best however, is delicious. In fact we get a special tasting of the Reserva de la Familia that we help ourselves to from a barrel stored in the basement below he distillery. Their rejected Agave is said to be “thrown over the fence” to the Sauza distillery next door. The competition is only a Tamale toss away. Like I mentioned earlier, Tequila is a small place. In fact, as you come into Tequila town, the famous Herradura distillery greets you, and its distillery is found by driving through the local cemetery. Jose Cuervo tells us it’s an indication of its products quality. Herradura tells us it makes great compost for the Agave. Lunch in the Cholula restaurant next door is followed by the obligatory Batanga at the famous La Capilla. Don Javier himself is there, all eighty-eight years of him, sitting behind the bar and I felt a deep sense of privilege in having the man himself make me his most famous concoction. Our day in Tequila was complete.

I’ve always said if you’ve seen one distillery, you’ve seen them all.  So my enthusiasm for a 9am pick up to see the Don Julio distillery in the highlands, the following day was mirrored with my holiday shaving routine. There wasn’t any. Obligingly though we met our host for the day, along with New York Mixologist* Jason Litrell. He, like us wanted to know more about Tequila and was researching in Mexico. His interest was more focused on Mezcal. The Indie Scotch of Central America, and he had just spent a week trekking through Oaxaca drinking his face off. Otherwise known as researching. (I love my job). Surprisingly the Don Julio tour was not only interesting, but also very hands on. Our morning started with us cutting Agave with the Jimadors, and ended with tasting the complete range, including the newly releases Anejo Blanco expression, Don Julio 70. In fact we not only tasted the DJ70, but we tasted both versions being released. A U.S one at 80 proof, and a domestic version at 70 proof. For me, the true drunkard, I enjoyed the 80 proof more. Surprise, surprise.

That night I stayed in. My body needed sleep and sobriety. Luke and Jason were headed to a local bar, where that evening a group of Mezcal producers were doing a talk on its production ins and outs. Basically, a nerdy bartender thing. I was skeptical it would be any good considering I don’t speak Spanish. Turns out I was right. Luke later told me it was shit. Wait a second, your telling me a talk for a spirit you’re not really into, at a place where you know no one, in a country you don’t speak the language was shit? Hmm, wonder why. I was happy I stayed in.

Our week was nearly over, and as it came to a close a decision was made to see what other adventures we could squeeze from our time here? Stefano and his girl Pau were heading to Nayarit, a three-hour drive away, in another state for a camping weekend. So it was decided for our last night in Mexico we were going to make our way to a beautiful valley, in a foreign country, and sleep in a tent by a fire. Apparently there’s a lake we are going to camp by. A big, beautiful one in the middle of the valley. It’s also not going to be raining. That’s a relief from the unseasonable weather we’ve been having whilst we’ve been here. This would give me ample time to reflect on my Mexican adventure. And that I did.

When I sat on a deck chair, and drank yet another cerveza, admiring the stunning lake that was in front of me, I was already missing Mexico. I’d tried a lot of brands whilst I’d been there. Some fantastic, some just ok. I’d seen the insides and outs of Mexico’s biggest, Mexico’s finest, and Mexico’s coolest and most exciting tequila brands. It’s been a week and a half of some of the most intoxicating fun I’ve ever experienced. I’ve learnt a lot about Mexican culture. Learnt that Mexico is not a dirty third world country you see on TV. Its people are culturally enriched, its best cafes serve great coffees, and its bars are inspired and bursting with local artist contributions. In so, so many ways Mexico is an inspiration to the rest of the bar world. How many Tequila bars are there in Sydney now? A lot more than ten years ago when the only person waxing lyrical for Tequila in this country was Phil “I love this town” Bayly. I think with the rise of well-made tequila, comes the rise of Mexican street and bar culture also. In my opinion bartenders selling Tequila are not just selling a liquid – they are selling a revolution. I now see what the revolution is all about. It’s not about old Mexican men with moustaches and cowboy boots, shooting pistols in the air, drinking Tequila until they fall over. They are selling the 21st century Mexico. One that is being stalled by its government, yet still one that the people are pushing. Mexican culture is cool. It’s warm hearted, it’s beautiful, it’s fun, it IS Tequila.

Vive le Mexico**

* For the record, I promise to never use the word “mixologist” unless referring to an American bartender.

** Martin Lange (Brisbane bar owner / Male Model said I should change this. Apparently it sounds French. I told him to “fuck off”. His amendment is this “viva la revolución”. He’s probably right though…)

A Scotch drinker in Mexico Pt.1

What else but cultivated Agave should greet you, the sleep deprived traveller, that makes her or his way to Tequilas spiritual home in Guadalajara? I’ve heard it’s grown everywhere here. From the fields in the countryside to the grassy traffic islands just outside the airport, an Agave shortage fifteen or so years ago means Mexicans are not going to make the same mistake twice. Teamed with a worthy counterpart, Luke Redington from Eau De Vie Sydney, we were ready to hit the town. Right after a ten-hour nap that is.

When you first arrive in a new country, even with only a few hours sleep, your senses are galvanised. Every billboard is read, mariachi songs in other people cars are overheard, every scent is inhaled and categorised. In Texas, it’s ‘fried food’; in Guadalajara it’s more of a ‘freshly grilled’. It’s more, much more, enticing. I’m here to eattheshitoutof any food I can get my hands on. It goes without saying; food lies entrenched in a Mexicans soul.

But I’m not necessarily here for the food, or the mariachi bands, or even the cheap ponchos and Luca Libre masks. I’m here for the Tequila. A spirit that to be honest with you, I don’t really get. I mean, I guess I like it. I drink a lot of it. But I just don’t understand the complete fascination bartenders have for it. I’m a Scotch guy. I don’t think there’s a spirit in the world that has as much flavour diversity. From the bacon-scented bad boys from Islay, to the neutral blends of J&B. I love them all. I drink them mostly, I’ve been to their distilleries, and I have them in my optic pourer in my living room. (Oban 14 and Johnnie Gold currently). I guess I am kind of bias to a certain extent. I’ve grown in hospitality around Scotch lovers. I was passionate about Scotch. Passionate not so much, about Tequila. Over the course of a week I was going to attempt to inherit this passion. With the help of some friends that make the biggest brand in tequila, Jose Cuervo, the people that make my most beloved brand, Don Julio and some friends that make one of the best up and coming brands, Calle 23.


Jalisco is the state, in which Guadalajara is the capital. Tequila is the town, an hour out of Guadalajara, where the majority of the action happens. An exact number of distilleries I’m unsure of. Conflicting figures from different sources means I estimate it at about 20-27 distilleries within this tiny village. These distilleries, combined with the ones in the highlands, and the other four states in Mexico legally allowed to make Tequila produce in total a staggering 1600 or so Tequilas. And it’s growing by the day. Tequila is a big, big deal.

But before I hit tequila town I had some “research” to do. Four days in Guadalajara to get to know the people, the bars, the culture and, unfortunately for me, the toilets. At least the spice here is keeping me regular. Our guide is Stefano Francavilla, A Milanese expat who has been eating, breathing, living and making Tequila for five years now. He’s an ex London bartender who came to Mexico for travel, fell in love with the country and a local girl, and is now proud to call it home. He is one half of the operation that founded the Calle 23 brand, along with the lovely, French-born, Sophie Decobecq. Like most northern Italians he’s covered in tattoos and full of cynicism. On meeting him, It takes roughly 4-5 minutes before he insults me. My type of guy.


He shows us to a local cantina that seems to predominantly cater for middle-age locals. We order a round of cervezas accompanied, of course, with Tequila. The 70ml servings of Tapatio blanco wash down trays of tacos we didn’t order. In his restaurant you don’t order food. They just bring it to you. When you are full, you tell them to stop bringing you food. But the food is quite hard to say no to. Eating food you didn’t order, in a country where you don’t speak the language means its quite a lucky dip with what you are eating. I’m surprised to find out I’m actually enjoying tripe for the first time. Albeit in the form of the filling encased in a crispy shell, covered in hot sauce. Tripe has always been the holy grail of me in terms of eating. Give me liver, kidneys, brain, testicles and hearts any day. Just don’t give me the stomach lining of a cow. Maybe next time it’s on a menu I’ll order it, and ask the chef to bust out the Old el Taco kit. A third of a bottle of tequila later, and three or four beers later, (shit, who’s counting?) we pay he bill and agree to a siesta to calibrate, then to meet again that evening for dinner and drinks. And no doubt more Tequila.

This day set the precedent for the following three. Wake up, wander around local markets, eat, get a beer, siesta, meet with friends, eat, drink tequila, eat again, and sleep. This routine was broken with a night at the Luca Libre, otherwise known as Mexican Wrestling. Great times were had, maybe on my behalf a little too enthusiastically.  Apparently I’m the first person Stefano has seen kicked out of Luca Libre. Whatever. It was onwards to Wednesday and our date with Mark and a tour of the home of the third biggest brand in booze, Jose Cuervo.

To be continued..

Migrating is GREAT!

A strange thing is happening here in Sydney, Australia’s biggest city. It’s 4.1 million population is about to increase to a couple more. The arrival of Perth/Edinburgh/Melbourne/Singapore bartending legend Adi Ruiz, and his lovely wife Missy, are about to land smack-bang in the middle of a Sydney Summer. And they’re here to stay. If you don’t know him, check this out. (Mmmm, gotta love those “delicate aromatics”).

Adi is the newest Melbourne identity to move to Sydney in recent years. He follows in the footsteps of Shae Silvestro, Matt Barnett, Bondi-Robb Sloan, Jason Williams and Myself whom have all found the casual beach lifestyle appealing.

It’s making me think, Why though? For the international guest, the sun and beach life is exactly what you are after when you move to Oz. Sydney offers that. A big city, with a beautiful harbour, and a two month “winter”.

But what does Sydney offer to Australians, and Melburnians in particular in the way of a change of scene. First of all, the weather ain’t that much better than down south. It’s a fact that Sydney receives as much annual rain fall as Melbourne. If you want good weather. It’s hard to go past the seven-month summers of Perth.

Next, it can’t be cheaper. Rental in the popular eastern suburbs of Sydney is going through the roof. A typical room, in a share house with two others, in a nice-ish suburb will set you back at least $250 a week. More if you wanna live by those famous beaches.

Then again it can’t be the food can it? Although Sydney ranks among having Australia’s most three-hatted restaurants, bartenders don’t eat there. The cities posh eateries do not filter down the ranks, and have as many well-run and good value spots as its east-coast neighbours. Brisbane and Melbourne have an absolute abundance of single operator, quirky, and fantastic places to dine on the cheap. Now that’s more within my budget.

Last but not least, it’s certainly not the culture. Now I’m not talking about Museums, and galleries. Every city has those. In fact if you wanna get down and dirty I’d say The Art Gallery of South Australia has had the most interesting exhibitions in the past twelve months. I’m talking about street culture. Photographers, artists, buskers, and bands. These are the texture of a city. It’s lifeblood. These people give the city a heart beat. Not just a pretty background. For a big city, Sydney struggles to keep up with its Melbourne counterparts. I’m fighting myself to not say the most cultured thing in Sydney is its Yoghurt. I failed.

If it’s not any of those things it has to be something else calling bartenders around the country to move to Sydney. After living in Sydney now for over a year, I think I know what it is. Some call it money but I prefer a more romantic term. I call it hope. Sydney is a city of opportunities for anyone within the Australian hospitality community.

After ten years bartending guys like myself reach a point where they can go only a few ways in this trade. One is to get cynical, start hating customers, grow miserable, and bar-tend until your 70. No thanks, I don’t wanna be like The Maestro. If you’re the proactive type you can move into brands. Be a rep for a company you like. Or one you don’t like if you’re really over bartending. Stuff it, open your own bar! It’s a better bet it will succeed in Sydney. Melbourne currently has a Cocktail bar ratio of 1 per 1.2 people*. (*Ratio may be fictional)

At the end of the day Sydney is a pretty tempting destination. I guess the weather is usually pretty good (apart from this Summer), the rental is relative to earnings (I am earning more here), I have my good Cafe spots around town, and there is a pretty sweet Picasso exhibition on in Sydney at the moment!

You can’t  argue bartending traffic is coming into Sydney at a faster pace than it was five years ago. Bartenders are seeing possibilities that weren’t here before. More people, more tips, smaller bars opening, more like-minded operators. These all add up to Sydney yearning to returning to being Australia’s bar capital.

That’s if the guys from Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide,and Perth don’t have anything to do with it.

Cuba Australis!

The Birth of Alcohol

“In the beginning, there was a grape. And then a winged insect came, accidentally carrying some yeast that was stuck to his body. And the yeast got on the grape, and also on his grape neighbours. And they fermented in the sun. A couple of days later, a bird in search of food came along and ate that grape.

 And it was awfully refreshing, so the bird ate another one. Then another. And soon, the bird started feeling pretty good about his life…pretty darn good, actually. After all, here he was, eating grapes on a warm, sunny afternoon and, what the heck, it was prehistoric times, so it’s not like he had anything else to do that day. SO he called his bird friends over to try these new grapes, and soon enough, they were full of good cheer, too, squawking and doing stunt cartwheels in the sky to impress some of the female birds who, having had a few too many grapes of their own, began flashing their plumage.

An ancient man saw this. And he saw that it was good.”

Exert taken from Alcoholica Estorica by Ian Lendler. 2005

If you don’t already have this book, get it.